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Editor's Note: The Empire's New Clothes

Sep 23, 2005, 23:30 (22 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Faced with ever mounting pressure to get something new on the market, Microsoft is in the beta stages of Office 12.

And boy, are they in trouble.

As some of you may know, somewhere in between working on a small-town newspaper and writing books about Linux, I was the documentation manager for a local real estate investment trust. This is a fancy way of saying I was a technical writer.

Given that this company had their own in-house development team, the duties of training also fell to me. Since I was the one making sense of new apps on paper, the logic went, then I would be the one who could train other employees. This did not last long, as I was (and still am) historically short on patience. But, in my brief foray into the land o' IT training, I discovered two things.

  1. People hate change.
  2. People hate computers.

Okay, maybe number 2 is a little exaggerated. A little. Instead of "hate" I should have said "really have no clue about." If they did understand what was going on, they might not freak out as much when they encounter a new application, or even a new version of the same application they have been using for years.

The average computer user likes to do things by rote. Even office geniuses who know how to mail merge without any hint of confusion are usually doing things from memory: "Menu, submenu, this button, fill in that field..." You get the idea. But if the next version of said application has a new button, or a new field, or heaven forbid, a lack of buttons or fields, then be prepared to watch heads explode. Which leads back to statement 1.

You may think I am being a bit mean, and maybe I am. It's been a shaky week and I am spoiling for a good row. So when I saw the screenshots for new version of Microsoft Office, I clapped with glee. Here, then, is the beginning of Microsoft shooting itself in the foot. Again.

About 99% of what comes out of Redmond I disagree with, especially when it comes to Linux. But the one argument that I always felt held a little merit was the one used to explain why OpenOffice.org (and, indeed, open source apps) would not catch on. The change to a new office suite, the Borg reasoned, would involve a training hurdle that many employers would not want to pay for in time or money.

Based on my personal experience, I was always hard pressed to deny that line of reasoning, though I didn't think it would be as bad as Microsoft laid it out to be. They implied dozens of man-hours per worker. I figured two, three tops.

But now... now their own words are going to bite them on the butt. Because one look at Office 12 tells me that people are going resist upgrading to this new Office.

If you haven't seen the screenshots, I suggest you Google around for them. It's a pretty interface, reminiscent of OS X's Aqua. But, pretty or no, this interface is so radically different it will offer even hardened Office users a serious training/adjustment hurdle if they decide to move over to the new version. If I were an employer, why would that be at all attractive to me?

In fact, after Office 12 comes out, OpenOffice.org 2.0 will look more like the old Office than the new Office. And, when coupled with no cost and an open-standard format, I think employers are going to be strongly drawn away from Office to OpenOffice.org. And not in some nebulous future, either. But in the next fiscal cycle or two.

Sure, cynics might argue that this is what you would expect an editor of an open source focused publication to say. And I would agree. But this time, I can use Microsoft's own arguments because there is, for once, a big grain of truth in them.

Upgrading any application is a major pain in the you-know-where for those who are not hard-core geeks. In a business environment, people don't have time or the inclination to figure out how to perform the same tasks they always did with the old version. Better to stick with something they know or, if they do change applications, stick with something they are familiar with.

And, just to further toss Microsoft's words in their face, I recently read an interview with Steve Ballmer where he grudgingly admired open source developers because they were more in touch with their customers. Microsoft apparently has not applied that lesson yet, since Office 12's brand-new interface is getting many of the previews in the tech press to bandy about terms like "feature creep" (CNET) and "wait until 2007" (Gartner).

The simple truth is OpenOffice.org will be more familiar to users of Office than the new Office will be and it runs on more platforms. The OpenOffice.org developers have kept their eye on the ball and given customers what they really want.

And that is real innovation.