Story 2014-10-22 2TKJ Escape from Microsoft Word

Escape from Microsoft Word

in microsoft on (#2TKJ)
Edward Mendelson over at the NYT writes:
Auden’s contrast between mediocrity that gets things right and genius that is always wrong is useful in thinking about many fields other than politics. Take, for example, the instruments used for writing. The word processor that most of the world uses every day, Microsoft Word, is a work of genius that’s almost always wrong as an instrument for writing prose. Almost-forgotten WordPerfect—once the most popular word-processing program, still used in a few law offices and government agencies, and here and there by some writers who remain loyal to it—is a mediocrity that’s almost always right.
Good look at the quirks of the modern office's favorite bit of software from a more philosophical point of view. It starts with a quote from Plato, for starters.
Reply 21 comments

In summary (Score: 2, Insightful)

by on 2014-10-22 21:30 (#2TKM)

That's a lot of words just to say:
I know Wordperfect better, and have a hard time switching to Word.
I can't say I like either one, and find Word very nearly unusable since the switch to the "ribbon" interface, but his claims are ridiculous. You can change the tab-stops at any line of a document, and go right back as soon as you want to. Don't know how to set tab stops just how you'd like? You can middle-click anywhere in a document, and start typing. Don't like how some Word feature decides to auto-format your text? You certainly don't have to ever use it again. I am sadly well acquainted with just how deeply buried in obscurity commonly used features are in both of them (eg. header & footers, with first page different from the rest, and including page number, for MLA), but both are still infinitely better than a typewriter, word processor, or similar methods which don't allow you to quickly reformat your entire document from portrait to landscape, or letter to A4, without needing to go through it to manually fix layout and formatting.

Re: In summary (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-22 21:48 (#2TKQ)

Try OpenOffice. The menu is on the right and can be disabled.

Re: In summary (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-23 02:00 (#2TM0)

What? OO.o added a stupid ribbon too? Thank the FSM I use LibreOffice that still uses logical SAA menus as the great god IBM intended.

Using the ribbon at work for years at it gets in my way every single day. LibreOffice saves my sanity.

Re: In summary (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-22 22:57 (#2TKS)

No, he wasn't saying that he knew wordperferct better, he was saying that he worked more constant with wordperfect's model than with words model. Wordperfect wasn't perfect ( especially the first windows versions), but its vastly more sane of a word processor.

Tsk.... Microsoft Word... WordPerfect... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-22 21:35 (#2TKN)

....what's perfect for me is still LaTeX.

Re: Tsk.... Microsoft Word... WordPerfect... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 02:40 (#2TM2)

As a Microsoft Word replacement I'd recommend LyX instead of writing LaTeX directly.

Re: Tsk.... Microsoft Word... WordPerfect... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 06:37 (#2TM7)

A good choice for beginners. But I worked with LaTeX long before there was LyX, so it is no real help for me.

Re: Tsk.... Microsoft Word... WordPerfect... (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 07:48 (#2TM9)

I think LaTeX is something very great. I use it for several things. I have even made several issues of a magazin with pure LaTeX and for most projects handling some kind of printed reports, I generate LaTex code from the program and get a good looking document at the printer or a nice looking PDF at the screen.

That said, I still think LaTeX is far from replacing a standard word processor. Unless you write a very simple document with the same structure all the way from the first page to the very last, you actually break the flow a lot more by looking up stuff in LaTeX reference manuals. Very few write enough of LaTeX to remember all tags. They get forgotten unless they are used daily. Also, as soon as it comes to something a little bit more odd you end up searching for the LaTeX documentation and the thought you had gets lost.

If a text really is simple, and has nothing odd in it, write it in Markdown, then convert it to LaTeX and add the final touch. Markdown is faster to type than the LaTeX tags and is breaking less the flow of thought. Also, LyX is a good alternative as you still have the power there if needed.

WP had a simpler model (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-10-23 03:16 (#2TM4)

My first urge was to start ranting how Word is anything but genius, but I calmed myself down and read the article first (that's allowed here, right? ;). I think I understand what the author is saying, although I don't entirely agree with it.

