Tag Archives: Office Software

Don’t Teach Programs!

One of the things that gets me upset is something that happens in schools every day (it happens in other places as well). It is a type of education malpractice, and you’ll know it when you hear someone say that they teach “Microsoft Office”. And I say that not because there is anything wrong with Microsoft Office. Truth be told, it is a fine suite of office productivity software which I use frequently. But I use a lot of programs, including LibreOffice, OpenOffice.org, Corel WordPerfect Office, and at various times I have used ABI word, Quattro, and probably a half-dozen programs I can’t bring to mind right now. And the truth that most people never hear is:

They all do pretty much the same things.

I have taught people to use a lot of these programs, and I teach them the same things regardless of the program used. I never have a problem because I don’t worry about learning the program, I will instead learn the concepts. For example, if you put me in front of a computer that has a new word processing package on it that I have never used, the first thing I will do is figure out where the Templates are and how to set up my Styles. I know those two concepts are key to using a word processing program. And if I don’t find those two are in the program, I know it is not really a word processing program, it is a text editor. There is nothing wrong with being a text editor, it is a tool for a different purpose. But if you don’t understand what it means to do Word Processing, you might not understand what the difference is other than the lack of font choices.

If you teach specific programs you make people dependent on having a specific program. If you teach the underlying concepts, however, you empower people. That said,people who are properly trained will have to understand that how a given program implements a feature may be different. They may use different terminology. I recently heard a complaint that LibreOffice Writer was no good because this person could not do text boxes. And the problem here is that LibreOffice calls them frames, and in fact they are far more powerful than a mere text box. Different terminology was most of the problem here, but the feature was there.

Now, it is true that in some marginal cases there may be differences, but most of the time any feature most people use in any one program will be in all of the others as well. You just need to be flexible.

But stop teaching specific programs. Education ought to be about empowering people, not tying them down.

Separate Presentation From Content – Office Software

In my previous post I made the point that the Web works best when you separate presentation from content. That is good as far as it goes, but I want to now extend the discussion in another direction, and that is how to use Office software to the maximum advantage. This applies to any Office suite, whether you use Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office, OpenOffice.org, Libre Office, or indeed any other office productivity suite. I have worked with all the above, have trained people in several of them, and have had experience with how powerful these techniques can be. In fact, I developed an 18-hour course for college students that employed these techniques. The students had mostly been putting off taking this course as long as possible because they did not see the need for this. But the University had made this a requirement, and they would frequently take it near the end of their degree program. But after taking the course, I almost always got the reaction that they were angry that they had not had the course at the beginning of the program because it was so useful. This course covered the basics of using Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access), but I have used this approach in training on other office suites with just as much success.

Now, something that just happened to me illustrates a useful point. I was on a Web page, and clicked on a link to a PDF file. The file opened, I read what I wanted to read, and when I was done, by force of habit, I clicked the close button on the upper right to get rid of the PDF file. After all, I was done with it, right? Arrrggghhh! I just closed my browser and all of the tabs I had opened. This is why the first thing I do with a new browser is set it up to always open the tabs I last had opened. But the point I want to make here is that my browser automatically opened and displayed a PDF file. That used to require calling a separate program, but apparently that is no longer necessary. And I suspect we will see more of this. For instance, Google Docs is starting to bring all of your Office documents into the browser. At some point the technology is going to treat any piece of data/text/whatever as raw material and display it. And when that happens, all of the arguments on how to construct proper Web pages will apply equally to constructing Office documents.

That is not all, though. In my day job I am a Project Manager, and I have a need to manage large numbers of documents. Documentation management becomes a real concern, and I have to say that most of the places I have worked do not do a good job of it. I think Microsoft Sharepoint, if used properly, could be a good step in the right direction. And for those who are in as position to go the Open Source route, Alfresco could be the solution. While I generally prefer Open Source solutions, Sharepoint is really pretty good, and if you work in a Microsoft shop you may find it easier to promote as a solution. In either case, all of the issues of semantic encoding, of finding the document you need from a large haystack of documents, still apply.

Going back to my academic days at that university, as I was the Office expert I was given the task of putting together the catalog. What that meant was combining a large number of documents, each from a different department, into something that could be considered a unified whole. And these departments did not make the job easy. No two of them used the same convention for laying out their information. and as I recall none of them used the proper semantic tagging at all. Everything was done using font changes, the space bar, inconsistent lists, and if any of them used tabs at all they did it the wrong way. So my first major task was to go through all of these submissions and use semantic tagging. In word processing programs this is done by using what are called styles, and maybe you can see the relationship between styles and style sheets. They are really the same idea, just applied in different domains.

So the proper way to use a word processing program (and again, this applies to Word, WordPerfect, Write, AbiWord, or any other program out there) is to apply a style to each element, just the way you apply a tag in a Web page. The title of your document should be given a style like Header 1, a major section sub-head should be Header 2, and so on. Now, the word processing programs may take you in the wrong direction  at first because they will have an appearance already assigned, or will ask you to specify an appearance when you use the style. Resist the urge! The point in creating your document should be to get the semantic encoding done correctly. Once that is done, you can assign an appearance to each element, and achieve a unified look-and-feel to your document, or even to a whole group of documents.

