2012-01-06

Why I do not use Microsoft Word

By saying in various occasions, often in passing, that I do not use Microsoft Word, I have almost always been successful in surprising its many (often blind) users, including many friends, colleagues and students of mine, as if it never occurred to them that there are alternatives. Almost all of them ask me then what is wrong with Word. I generally answer only that it has a number of problems, but I do not get into their technical details.

I have to emphasize that this is not Microsoft bashing. Actually, I like Microsoft Windows, especially since Windows 2000, as an operating system with the best multilingual support, and have been using it since Windows 3.1. I also used to purchase and use various versions of Microsoft Word in English, Hebrew and Japanese editions for many years, until I became increasingly aware of its problems, stopped using it altogether and switched to what I consider better alternatives. Although I have liberated myself from the "yoke" of Word, I still suffer from the problems it causes as I still receive Word documents from others constantly. So I have decided to explain in detail why I do not use Microsoft Word and what are its problems, hoping that at least some of my friends, colleagues and students who happen to follow this blog may become at least aware of its problems.

When one talks about Word and its problems, one must distinguish between three things: 1) problems of word processors in general, 2) problems of Word as a word processor in particular, 3) problems of many formats used by Word. I will explain these problems in the reverse order.

The main reason why I have stopped using Word is its problematic formats. Software programs come and go. You can never know whether Word will follow the same fate. But we have to future-proof our documents. So the "best" way to "bury" them so that we may not be able to read or even open them in the future is to save them in a proprietary format such as Word formats. It is true that the latest format of Word as of now (docx is its file extension) as an international standard approved by ECMA International, but it is not as open and crossplatform as Open Document Format used by LibreOffice Writer and many other open source crossplatform word processors. I am sorry that few users of Word seem to be aware of this problem. Although these alternative programs can read Word documents, their compatibility is not perfect. Someone who sends Word documents to others without their prior concent is actually depriving them of their right to choose which word processor or any other text authoring tool to use and forcing them to use a specific commercial software program instead. This is in my opinion nothing but sheer violence!

The second reason concerns Word as a software program. It has becoming more and more bloated, especially with the introduction of the so-called "ribbon interface". On the one hand, it offers its users "fancy" functions, but on the other, it conceals a number of important functions of word processing, including use of the so-called "styles", and discourages its users from using them. Of all the Word documents I have received by email here in Israel in the past seven years, only one did use "styles" correctly, and I received it today (not from myself but a very famous scholar in Jewish studies living in Jerusalem) while writing this very blog entry! Purely from the viewpoint of usability, Word has become bloatware. I feel really sorry for people who waste their precious time struggling with this frustrating interface.

The third reason is not specific to Word in particular but is common to word processors in general. As I wrote above, few users of Word or any other word processor seem to fully understand what word processing is all about. The fact that they do not use "styles" is an eloquent proof for this. If the majority of people fail to use word processors as they are meant to be used but use them as electronic typewriters instead, its very design must be fundamentally flawed. They only encourage the illusion of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), which contradicts the very foundation of word processors, which are supposed to be WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) tools.

The biggest mistake many average users of computers make is that word processors in general and Microsoft Word in particular are their first text authoring tools. They should first be introduced to text editors and be taught how to use them, especially together with regular expressions, concentrating on the manipulation of text and its content without being distracted how it should appear physically. I am so sorry that so many people, including most of my friends, colleagues and students have not been initiated into the world of text editors and regular expressions. They are so efficient and "beautiful"! I cannot imagine my (computing) life without them.