WP had (I haven't used it in decades, so I don't know if it's still true) a much simpel model for storing the document than Word. It was just a bunch of "bold on", "bold off" etc codes, similar to HTML tags. There was a mode in which you could display and edit those markup codes directly. That made it relatively easy to visualize what WP was doing internally.

WP was also terrible in my opinion. It would often get the codes into such a mess that the high-level editing couldn't produce the right result anymore and you were forced to hand-correct the markup tags. Some people liked having that kind of low-level control, but to me it felt like being forced to clean up after the program made a mess.

When I first used Word (Word for Windows 2.0), I really liked it. No more messing around with markup codes. And wysiwyg was great for trying different layouts without having to make a dozen prints. But that changed as both Word and the documents I was editing became more complex. Instead of short letters and greeting cards, I started to write reports with embedded illustrations and formulas, tables of contents and often co-writing them with other students.

In particular having multiple people working on a document caused problems. Track Changes didn't play well with auto-numbering and ToC, marking text inserted automatically by Word as changes. Different authors had different ideas about layout: some used direct formatting and some used styles, but even the ones using styles picked them based on the way they looked and not for their semantic role in the document. And they would use various tricks to get the right visual effect, which would fail when other parts of the document changed, or even when switching to a different printer. (If you want a page break before a new chapter, configure that in the header numbering style instead of attempting to fake it by inserting empty lines until the page wraps, grrr...)

Coming back to the article, WP has a simpler model that the writer can directly see and manipulate. This allows the writer to bend WP to their will with some moderate effort: it is not WP being mediocre but right, it is WP being mediocre and the user making it right. Word has a more complex and less visible model, which is great when it works well, but very hard to diagnose when it fails. And it will fail, both because users are not using it properly and because Word itself has bugs and misfeatures that will mess up the document. Comparing Word to Plato suggests that it isn't possible to do real-world word processing based on an ideal model. It might be true that any tool has to compromise to real-world concerns at some point, but I'm convinced that it is possible to do so with far less kludges than Word.

Word tries to support two approaches at once: direct formatting where you change the properties of the text until it looks good and structured documents where the look of a text fragment is determined by its style. I think a lot of problems could be avoided if each document would use either direct formatting or styles exclusively.

I also think Word encourages bad habits by offering formatting features at every step of the way. It distracts from the writing of the text itself, it often leads to inconsistent layout decisions and it wastes time because effort is put into formatting text that will later be deleted or merged. So the last decade and a half I've been using DocBook, HTML and MarkDown, where I can write focusing on just the text itself and worry about the layout later.

Re: WP had a simpler model (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-23 14:43 (#2TME)

Yes. This. Exactly.

DocBook or latex these days for me.

Re: WP had a simpler model (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 17:05 (#2TMQ)

Docbook, Blearch! I happen to like LaTeX, though I accept it's not the tool for everyone (I wrote the Dictator's Handbook using LaTeX and wrote about the process here). But in 2013 I got my first exposure to DocBook and I didn't like it at all. I signed onto the Trojita project to write them some docs using the KDE templates and formats, and though I made it through the project I didn't like it and didn't write any more docs. Maybe KDE's stuff was part of the problem, I don't know - I haven't had experience with anyone else's docbook stuff. But I found it unwieldy, unpleasantly complicated, and kind of plodding. Maybe it's better elsewhere. I also never really found an editor and markup syntax system I liked that well when using it. What's your setup?

The state of LibreOffice (Score: 2, Interesting)

by on 2014-10-23 06:06 (#2TM6)

The author is talking about escaping from Word to WP. However, the route most take will be to Libreoffice. This is giving me really mixed feelings:
1. Libreoffice is open source and free. It is good people notice there are alternatives to the highly priced commercial products.
2. However they might get a bad taste of how open source programs are. Libreoffice is extremely unstable. Openoffice had its unstabilities too, but not nearly as many as Libreoffice is having. This is the cost of a speeded up development.

If you copy a picture from the web, you actually copy both the HTML-tag and the picture. Libreoffice decides to use the HTML tag as default. This is causing more hangs and locks than should ever be allowed and it prevents the document from getting opened unless that picture is accessable online at the moment you open the document. Sure, you can go to Edit/Paste Special (Ctrl-Shift-V) and pick Bitmap, but despite how many times you tell a user to do this, they will just right click and paste as they would do with Word.

