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Why software suites suck PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jem Matzan   
Tuesday, 25 October 2005

With the release of StarOffice 8 and OpenOffice.org, and the rumors about MS Office 12, office suites are making their rounds in the press again. Microsoft's office suite is certainly the most popular on Windows, but there are competing suites from Corel and IBM. On GNU/Linux we have KOffice, GNOME Office, OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and SoftMaker's nascent office package. But no matter if they are free or proprietary, expensive or cheap, and regardless of what platforms they run on, the one thing that all software suites have in common is that they suck.

Don't get me wrong -- some suites contain very useful software. It's not that everything in each suite sucks, it's that the suite as a whole fails to be everything that it promises. Programs like word processors, spreadsheets, and drawing programs were never designed to be integrated with one another. There is a general feeling that, instead of using interconnected programs, you're using different facades of an enormous monster of an application that does everything poorly and nothing perfectly. An office suite is a gigantic, fully-loaded Swiss Army knife, when all you really need is a pocket knife and a screw driver. Each new release adds more features to the package, making the whole thing a little more confusing to navigate and difficult to use. I don't know about you, but I have a tool box filled with tools that are each designed for a single purpose -- and they do that single thing very well. If I had to replace them with an all-in-one tool I'd be pretty frustrated, to say the least. Why can't software developers take the same approach with software?

Word processors for non-writers

Being that word processors exist to aid in writing, you'd figure that they'd be geared toward writers, or at least people who write letters occasionally. Looking at my current favored word processor, StarOffice Writer version 8, I see a button bar and menu structure geared toward every imaginable purpose: making fliers; inserting graphics and tables for presentation hand-outs; macro recording for executing complex formatting functions; and oh, yeah -- writing letters and books and stuff. I also see totally superfluous buttons that I can't imagine ever using: there's a spell check button, but it only checks one word at a time in a document and shows a mere one sentence for context. Considering how many words the built-in dictionary does not know, it's far easier to select the button next to it, which checks spelling as you type and underlines misspelled or unrecognized words with a squiggly red line. One glance at a document and you know if you have any errors in spelling. Why would I ever use the spell check button when I have that feature turned on all the time? Copy, paste, and cut? Why would I need buttons for those things? They're in the Edit menu already, and have universal shortcut keys that almost every program in the universe adheres to.

How about a word processor that is made for writing -- wouldn't that be something? As a professional writer, I can't remember the last time I needed to insert a table into a document, or draw vector graphics in a manuscript, or change the background color, or a lot of other things that Writer 8 does.

Secondly, I look at StarOffice Writer -- and OpenOffice.org Writer, and TextMaker, and... well, pretty much anything else except WordPerfect 12 -- and see Microsoft Word's interface layout. I don't want to see Microsoft Word. If I wanted to use Word, I'd install it through CrossOver Office. Show me a good word processor with a sensibly designed interface that is as much unlike MS Word as possible and I'll show you a customer.

I'm getting desperate for a word processor made for writing -- letters, articles, books, essays, and that sort of thing. I don't want to design banners, fliers, brochures, or hand-outs. If I need to do those things, I'll use a desktop publishing program like Scribus. I don't need to draw in my document; I have The GIMP and Inkscape for drawing. Please, somebody do for OpenOffice.org what Firefox did for Mozilla, and cut down Writer into something that resembles its name. If people really need to do all of that extra stuff, maybe it should be in its own separate desktop publishing program instead of jammed into a word processor.

Spreadsheet abuse

Spreadsheets were originally designed to organize and analyze small amounts of data. Later they got the ability to produce charts and graphs to further assist with that purpose. But over the years, I don't think I've seen one person actually use a spreadsheet for organizing or analyzing data. Well okay, I did use it once -- I recorded benchmark numbers from several motherboards using a standard video card, CPU, RAM, and software configuration to attempt to gauge the effect that motherboard technology had on 3D rendering performance. Using Excel (later Calc, when I switched to GNU/Linux) allowed me to easily enter, track, and chart that data. In fact I can't think of another kind of program that could do that better than a spreadsheet.

That's an isolated case. Spreadsheet abuse is rampant, and it's a respecter of no one. The mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor alike use spreadsheet programs for unspeakable purposes. To program universal remote control units; as a home address book; or in production as an employee time card tracker; an unordered price list for a wholesale vendor; or to keep production financial data for a successful small business. The guy who used Excel for his mission-critical financial data was truly amazing; he was coming close to Excel's 65536 row limit and asked me if I knew of a spreadsheet that could support more rows. In a low, even tone, I told him that a spreadsheet is not a database, and that he should seek professional help immediately (with migrating his data to a production database and a sensible frontend, that is).

Presentation software: the harbinger of a useless business meeting

Show me a PowerPoint presentation and I'll show you a useless company meeting. Electronic slide shows attempt to distract a bored audience where the meat of a presentation would ordinarily entertain them. No meat? Give them more sounds, animations, and transition effects. In the old days, speakers used to keep their notes to themselves; now, for some reason, they want to show them to the audience with fancy graphics. It's as though they secretly know that their presentation sucks, so the presenter tries to subconsciously make up for it with a spiffy slide show. It just goes to prove the stage adage that a big smile and jazz hands can make up for bad dancing.

The uselessness of a meeting is directly proportional to the complexity of the PowerPoint presentation. If you want to quote me on that in the future, mark it down as Jem's Law.

Integrate this

In the dark days before I switched to GNU/Linux, I actually bought a legal standalone copy of Microsoft Outlook. I already had WordPerfect 10 and didn't need or want Microsoft Word on my machine -- I hate Word.

So I installed Outlook XP and found out that there were three major problems with it: I could not receive attachments in email, my outgoing messages were limited to plain text, and no spell checker was available. It turns out that Microsoft, ever security-minded, decided to disable the ability to accept file attachments in email messages. Fortunately a Google search turned up a little tool to re-enable that functionality. The spell checker and plain text email problem was due to the fact that I did not have Word installed on my machine. Word supposedly provided the functionality necessary for Outlook to function as I had originally expected it to -- or perhaps the mere presence of Word on the same machine would unlock and enable more features in Outlook. Regardless of the cause, Outlook XP was not really designed to be used standalone, even though it was sold that way.

Sometimes programs don't have enough functionality, instead relying on "integration" to cover for missing features. I once had Macromedia Studio MX, and used it to create really annoying Web sites. I've recovered from those terrible habits and now only use hand-coded XHTML/CSS or a free software content management system for all of my sites. But when you don't understand enough about Web design and development to make anything worthwhile by hand, you have to rely on WYSIWYG tools to get the job done. I spent most of my time trying to make things look "just right" without any regard to the code behind the scenes, which ultimately made things worse. The second biggest time waster I experienced was trying to figure out which program I needed for each specific task. Flash could do vector drawings, but it couldn't do dotted lines. For those, you had to go to Freehand. But then I'd get started in Freehand and need to save to a raster format, but I couldn't do that because Freehand doesn't work with raster graphics. So then, I guess, you have to hop over to Fireworks, which in turn doesn't do vector graphics. It was an endless maze of software, and I could not understand why there had to be three programs to do the work of one. I just needed all of the drawing and graphics tools in one program.

Software integration is a pain in the butt. Not only does it cost more initially, but it also costs more to upgrade. If I actually need two programs to make one of them work, or three programs to accomplish a task that one should be able to do by itself, that looks to me like a clever way to charge more to get what I really want out of a single program. No one wants that... except, of course, proprietary software companies.

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Copyright 2005 Jem Matzan.

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