Microsoft Office—a productivity tool?

Oil IT Journal Editor Neil McNaughton struggles with Microsoft’s ‘Fluent User Interface’ a.k.a. the Office Ribbon. Moving from different versions of Windows is less of a deal for the end user than an ‘improved’ Office GUI. Early tests of Open Office suggest a route around the productivity black hole.

Some housekeeping notes to start with. You will probably have noticed that as our coverage grows, we have been grouping articles together in ‘buckets’ such as ‘Software Hardware Short Takes,’ ‘Standards Stuff’ and so on. This month has seen a slug of articles dealing with wireless communications—to the rigsite and within the facility. Likewise, we are receiving a lot of traffic concerning Carbon and environmental monitoring issues. So we have two new, likely occasional, features, ‘Wireless World’ and ‘Going, Going… Green.’ Next month we will be adding a similar ‘e-commerce’ bucket—but I’ve not thought up a cool name for this as yet. Your contributions and opinions on the expanding coverage welcome to

Next a few words on the topic of ‘productivity.’ Writing a newsletter to a monthly deadline means that we are particularly sensitive to this. While we pride ourselves in the fact that we do get out and about—reporting from a dozen or more tradeshows throughout the year, there comes that time every month when producing the newsletter boils down to hand-to-hand combat between man (me) and machine (PC). As Oil IT Journal is ‘now in it’s 15th year,’ I feel qualified to contribute an anecdote or two on the ‘productivity’ topic.

Our legacy desktop publishing tools are Microsoft Word and Publisher—both components of Microsoft Office, which is often referred to as a ‘productivity suite.’ Back in my July 1999 editorial I waxed lyrical about Publisher, describing it as ‘a fabulous program,’ although I did note that ‘it crashed about 20 times today’ and called on Microsoft to ‘sweat the small stuff’ and fix the bugs. Back then I could equally have cited Word’s mail merge functionality as a company-making productivity enabler. But how ‘productive’ is Office today?

Well it has to be said that since 1999 there are for sure a lot less crashes. Over the last couple of years I have acquired both a new desktop and a new laptop. The first runs Windows XP, the second Vista (sorry can’t report on 7 as yet). The desktop came loaded with the 2007 flavor of Office (sorry again, we can’t report on Office 2010 either!). Office 2007 saw the introduction of the ‘ribbon’ a.k.a. the ‘Fluent User Interface,’ an ‘ugrade’ to the more traditional menu interface. To the novice user, the ribbon just seemed like a pointless exercise in moving the furniture around. After a few months of increasingly intensive use of Office 2007 I consider myself no longer a novice. But I still hate the ribbon! In particular, the changes to style management and heading numbering (always a Word weakness) had become just totally obscure. We use a title and subtitle numbering system to identify each item we report on in our Technology Watch report service so that individual information items have a unique reference.

Meanwhile on the Vista laptop which I really only use for note taking while on the road I was not prepared to shell out nearly as much as the machine cost for another Office license. So I installed Open Office which seemed to do the job and let me do some experimenting with styles and numbering in the open source alternative. I discovered that the styles interface and management, while not exactly a breeze, was easier and more logical than Microsoft’s efforts.

This led me to install Linux and Open Office on the desktop too. I did this with a dual boot, no fancy Parallels or VMware. As a past fan of Jerry Pournell’s Chaos Manor in column in the defunct Byte Magazine I feel obligated to report the following hardware trivia. Under XP, my new machine’s sound card never worked. Googling around I found various words of wisdom as to possible fixes—all of which proved complete time wasters. I just got used to a silent PC. But on installing Ubuntu Linux, I was greeted with a booming fanfare through my speakers. A pleasant surprise. Does Linux plug and play better than Windows now?

Word 2007 seems to have exaggerated an aspect of usage in that the Office tools have a seductively short learning curve for the simple stuff. But when you want to do something at the ‘enterprise’ level, you are faced with a klutzy, poorly thought-out interface. I don’t doubt that ‘anything’ is possible. But productive it isn’t if a) it is hard to find and implement when you have found it and b) it is unstable once you have done it.

Perhaps I should explain why styles and numbering and ‘enterprise’ use of Word is important. These tools are potentially the real productivity drivers for the knowledge worker. Using styles to organize and format a document should speed production and aid retrieval. If you want to see how much futzing is involved in your average jock’s attempt to produce a clean document, download some random Word documents from the web and check them out with visible formatting enabled (there are some pretty good examples on!) These frequently include multiple lines of repeated whitespace, tabs and other signs of a mis-spent youth. This is irritating in itself. But if you are paying people to line stuff up by inserting whitespace and tabs it is doubly so. Word just does not encourage you to do things the right way. The tools are there. But they are the obscure and poorly implemented stuff we mentioned above. Productive is not Word.

Which brought me back to Open Office—running in odt mode rather than docx—no more instability and lost data (yea—two days work). Understandable formatting that is reasonably consistent. Free pdf conversion that seems to work. We produced our Technology Watch report from the 2009 SEG—a 5MB PDF replete with illustrations with no problems. Open Office is looking quite promising.

What struck me most about these different comparisons is the fact that the whole world gets exercised about what are, in the greater scheme of things, relatively minor differences between XP, Vista and perhaps 7. This reflects the extent to which the upgrade debate has been hijacked by ‘IT’ at the expense of the end user. The real stumbling block, something that might throw your whole organization into a productivity black hole, is the move from Office 2003 to 2007 and, who knows, to Office 2010.

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