in defence of microsoft word

OK, the above title is something I would never have considered writing even a year or two ago; but it does represent a pretty fair summation of the argument to follow in this column.

OK, the above title is something I would never have considered writing even a year or two ago; but it does represent a pretty fair summation of the argument to follow in this column.

I am going to step out of character and say some fair things about Microsoft.

I am not a fan of Microsoft Word, which I consider bloated, ungainly, overpriced and anti-competitively marketed. That is why I am, as usual, using its freeware adversary, OpenOffice, to compose the sentences you see before you. (OpenOffice itself is bloated and ungainly, but at least it is free and genuinely competes with Microsoft. You can download it for free at www.openoffice.org.)

But, for all its faults, and for all Microsoft’s notorious commercial skulduggery, both it and its creator company are, I believe, innocent of the anti-competition accusations currently being adjudicated in the US courts.

This charge was initially levelled by the Novell corporation in 2004, and is now being carried forward by The Attachmate Group, of which the much-dwindled Novell company is now a fairly minor subsidiary.

Their contention is that Microsoft screwed over Novell at the time of the release of the Windows 95 operating system (which coincidentally happened in 1995), because Windows 95 could run Microsoft’s Word program, but not Novell’s WordPerfect.

They contend Microsoft intentionally made WordPerfect non-operational on Windows 95, because Microsoft feared it was too good to compete against. Thus, Microsoft was responsible for WordPerfect’s rapid plummet in market share from 50 per cent to 10 per cent – such a drop that Novell ended up having to sell off WordPerfect (to Ottawa-based Corel) at a loss of $1.2 billion.

They want $1 billion in compensation for this loss – which is pretty much chump change for a $200 billion company like Microsoft. But Microsoft is right to fight it out in court, because Novell’s contention was, and remains pure BS.

Novell did not lose market share because Microsoft put the screws to it; it lost market share because it got lazy and brain dead and started churning out crap for product.

I can attest to the historic truth of that statement because, in the mid ‘90s, I was in the desktop publishing business and, through an accident of circumstance, was an early beta tester of the disastrous WordPerfect 6.0 – a duck so dead it came out of the egg that way.

A child of the computer-mouseless ‘80s, WordPerfect started life as a super-powerful word-processing program. Driven by an enormous collection of arcane keystroke commands, it had a big learning curve that offered job security to anyone patient enough to learn it; but its industry-leading functionality made it the defacto word-processing standard – so much so that secretarial job advertisements usually listed “knowledge of WordPerfect” as a non-negotiable condition of employment.

That was all just fine until Steve Jobs and Apple changed the game in 1984, with the introduction of the mouse and the intuitive (well, at least more intuitive) graphic user interface (GUI, in nerd-speak).

By the early ‘90s, WordPerfect was starting to look pretty dated and needlessly complicated. So WordPerfect 6.0 was started as a way to simplify and sex-up the user experience of the program.

Problem was – a fact I quickly saw, even in my naivety of those days – Novell wanted to innovate without really changing anything. The new, mouse-driven GUI was really just some sugary icing spread over the same old, stale cake.

All the graphics really did was take up screen space and burn up computing power without adding any meaningful new functionality – behind it all was the same old set of arcane commands familiar to the WordPerfect cognoscenti from the ‘80s.

Predictably, as a beta release, the version I saw was prone to crash; but all the computational overhead employed to do the graphics also made it run achingly slowly, even on the then-hot-shot computer I had in those days, with my two megabytes of RAM and my 27 MHz processor.

As an obscure little desktopper from the far-north toolies, though, my error reports and admonitions went unacknowledged and unnoticed.

Predictably, when WordPerfect 6.0 was released in 1993, both the new customers and the long-initiated lamented its flaws.

For my money, that release (though some of the deficiencies were fixed up in later releases) marked the definitive downturn in WordPerfect’s fortunes.

Smug with past successes, they were more intent on being backward compatible than forward-moving; and the result was, they were so backward compatible they were going backward.

Lord knows, Microsoft is composed of some pretty ruthless and unethical apparatchiks, but they did not have to kneecap Novell to get Microsoft Word out front in the word-processing race. Novell went down with both guns blazing away at its own feet.

They never learned what

Steve Jobs never forgot, and what Microsoft fitfully forgets and re-remembers: Don’t be afraid to make your product obsolete; if you don’t, somebody else will.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.

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