The Disgrace of Microsoft Office

Ben Thompson on the new Cubed Podcast, discussing why web apps took off on PCs, even though they are crap. Because they don’t need to be installed, and they are simplified, they tend to work instantly, and reliably.

“People were scared to install apps on the desktop.”

They should be. I don’t perhaps have a universal Windows experience- mine is pretty bad. But my recent travails illustrate how bad things can get, and how Apple has stolen Microsoft’s lunch. It’s going to get a lot worse from here for Redmond.

I give presentations and the other day I had a big one. 10 minutes in front of panel of experts. A pressure situation. The tension was garnished with the obligation to use PowerPoint 2010 on a Windows 7 PC.

I couldn’t install PowerPoint 2010 on my 64-bit Windows 7 home machine to check the presentation. Install failed, disgracefully. I’m just not ready for that any more. The average person isn’t ready to help Microsoft install it’s own apps either. After some back and forth from the reseller, I got a refund for the download. Of course, it was an ad hoc download, and could have been the wrong binary. But this problem has been solved (just not by MS). These things just don’t happen with the App Store model. With an iPhone or iPad, to download is, generally, to use, following at most two requests to use location data and contacts. Download of the wrong binary can’t happen. Other aspects are annoying, but basic common sense is in operation. Someone has checked if the software works with your hardware.

I never, ever give my presentations on someone else’s PC. In fact, no-one does. This fact is a damning indictment of MS Office. There is no reliable interoperability between MS Office systems, especially when it comes to including movies or sound. The broken document models used for many years, the codec gap, the insanely unreliable rendering and the ugly authoring tools have all worked to erode trust. Everyone tunes their work to their own system. I tested presentations on a Win7-installed version of Office 2010 at work. They were fine. Despite the crappy fonts, they looked OK. I went to the trouble to investigate and use “natively supported” (i.e. proprietary MS bullshit) formats like WMV for the videos.

The Win7 computer in Brussels couldn’t play any of them! It couldn’t render the animations! Office is the way it is because everything should be backward compatible. But that isn’t even remotely true in the premier application suite. Anyway it is a false goal. You need to break with the past, if the past is not fit for purpose. At one stage, we couldn’t even select files to copy- the mounted media couldn’t be accessed properly. If I hadn’t had bad experiences before, I could have been shocked. At the very least, the major stress at this point was not the once-in-a-decade interview, but instead having to use Microsoft software. But I wasn’t even surprised. IT gave up and I gave the presentation on my Macbook. No sweat.

Microsoft is beloved by corporate IT. It’s a symbiotic relationship, with a large number of worker ants on the ground compensating for decades of complacency and bad software design from on high. On the other hand, I personally manage nearly 20 Apple computers. Not much specialised knowledge required – most of the problems are very stereotypical. No extra person needed.

And there is now another way. AirPlay lets you give presentations wirelessly. iPads and iPhones can take the strain, and Apple TV (or any Mac or PC with the right software) can follow the input. It’s so easy and it works great.

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