Impermanence, Perpetual Beta, and Microsoft Office

I’ve never been a Microsoft hater. In fact, given how many needs of how many people MSFT software has had to support, I’ve always rather admired their audacity and even the boldness of their vision. Think about it: they write software that will run on machines built by hundreds of manufacturers, to be used for thousands of purposes, and with a high level of backward compatibility for its operating systems. Apple, whose products I typically use, simplifies their work greatly by: writing software only for hardware they control, forcing users to abandon software written for earlier operating systems (or switch between operating systems to use older programs), and, as a matter of strategy, offer a smaller set of features and openness to their products. Again, I still use Apple products and choose Apple when I have a choice at work, but give it up to MSFT for trying to meet all those needs.

So, today, ReadWriteWeb runs a great story about the persistent popularity of Microsoft Office. With so many alternatives out there — Open Office, Quick Office, Google — enterprises still choose Office. Why?

As easy as it may sometimes be to dislike Office, it’s hard to deny that it has a pretty robust feature set. For as good as Web-based tools like Google Docs are, they only do a portion of what Office does. And while they accomplish the majority of commonly-needed tasks quite well and benefit from being based in the cloud, this is still not enough for many businesses.

Chris Bernard, a User Experience Evangelist for Microsoft gave a great talk several years ago, in which he explained the design problems unique to a company with as large an installed user base as Microsoft. One of the things people criticize Microsoft for is the feature bloat of Office and the pain-in-the-neck menuing system. Fair enough, said Bernard. But, he continued, keep in mind that many of the features that some individuals don’t use are mission critical for a small percentage of other users. For Microsoft, a small percentage represents tens of millions of users — so what are they to do? There’s no simple design solution for a product that is used by hundreds of millions of people for professional as well as personal reasons.

This revelation came to me when I was in grad school in 1998. I was taking a Mathematical Economics course and I was thrilled to discover that Word had a very robust Equation Editor module:
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For most users, even for me (once I was done with that class), this feature is a distraction, something you train your eye to ignore if you’re looking for something else. But during that period of time when I needed it . . . it was killer.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Google apps and Apple’s productivity suite has to scale beyond the comparatively small markets they’re currently in. How will they manage the accretion of features to avoid bloat and confusion? I’m not sure it’s all that easy.

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