Process This – a Personal Analysis of the State of ‘Office’ Computing

This is a response to the first part of the word processor review recently featured on I have WordPerfect Office X3, 2.1, and MS Office 2003 all installed on my computer, and the article stirred up some of the opinions that have gradually come to settle in the depths of my mind. So here are my thoughts.


I used to be the biggest WordPerfect fanatic out there. I started using it at version 6.0 (for Windows), and became addicted with version 6.1 (possibly the finest version ever put out, in my opinion; it was also the first and last version to be put out by Novell – under the “PerfectOffice” moniker – before they sold the business to Corel). Back then, I had the daily contrast of using MS Word 6.0 every day in high school to tell me: WordPerfect kicked the crap out of it. Long documents never lost their formatting, there were never any unexpected page overflows that kept switching all the time, graphics were easily positionable and formattable – basically WP provided desktop-publishing-strength page layout abilities which I used to create all manner of documents – whereas Word wasn’t able to position graphics reliably until around 2000 or so, and still can’t be relied on for anything resembling stable pagination.

The placement of commands in WordPerfect also made an incredible amount more sense than in Word – you want to change line spacing, go to Format => Line Spacing (Format => Paragraph in Word); you want to change margins, go to Format => Margins (File => Page Setup in Word); you want to add page numbers, go to Format => Page Numbering, where you can also easily elect to make a custom numbering format or to start numbering at the second page, starting with the number 4, and counting up by 2 on each page thereafter (don’t even ask about doing these things in Word – it would take another entire article just to explain it). And if in WordPerfect you ever see unusual formatting like hanging indents or other inexplicable stuff anywhere in your document, have no fear, just click View => Reveal Codes and you can delete every single formatting mark within the document, one at a time, in a very precise manner.

As the next editions of Word came out, they broke compatibility with previous versions without fixing any problems, and introduced incredibly annoying features such as auto-indentation and bulleting that never worked the way you wanted it and was impossible to get rid of (and of course let’s not forget about Clippy). If you ask me, all versions of Word up until 2000 were damn near unusable, and I pity the myriad cubical-dwellers who were forced to wrangle its squirming tentacles into doing what they wanted.

Microsoft also “forgot” to add a WordPerfect 6 import filter (a format that has stayed essentially the same from 1994 to this day) until the 2003 (!) version of their office suite, and even to this day they just can’t be bothered to provide an export filter. WordPerfect, on the other hand, has always provided the most recent possible Word import and export filters. Despite Microsoft’s underhanded attempts at cutting WordPerfect out of the market, WordPerfect just kept chugging along, content to be superior and develop a loyal user base, with later versions still opening the most complexly layed-out projects I made back in 6.1 with aplomb.

The end of the glory days

I happily used WordPerfect for years, but then eventually I switched to MS Office 2000, and then for a time I adopted OpenOffice full-time. Why, you may ask, did I ever leave the warm haven that was WordPerfect? Well, since those 1990s glory days of obvious feature-for-feature triumph, a few things have happened:

1. Word became the de facto standard, largely due to bundling deals, and partially due to biased PC Magazine editors giving it Editors Choice year after year. WP lived on only in law and government offices, but by this point today it’s pretty much dead in those segments too.

2. In response to 1, Corel made WP look and behave more and more like Word, which ultimately diluted its ease of use and consistency.

3. The apps other than WordPerfect that are included in WordPerfect Office lost the features race with their MS equivalents a long time ago. PowerPoint may not be great shakes compared to Keynote, but it still manages to outmaneuver Presentations by a long shot. Quattro Pro is pretty comfortable and easy to use, but if you need advanced charting features, Excel is the way to go. And don’t even ask about Paradox. Let’s just say that using it gives you a real feel for the “good old days” of relational databases, a la Access 2.0… Or more accurately, a la Paradox for DOS turned into a Windows program. I guess these things don’t matter if you’re one of those home users that got WordPerfect Office preinstalled on your Dell or HP (a minor triumph for Corel), but for those business users to which PC Magazine preaches, it does.

4. Word actually has gotten a lot better (which admittedly doesn’t say a whole lot), while WordPerfect just hasn’t really, beyond a somewhat nicer-looking interface with optional Word-mimicking mode and better .doc file conversion. Don’t get me wrong, if you compare WordPerfect X3 and Word 2003, it’s a pretty even match. But with the 2007 version of Office, in my opinion, MS really has a powerful contender on their hands, while I get the feeling that WP’s codebase is just so ancient that Corel would have trouble revamping it even if they wanted to. And if you ask me, WordPerfect could use a revamp – as it stands, it has got a lot of quirks, non-standard interface elements, little inexplicable bugs and obscure ways of configuring things, all of which sadly enough bring back memories of the kinds of frustrations I had using Word 6.0.

