Category Archives: Office Software General

Microsoft Innovation

Although some wags may wish to claim Microsoft does not innovate, that is not at all true. Microsoft does innovate, but not always successfully. There are two reasons I have noticed for this.

The first is that they have a large installed base and a large market for upgrades that they are always trying to protect. that means they don’t want to innovate in ways that endanger their “cash cows”, which are Windows, and even more so, Office. And if you have read the classic work The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen, you will recognize that this sets them up for an eventual fall when a disruptive innovation comes along. In fact, Windows is probably facing a disruptive innovation in the form of mobile, particularly tablets. And what is ironic about this is that for years Microsoft was the main and seemingly only promoter of tablets. Why did they get into this situation? Because they wanted tablets that fit into their paradigm of the Windows computer. ¬†And in the other part of mobile, the cell phone market, it is clear that Microsoft is at best the third horse in a two horse race. Yet people who have used the latest Windows Phone 7 say it is slick and matches up well with iOS and Android.

But when their backs are to the wall, they can certainly innovate. An early example of this was in Web browsers. When Mark Andreesen incautiously declared that Netscape’s ambition was to replace the OS, Bill Gates was able to turn Microsoft around fairly quickly and produce a better browser. They also engaged in anti-competitive and illegal practices, as determined by a U.S. Federal Court, but we should never lose sight of the fact that by the time of IE4 Microsoft was offering a better browser than Netscape. The problem is that once they had dispatched Netscape the whole browser ¬†operation seemed to go into hibernation. This let Netscape’s successor, Firefox, come along and grab both market share and mind share. And since then Google Chrome has looked likely to overtake both of them. This threat has stimulated innovation again, though whether it is too little, too late is a major question. But IE9 is a credible alternative to Chrome and Firefox, and is notably standards-compliant.

One of the big problems Microsoft has is that it does not know how to sell the idea of its software innovations very well. The joke about this is that if Microsoft went into the sushi business, they would market their product as “cold, dead, raw fish”. Mmmm, yummy.

What brings on this observation is that Microsoft has what may be a genuinely innovative and useful product that almost no one knows about, and that is Sharepoint. This product is something that aids collaboration, is business-oriented, and can tie together a lot of separate products. It could be connected to all of Office, including Outlook, to create a product that wold get Microsoft back into the mobile/tablet market successfully. Right now iPads, and increasingly Android tablets, are coming into business environments despite being completely unsuited to that task. Microsoft is an Enterprise computing vendor that should have all of the natural advantages here, but it looks like they will give away this market through inaction.

LibreOffice

You may have heard that OpenOffice has run into some problems. Basically, this all goes back to a company in Germany called StarOffice. They created an alternative office suite that was much less expensive than Microsoft Office and offered it for sale on very reasonable terms. Then this company was purchased by Sun Microsystems, and Sun created a community-supported (partly) and open source suite called OpenOffice.org. (Yes, the “.org” part is part of the official name, something to do with Trademark disputes).

Last year Sun Microsystems was purchased by Oracle, and its future became very much in doubt. Oracle wants to control OpenOffice.org a lot more, and find ways to make money from it. That is their right, as they bought it, but they have pretty much alienated most of the community developers outside of Oracle, who have gone on to found The Document Foundation. This group has, in turn, taken the open source code from OpenOffice.org and created LibreOffice. Right now the two suites are pretty close to identical, but I would expect divergence to take place over time.

I think this is a good thing for users. The corporate ownership, first by Sun, then by Oracle, has not worked very well. The plus side was that you got developers who were paid by the corporation to work on the project. The minus side was that they would (of course) be promoting the corporate agenda over the community agenda. And in the case of OpenOffice.org, I think a lot of people would agree that the negatives started to predominate over the last couple of years. My sense was that OpenOffice.org was stagnating, and that some pretty obvious improvements were just not getting made. Since the split, I have felt a sense of energy and commitment to improvement at The Document Foundation that was missing in the old OpenOffice.org. Only time will tell if this can be kept up. These kinds of projects are not sprints, they are marathons, and it takes sustained effort over time to really produce the kind of quality product that can compete in the marketplace. But I am more hopeful now than I was last year about where the open source office suite is going. For that reason, I intend to focus on LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice.org when I discuss the alternative to the commercial packages.

