Curses to Microsoft

May the fleas of a thousand camels infest… Oh, oh, I should be a little less vehement. Microsoft – please fix your Word application! (I said please…)

I am trying to write a book with Microsoft Word. Word has every feature I could ask for: extensive headers and footers, table of contents and indexing, caption numbering, footnoting, page numbering. The feature list is mind blowing!

But Word doesn’t work 99.9% of the time – more like 90% of the time. An example: I mark an index entry, and then immediately edit the hidden text entry in the document because I misspelled the index entry, and Word will crash. Or caption numbers will usually update correctly when I rearrange sections – but not always. These are awful flaws in the application. I suspect that these features are not used by 99.9% of Word users in their work day to day, so these features were not tested extensively by Microsoft – ever.

This brings to mind an interesting element of complex system usage I have observed again and again. It is really a skill that children learn very quickly today: avoid actions that break a complex system. I find this fascinating. I was asking a very experienced Windows user one day why he did a certain action that I thought was a little quirky and indirect, and the answer was, “If you do it this other way, it will crash the computer…”. I will crash a Windows computer fairly often, but my good friend (a Windows enthusiast) never crashes his computer because he has learned to avoid the dangerous flaws of the Windows OS.

There is psychology working on us, here. Here is what I think it amounts to:

By learning to work around the flaws of a complex system, you feel like you are its “Master”, and you have “triumphed” over something somewhat difficult. Your victory was not easily won, and and you have overcome a number of challenges. You derive a good sense of self-satisfaction.

Windows’ flaws are just obvious enough for the average person to overcome by trial and error, but not so challenging that they will resolutely defeat the user before they are learned and worked around.

You like your Microsoft Windows experience because you “conquered” it!  You have mastered its flaws, and that is a highly satisfying accomplishment in your otherwise less-that-satisfying world. You are “in control.” It was rough going for a time, but you have won! Anything new that comes along threatens your “in charge” status and demands that you climb another painful learning curve… You covet your “victory” no matter what the pain of actually living it – because the victory is your reward for your hard work.

For the record, Windows 7 is a terrific improvement in usability over its predecessor versions, and it is “pretty”, too. I give Windows 7 a humble “thumbs-up”. I think that Windows 7 is “2-9’s” 99% reliable, but my experience with Windows 7 surely demonstrates that it is not yet “3-9’s” 99.9% reliable.

Contrarily, I like my Apple experience because I don’t need to do anything in particular to finish what I am doing – unless I am writing a Word document… The last time my computer crashed was – well, I can’t remember when. The last time an Apple application crashed was  – well – never that I can recall since Apple offered the iLife and iWork application suites – never. It all works 99.9% of the time.

I am learning to avoid the flaws in Microsoft Word – lately, Word has not crashed! I have my fingers crossed that Word for the Mac 2011 will be a better product – that it will graduate from 90% reliable to – well, maybe 99% reliable – I doubt that Microsoft can ever achieve three-nines availability. That, or Apple Pages will get a few more features for headers and footers and indexing – Pages is pretty darned good and needs to “stretch”.

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