Still, at this point in time, I’m back to using WordPerfect because I still like using it better than Word (since I can accomplish things like page numbering far more easily than in Word). I’m also not using OpenOffice much, since its spell-checker isn’t as good, plus it’s exactly as difficult to use as Word (2003) and has as many problems with auto-formatting as Word ever did. But of course, the main reason I wanted WordPerfect on my computer in the first place is that I have such a large back catalog of WP-formatted files, which absolutely no other program, OpenOffice included, can open 100% reliably.

The format dilemma

I realize, though, that I am probably on a sinking ship regarding the WordPerfect file format. The aforementioned review’s talk about “formats now being more important than word processors” got me thinking about how I was in effect locked into the WordPerfect format. I want to reach the Zen state of application independence described in the article – I want to be able to read and edit my documents in whatever word processor I want! So I’ve decided to convert all of my WordPerfect files and preserve them in a more widely readable format. And believe it or not, that format isn’t ODF – it’s MS Word 97-2003.

Now before you go rush into the comments section to call me a sell-out, may I urge you to read a bit further. Let me just say that I am a practicalist. The MS Word 97-2003 format is the one format that pretty much all word-processing apps can reliably read and write to, and in many cases they can even be set up to save in this format by default. It’s a de facto standard. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly been a rough road getting to the level of compatibility we’re at right now, but we’re there, and it’s supported – by every single (mainstream OS-targeted) word processing program in development today.

When the day comes that I finally decide to move onto another word processor, be it OpenOffice, AbiWord, or Word 2007 (much as I hate to admit it, the UI junkie part of me is yearning to try it), I will never have to worry about compatibility… It will just be there. And that, to me, is more important than upholding a personal file-format ideology which, until ODF truly becomes fully supported everywhere, would just serve to make my life more complicated. So, just as I rip all my music to MP3 (despite the supposed advantages of AAC and WMA and the real advantages of OGG) because I want to avoid application/device lock-in, I’ll convert my documents to .doc format and avoid word-processor lock-in.

So that’s that. Until at least next year, when ODF really gets integrated everywhere, consider DOC the new MP3. You heard it here first. Now there’s one more point I want to bring up before I finish.

User interfaces still need help

The user interfaces of office programs have really suffered because of the factors leading up to this point in time: They came from disparate roots whose Windows versions sprung up near simultaneously (WP, Ami Pro, Word, and StarOffice), and thereafter the one with the worst interface actually won out in the market. The result is that there is a lack of sensible interface conventions in office programs. What I mean by this is that to this day we do not have any kind of consensus on where the user should look for line formatting, for page formatting, for headers, for borders, etc. This problem is relatively severe when compared to the established conventions that have developed in OS/DE-level GUIs, where despite the many differences between MacOS, Windows, Gnome and KDE, there are enough shared interface conventions across all of them that most users who have experience with one environment will quickly be able to figure out how to perform similar actions on another environment. For instance, actions such as changing the wallpaper, the look and feel, the mouse settings or the resolution almost always involve a “Control Panel” of sorts. The users know to go there, since it’s logical – if it’s a setting, it’s in there.

By contrast, where is the logic in setting margins by going into the File menu? Where is the logic in setting page numbers throughout the document by editing the header of a single page, and why must I create a custom page style simply to avoid putting a page number on the first page? There is absolutely no reason that I, who consider myself a fairly advanced computer user, should have to search through the online help just to figure out how to set page numbers. There is no reason page numbers should be non-trivial or take up more than five minutes of my time, period. And yet, in MS Office 2003 and OpenOffice 2.1, this is the case. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

This lack of sensible, standardized interface conventions is the result of MS winning the office wars. If WordPerfect had won, perhaps we would all be using the kind of intuitive interfaces found in WP6.1. Yet sadly, MS’s stranglehold on the market has negatively influenced other programs’ UIs to be less coherent and more idiosyncratic (because they have either created their own from-scratch UIs or embraced the chaos that is Office’s). And of course these competitors’ resultant poor UIs have only served to help Office reinforce its own entrenchment, and so the cycle has continued.

But the fact that MS has released as huge of a change as Office 2007 is a momentous occasion which calls for much celebration, because (if you look at it from an angle other than “MS just wants to hijack ODF, oh I hate them so much”) it has the potential to reinvigorate the stagnant, status quo office software scene. The result could be that the WordPerfect and OpenOffice developers finally reconsider their strategy of imitating Microsoft, and start reorganizing and improving their interfaces so they actually make more sense and are easier to use! The potential is there for a new renaissance in the refinement of office software UI. KOffice already took the first brave steps, but now Microsoft has officially thrown down the gauntlet! Who will step up to the challenge?

About the author:
Michael Klein is a 24-year-old student of computers, music, and life.

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