Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Fallacy of Office Suites

I often hear about how OpenOffice is going to change the world. Or LibreOffice. The problem with both of these applications is that they're perpetuating the impression that an office suite is the only way to do things.

Microsoft made it's profits, not from it's Operating Systems, but rather, from their office suites as demonstrated by the graph found here. So it's worth big money. But I still find myself asking "Why?"

It's not surprising that Microsoft would try to change the layout in order to differentiate itself. Especially with threats such as Google Docs and the like.

But when I pick these suites apart, I find it really difficult to see how they make life any easier.

Take the humble word processor for example. In a work context, they're used for very repetitive tasks. Report writing for example. In a lot of cases, those reports are much the same with a few changed values. In which case, make up a form of key values and have a system where those values are plugged in. Suddenly productivity would go through the roof.

Or, if you're anything like me and hate formatting, have the option of removing all of that formatting font stuff and allow us to mark sections of our text as "a heading" or "a paragraph" etc. Do we really need to have control over every character?

You might argue that I can use styles. The problem is, the emphasis isn't on styles. Which means that as soon as that document's been messed around by someone else, all that structure is suddenly gone. You may use styles. There's a very good chance no one else in the office does. The emphasis is on formatting everything manually. That row of icons? I could do without. The styles picker is always in the formatting toolbar and there is never the option to display just the styles picker.

There are options there. They could for example encourage a productive workflow. Write your content, click a button that then gives you the ability to format your document. Provide a decent gui for editing a style and to save style templates and you're away laughing.

Google sites doesn't even bother with styles at all.

There is LyX. LyX has some really great ideas but just lacks some polish. For example, to create a template, you need to get into coding a document. No graphical user interface for creating a template. The output is brilliant. It uses TeX in the background which is a typesetting system. It doesn't compromise on quality for the output.

So with all of these alternatives - they instead chose to give me more formatting options. Surely the computer is smart enough to do this for me.

And Spreadsheets? Spreadsheets really annoy me. It's amazing how many businesses use spreadsheets as an information system. People - they're only good for 3 things.
  1. One Offs.
  2. Prototyping.
  3. Doing a half arse job.
The problems with spreadsheets are kind of obvious when you start thinking about it.

Firstly, a spreadsheet doesn't really care what information you're putting in. It has no context. Whether it's text or a number - it'll just adapt to cope. This means that it is almost completely incapable of validating data. If you were to enter in 0/12/2010 for a date for example, and you're expecting a date to be in there, the spreadsheet will not tell you that you've made a mistake.

Secondly, the fact that a row has a position becomes a problem. Arranging that data based on different criteria moves that information about. This might not sound like a problem but this does have issues for data integrity. What if it misses a column when sorting information? Those relationships between different cells has just been lost.

Thirdly, performance is abysmal if multiple people are in the spreadsheet at the same time (if that's possible).

In short, a spreadsheet should be seen as a piece of presentation software rather than a business tool. If you're using a spreadsheet for more than a month, it's probably worthwhile investing a little bit of time and perhaps money into getting something developed that suits your needs.

And then there's presentation software. Be honest. When you're in a meeting, listening to someone droning on, what do you normally see projected on the screen? Generally it's a bunch of bullet points. All they've done really is write up their notes. You find you don't participate in the presentation because everything is laid out.

Personally, I prefer a whiteboard. We can write notes together. If something else comes up, we can explore it. Sure it might be handy for the occasional graph or diagram but it's not used for those things all that often. It's another little fallacy. It's just not used effectively. If the goal is to get the audiences attention, it's a great big failure.

None of this technology has made any majour leaps and bounds in the last few years. Spreadsheets can be bigger. Word processors.... I really don't know what's changed. The spell checker is pretty cool? Presentation software limits communication as far as I'm concerned.

I guess what I'm saying is, if ever you start a business and you're thinking about software you're going to need, ask yourself, "do I really need an office suite?".

An even better question: How can things be done better?

And yet, ever more interesting: Why has technology seemed to stand still?

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