If you handle a lot of pictures in a document, you almost should expect a crash at some point and you need to remember to all the time press ctrl-s. This is about properly inserted pictures and not pasted HTML.

If you make a presentation with Impact you should save every time before adding an "animation" (even if it is just a simple "appear" because you want something hidden on the slide until later).

If you add a table but forgot to add an empty line under the table, you have big trouble to continue the text.

Sometimes documents get so messed up that there is no other way to correct them than pasting to a plain text editor and then again apply all the styles.

One minor update fixes often some problems but adds serveal other. For example 4.2.5 had problems with animations, 4.26 fixed some problems with animations but added instead some problems with pictures.

OpenOffice always had some problems but not nearly as many and as frequently as LibreOffice. While most people cheerish Libreoffice, I do not do it. I know a fork was necessary as Oracle almost stopped development of OpenOffice but the fork should have continued in a slow and stable pace adding the features and not rushing like now.

Libreoffice works well as a "Word Viewer" (for opening Word documents and printing them), but to actually work with Libreoffice might sometimes really annoy.

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-23 13:00 (#2TMC)

I had a nicely written counterpoint but Pipedot ate it when my connection dropped temporarily.

In short, my experience is the opposite of yours. LO is a lot more stable for me than OO ever was, crashing about as often as MS Office. And I simply avoid pasting in graphics with HTML. Poof, no lockups.

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 3, Interesting)

by on 2014-10-23 17:13 (#2TMR)

Believe it or not my best experience was with StarOffice 7 back in 2004 or so. OO.o has been iffy, and LO.o, while better in some ways, remains annoying in ways that matter to me. I love the stylist and navigator, but I sense the project lacks a vision. SO7 was still kind of a techie tool not afraid to expose some of its more complicated functionality. I'm afraid LO and OO.o are too obviously chasing Microsoft's tail. Pasting graphics into a written doc is one pain point: Mac Pages does it so much better and elegantly without having to dick around with "anchors" or having stuff jump all over the page. Just this week I had headaches trying to paste a properly-sized graphic into the header of a LibreOffice doc and I have no idea why.

I've tried a lot of other software: Mellel, Copywrite, Appleworks, Abiword, Softmaker Office (thumbs up on Linux/BSD), WordPerfect 2013, and a few others. I detest MS Word but honestly I found WP to be kind of a mess and missing important functionality. Too bad, because I really wanted to like it and really wanted it to be my alternative to Word on my Windows machine. No dice. Not only did they want like $300 for it but it was annoying and very obviously not-as-good as Word in important ways (can't remember which ones anymore, but I only gave it a week or so of free trial before deciding 'no way.')

I remember WP on DOS fondly, but systems have moved on. Word sucks, but there's practically no escaping it. Unemployment, maybe would help. And before I forget, the Ribbon sucks!

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-23 19:20 (#2TN0)

MS Word was way better back then too.

The application "office suite" reached its maturity at that point but no one seemed content to leave it alone. Ribbons? XML? Are you kidding me?

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 19:23 (#2TN1)

If you leave it alone... how do you convince people to buy a new version, when they are totally happy with the old one?

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 0)

by Anonymous Coward on 2014-10-23 19:32 (#2TN2)

Time to change the document format. The more excruciatingly subtle the incompatibilities the better.

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 2, Insightful)

by on 2014-10-23 19:53 (#2TN6)

For bonus points, patent the new format and license it; include code prescriptions like "format table like StarOffice 7 did" without really saying more than that. Finally, bribe the bejeezus out of the standards body so it becomes a new standard. Ka-Ching! Sound familiar?

Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 20:04 (#2TN8)

If you leave it alone... how do you convince people to buy a new version
Change file formats every couple version.

Simply refuse to sell older versions to anyone, anymore.

Tighten the licensing restrictions and DRM, to ensure you can only ever install it one one single computer, ever.

Include tricks in newer version of the OS, that will gradually slow and bog-down older versions of the software for no particular reason.


Re: The state of LibreOffice (Score: 1)

by on 2014-10-23 20:06 (#2TN9)

Change file formats every couple version.
That's not what I would call 'leave it alone' ;-)