Andrew Hosgood

OO PHP Web Developer specialising in User Interface Design and User Experience

Why is Microsoft Office still the de facto standard?

8th January 2014

Chances are, at some point in your career you have listed "Microsoft Office" under the skills section of your CV. The Microsoft Office suite that first appeared on our computers has been around since the start of the 1990s, just a few months after Tim Berners-Lee created the first web server and founded the World Wide Web (not the Internet, as some people will tell you).

1990…

…saw the introduction of the Office suite from Microsoft. It was the year that Hubble went into orbit, the two ends of the Channel Tunnel met (more successfully than the 1880 attempt), Die Hard 2 was released, Furbys ran rampant and boy bands roamed the Earth. Pokemon Red and Blue would not be released in the UK for another 9 years.

Fun fact: Microsoft Works (the predecessor to Office) made its debut on the Apple Mac in late 1986 and not the PC as Apple had a pretty good GUI in their System 1 at the same time Microsoft were still faffing about with Windows 1.0.

Before the years of Microsoft Office (for which I was only alive for 4) we had managed perfectly well with a pen and paper. Printing was a chore and taking a backup meant writing everything on a different piece of paper. We had word processors and spreadsheet applications. Lotus 1-2-3 was one of IBM's proudest products at the time, dominating the spreadsheet application market in the 1980s. Of course, "dominating the spreadsheet application market in the 1980s" is a bit like saying "the fastest runner in a one-man race".

Anyway, for reasons beyond my understanding (as decisions always are to me when coming from Microsoft), the Office suite was released shortly after my 4th birthday and was met by great success. It was a long way ahead of the competition, with pretty graphics and other sorts of suicidally boring features that would have made an office worker of the 1990s a very happy person. I can see why though – these are the people that as children were most likely kept entertained by "Etch A Sketch" and "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots"…

By now, you may have guessed that this is going to be a rant. Well done; have a cookie. Not the dangerous type, mind you. Nevertheless, fast-forward 23 years…

The point

I seem to constantly be bombarded with Word documents and Excel files from clients on a daily basis. The problem is, most of the time people aren't using Word and Excel for their intended purpose. The .doc and the .xls file formats have somehow wiggled their way rather akwardly in as a de facto standard. They work for most people and everyone knows them so why change them now?

Don't get me wrong — I think Microsoft Word is a fantastic piece of software…but only for writing documents; nothing else. It doesn't excel at forms, diaries, scripts or your CV. I can remember when I applied for work at Logo Design, I had a beautifully designed and structured graphical CV but because it was a PDF, I was asked by the agency to copy it into a Word document because "our system can't cope with PDFs". My PDF supported images better, had embedded fonts, columns and I knew it would look the roughly same on everyones computer. My Word document by comparison looked like a 4-year-old had written it – not what I wanted when applying for work in one of the country's top design agencies.

People tend to send me Excel files not with a fiscal analysis in (the whole POINT of a spreadsheet is to work with numbers and figures), but sometimes lists, timelines and translated site content among other things. I then have to spend time copying out the content, sanitising it and pasting it where it is meant to be. This is what annoys me, not the programs themselves… OK, I lie – the programs DO annoy me because of:

Microsoft's inflamed sense of self importance

Something Microsoft love to do is change stuff and create new "standards", be it in the interests of their customers or not. Sometimes not even retaining backwards compatibility with their own software. One of their biggest failings (among many) was the introduction of the proprietary Open XML formats (.docx, .xlsx and .pptx) with Office 2007. A new format for their software ensured that a great chasm evolved between people with the new and old software, as people who created documents in the new Word 2007 could no longer share them with their Word 2003 cousins. The world took a few years to recover from this and to this day I still hear people bitching about it.

People who work with XML, HTML and Microsoft Word will know what a disgusting format the newer .docx is. Yes, it was smaller than before and less prone to corruption but it added so much extra gibberish behind the scenes of your document that they become more Word-specific garbage than content and followed no previous standards. This is because of Microsoft's desire to…well, I don't know; upset me?

Make a site in a day? Easy. Learn a new computing language? No problem. Make an online rich text editor work with content pasted in from Microsoft Word, keeping the content and styling whilst stripping out the unnecessary code? Tried it, got the headaches – find yourself another developer.
[Sidenote: I have recently discovered TinyMCE which made my life a LOT easier — if you are developer and need a rich text editor for a web application, check it out!]

The other option

The solution is simple. Google Drive. With Google Drive, you can work collaboratively in a decentralised environment, import all your existing files (which Drive will convert for you) and still do all (or most) of the things that Word can do…all for free. There are no formats to worry about, nothing physical to get corrupted and an editor that works on every computer with a modern web browser.

I use Google Drive on a daily basis. I keep a note of my expenses in there and I even used it to collaborate with a friend and plan our road trip around Western Europe. I share documents with clients who can edit them in front of my eyes, and when I rarely need to take something out of Drive, I can export it in a variety of formats and copy from it without including vast quantities of frivolous markup.

I know it sounds like I'm being paid to praise it, but I'm really not. It's grown on me like a colony of E. coli on room-temperature Canadian beef. Go and try it – it is the way forward.

Also, I feel PowerPoint got off too lightly… so, yeah: PowerPoint, we hate hate hate hate hate hate you too!