Excel corrupts data in long numbers

I thought I was going to get some work done today, but instead I spent a significant amount of time dealing with a data corruption problem in Excel.

I had a number of files (e.g. over 250) that were all *.csv files downloaded from a server and full of useful data. Among the data is a 13-digit account number. But when I opened my files I discovered that all the account numbers had the last six digits replaced by zeros. After some experimentation I worked out what was happening. Excel was first converting all of these numbers to what is called Scientific Notation. That is what you see when a long number turns into something like 2.690565 +E11. You can change the format of the cells (to number) to make this temporarily go away, and if you do so before you attempt to save the file, you are OK. But as soon as you open the file again everything goes back to Scientific Notation again. Now, the reason that this is a Bad Thing is that if you do anything that triggers a save of the file while it is in this state it will throw away some of your data. So for example with a number like 2690565134729, Excel first converts it to 2.690565 +E11, and when you save it, Excel throws away the digits that weren’t displayed. So when you reopen your file, the number is now 2690565000000. This is a mess. And once the data is gone, it is gone and unrecoverable.

It turns out that this a known problem with Excel affecting lots of people.If you do a web search on “Disable Scientific Notation in Excel” you will find lots of people with this problem, and also that you cannot turn off this behavior. There were some suggestions of convoluted scripts or macros you could use that might help, but basically Microsoft designed it to work this way and is not interested in changing it.

Years ago I worked with a fellow who had a number of Microsoft certifications. When I complained that apparently Microsoft never did any usability testing, he quickly corrected me. As he explained it, Microsoft does extensive usability testing. They just never let it affect the design of their products.

Well, I was using Excel because that is what they give me at work. But after losing two months worth of data to this stuff, I opened up my copy of OpenOffice.org, which I keep on a thumb drive, and was happy to discover that I had no problems at all. OpenOffice.org hs no compulsion to convert numbers to Scientific Notation, does not corrupt data, and as a result I feel much safer. I configured my workstation to use OpenOffice.org by default for all *.csv files from now on.

Office 2007 Ribbon

As you may know if you have purchased a new(er) copy of Microsoft Office, they introduced a new User Interface (UI) in Office 2007 called the Ribbon, and they mean it. They make no provision for going back to the menus of Office 2003.

This has lead to some controversy, many heated exchanges, and not a little name-calling. People used to the older interface accuse the designers of making change just for the sake of making change, and the designers in turn think that the people who want the old interface are stuck-in-the-mud Luddites, who cannot keep up with needed improvements. I don’t want to weigh in on this aspect of the controversy, other than to say that I can understand where each side is coming from to some degree. I think you get this any time you attempt to change an interface element. I am seeing it now in Ubuntu with the decision to move the window buttons from the right to the left.

The point that you might want to keep in mind here is that the change gives every appearance of being permanent, and I have heard that OpenOffice.org is considering making similar changes to their UI. So if you want to simply get on with it, to get some work done without fighting any major battles, I think there is merit in learning the new UI and making peace with it. And I can offer an interesting resource to help. One of the major designers maintains a blog on MSDN, and explains a lot of this. Unfortunately, finding things on that blog is not as easy as one might hope, so someone else published a guide with links to all of the pertinent posts. That guide is available here. By going here and reading the posts that Patrick Schmid has organized (from the blog of Jensen Harris), you can start with why they thought a change was necessary, learn about the philosophy of the new Ribbon UI, and details about how it works. This is highly recommended for getting up to speed.

Useful Tips

If you use Office software for your job, chances are you would like to get more proficient with these tools. Many Office products are so complex these days that it can be difficult to resolve nagging problems or know where to look. I get some of my information from a couple of weekly e-mails, WordTips and ExcelTips. These free weekly newsletters are just what the name implies, a collection of useful tips that just might help you to tame the beast.