I will illustrate this with an example from my academic days. In the early days of using personal computers, they were adopted by universities as a tool for their students and faculty. In one large university, they were adopted for use in Freshman Composition classes. In the U.S. at least, these classes are pretty much universal, as the faculty want to make sure that all students can write papers at a minimal (at the very least) level of competency. At this particular university, they had different sections of the course, some of which used Macintosh computers, and the others using DOS computers running WordPerfect. When they did a comparative study of the writing of these two groups, they found something very interesting. The DOS/WordPerfect group were consistently writing better papers with superior content. This was a surprise, and they looked for any possible correlation that might explain it. But the two groups of students seemed to have comparable grades coming out of high school, they had comparable test scores on the standardized tests used for admission, and in general on all measurements the could think of the two groups were in effect identical, except that one group used Macintosh and the other DOS/WordPerfect.

They finally decided that the most likely explanation lay in what each platform allowed you to do. Macintosh computers were the first to have Graphical User Interface. They came with a variety of font tools, graphics tools, and were in general the first personal computers with a graphic design capability. That is one reason why Macintosh got such a big head start with graphic designers and maintains that to this day. DOS computers running WordPerfect were quite different. In the mid-to-late 1980s, they ran on monochrome screens, and basically you were presented with a black screen with a blinking cursor. In later versions, for early color monitors, the screen became blue instead of black, but otherwise the same: a blank screen with a blinking cursor. The only thing you could do with these computers was write. On a Macintosh, though, you were presented right away with font choices, with graphics choices, page layout considerations, etc. The conclusion of the researchers was that having all of these choices available to the students distracted them from the main point, which was to write good compositions.

Nor is this only applicable to word processing. Another area where this crops up is with presentation software (e.g. PowerPoint, Impress, etc.). Most presentation programs will start you with a choice among graphical templates and similar distractions. Again, resist the urge! To make a good presentation, your first concern should be to logically organize your information. When I am creating a presentation I frequently start with an outline. Many programs will let you take an outline and turn it into a presentation with a few mouse clicks. When you have done so, you can then apply any template you like to give the presentation the graphic look you want.

One other advantage of properly using semantic tagging, which is similar to what we found in looking at Web pages, is that it becomes a real time saver. For instance, suppose you had a long document with a number of sections. Each time you came to a section you could set the appearance of your section header by clicking on the font you want, what size it should be, whether or not it should be indented, and so on. Or you could do it properly by just declaring the element to be a particular header (say Header 2), and then setting the appearance for all Header 2’s in your document. Furthermore, if you need to make a change, for whatever reason, you don’t need to go page by page through the document looking for all of the places that need to be changed. You just change the characteristics of the Header 2 style once and the whole document updates.

So for all of the reasons given, using proper semantic encoding and separating the presentation from the content is just as important in Office software applications as it is in building Web pages. In fact, it is a fundamental principle of good information architecture.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!


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.

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.

Is Office Software Obsolete?

One of the audio podcasts I listen to is This Week In Google, which despite the name actually covers everything cloud-related, not just Google. It is a very interesting podcast, with Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. In this particular episode, Leo asked the others what they used for most of their writing. In each case, it was some kind of online application, not a conventional word processor like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice.org Writer. Jeff Jarvis did allow that he had to use Microsoft word when he wrote the book, but he did phrase it as he “had to use it.” It really did sound as if he would have preferred to use something else. Gina Trapani is writing a book right now, on Google Wave, and is doing it all in a wiki that is open to others.

I think that for some things there is no real replacement for the power of a desktop program. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a contract once at a large legal practice, and I can assure you that lawyers will not be using Google Docs any time soon to write their legal papers. And there are very real questions about security if your documents are online. Plus, you have to consider that having things online can present problems if anything happens to your Internet access or the remote servers. You would be cut off from access to your files.

A lot of pundits have taken these objections as evidence that online software will “never” replace desktop programs. I am not sure. I think there are other facts that these pundits overlook. The first is that online software will continue to be developed. The feature list of desktop software is so rich now that there really isn’t a lot left for them to do. The major new feature of Office 2007, for example, was the Ribbon, and that has received more criticism than praise as far as I can tell. The other major change is in file formats, which is not something most users care about at all. So I think online software can catch up by virtue of the fact that desktop software is pretty much at a dead end.

The second point that we need to consider is how technology will change in the next few years. Most folks have heard about Moore’s Law, which is about how processors will double in capability every 18 months or so. In fact, this type of exponential growth is not restricted to just processors. All technology is growing exponentially. Each new generation of wireless is approximately 10 times faster than the previous generation. Broadband speeds are growing, and so on. Technical barriers to “cloud” software that we see today we possibly won’t see in 2-3 years as the technology improves.

The final point to consider is that these changes often happen rather quickly when a tipping point is reached. There is a technical term, hysteresis, which we could use here. What this means is that a smooth change in the technical and economic parameters can appear to have no effect for a period of time, and then in a fairly short time frame everything changes. I suspect the change from desktop office software to online “cloud” equivalents will probably display this type of behavior. Clearly the online software has an economic advantage, since most of it is free. And online does have advantages in a world where increasingly people want to have access to all of their data all of the time, no matter where they are. We may well see a sudden shift when everything lines up to make the online applications preferable.

One last point is that this will not mean that desktop office software disappears, only that it will not be the dominant way documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are created.