How Word X handles document corruption

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
May 3rd, 2004 • 12:16 am

Here’s a perfect example of what’s really wrong with Microsoft Word X (and probably other flavours of the product as well).

This morning, I received a document to translate. It arrived in my In mailbox as a “.doc” attachment, i.e. as a Word document. I saved it locally on my hard drive and attempted to open it with Word.

I got the spinning pizza of death.

I force-quit Word and relaunched it (as an application, without clicking on any document). Word launched and displayed the following dialog:

Corruption dialog

I pressed “Yes” and got some kind of plain text document, with some garbage code at the beginning and at the end of it, and then what looked like the actual body text of the document in between. But there was no formatting at all, just plain text. Because of the numerous tab characters in the document and the way the text flowed, I could tell that the document did have formatting in it, and that some of it was essential, such as automatic numbering for lists of items. In addition, there was no guarantee that this plain text file contained the entirety of the body text in the original document sent to me. I could phone the sender and ask him/her to tell me how many pages the document had, what the text at the beginning and the end was, etc. But without the formatting the page count was obviously not the same, and in addition the simple issue of tracking down the person who created the document would be a rather painful process.

So I did what I usually do in such a situation, and fired up MacLinkPlus Deluxe 14. The product sure has its flaws, but in my experience its word processor file filters are often able to work around whatever caused the document to become “corrupted” in the first place.

I dragged the corrupted document onto MacLinkPlus Deluxe’s main window, and the application recognized it as a “Word Windows 97, 2000, XP, 2003 document”.

I then asked MLPD to translate the document into a “Mac RTF” file. Sure enough, the conversion process ran smoothly, and I was able to open the resulting RTF file in Word X just fine, with all the formatting and everything.

The bottom-line? MacLinkPlus Deluxe, which is a third-party product sold by a rather small Mac developer and is not even designed for this purpose, is much better at handling Word’s own problems with document corruption than Word itself! Word gives the spinning pizza of death, with is just about the worst possible behaviour from a UI point of view. MLPD doesn’t even complain and produces a perfectly usable result, clearly proving the the document corruption itself is not some kind of huge mountain of unrecoverably mangled computer code.

By the way, the document in question is a simple 6-page, 1,500-word document with no pictures, no formatting, nothing fancy, just plain text with a certain amount of manual formatting (bold, italics, all caps, font sizes, etc.).

It is not hard, based on such evidence, to conclude that Microsoft’s MacBU developers are indeed, to a certain degree, incompetent. I am sorry, but if a small company such as DataViz is able to handle such problems just fine in a product that’s not even designed for that purpose, then surely Microsoft itself should be able to improve the way that Word handles the problem!

There is absolutely no excuse for this. Eliminating document corruption should be the #1 priority at Microsoft. Instead, their application is not even able to handle it gracefully — let alone avoid creating it in the first place. Shame.

6 Responses to “How Word X handles document corruption”

  1. ssp says:


    while I like reading your blog because it gives examples of how wrong things can go on the Mac and sharpens my sense for shortcomings, I must admit that there are two kinds of posts that I actively dislike. One kind of these are about MS Products – as you know, I think you’re wasting your time there. (The other are the football ones as I find football boring at best.)

    As you seem to do pretty rigorous categorising, I was wondering whether your (or any?) blogging software supports RSS feeds for arbitrary combinations of categories (or even better: all categories but a select few) – just like you can select things for the feeds iTMS provides.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I wish my blogging software did provide the ability to customize the RSS feed(s), but unfortunately it doesn’t. I was hoping this would be addressed in a future update, but now pMachine has come up with a different product altogether, which is much more expensive and would require a complete reconfiguration… Not something that I am going to have the time or money to do any time soon.

    So I am stuck with the current software, which only lets me provide a single RSS feed with no customization options. In any case, even if I were able to provide a RSS feed for my “Macintosh” category, it still wouldn’t address your problem with my MS posts :). I would have to subcategorize… and that raises all kinds of issues about posts that might belong to two or more different categories, etc. I don’t really feel like overdoing the compartmentalizing of my blogging output either.

    I really do my best to provide subject lines / blog entry titles that describe the contents pretty accurately. And I am quite sure that all my posts about Microsoft Word X contain the phrase “Word X” in their subject line, so it shouldn’t be too hard for you to avoid those posts.

  3. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre: I agree with your statements about the MacBU at MS. It is just not acceptable, given the resources of Microsoft, that Word v.X exhibits the many serious faults that you have documented. (ssp, I’m sorry, but we will never get MS to produce the software that its users deserve to receive for the price paid unless people like Pierre document the problems for the record.) I just don’t accept the fact that the MacBU people are not aware of the problems you have described. They just won’t or can’t fix them. It must be something to do with “opportunity cost” or something like that. :-)

    Of course, we are all going to have to pony up for the “Office 2004” update because we have to have Word in its latest state around to interact with the rest of the world. I’m really excited about all of the new features (sure….).

    To truly comprehend how bad Word v.X is, one must sample the alternative: a completely new word processor, written from the ground up on new technologies and not dependent on ancient code (e.g. WinWord 3). Go pay the guys at Redlex $29 and get Mellel. At least try the demo version so that you can marvel at the quality of their effort and the potential of the Cocoa platform. At its current state, Mellel can handle most of the academic word processing that I do, the typesetting is very good indeed, and the quality of experience (user interface and clarity of overall design) is breathtaking. For instance, observe the real-time update of a paragraph as the ruler bar controls are manipulated. See the excellent rendering of text and graphics during editing. Witness the speed of launch, the responsiveness of interaction with respect to the keyboard and mouse, and the faultless window updating. (By the way, Pierre, Mellel supports Unicode, has full support for a variety of languages, including right-to-left scripts, and you can certainly use filenames with more than 31 characters.) Then go use Word for an afternoon to fully comprehend the contrast in the user experience.

    No one should underestimate the importance of the nature of experience that the user encounters during the creative process. Every time I use Word, I can feel my karma being sucked away.

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    Warren: Right. Last time I checked, however, Mellel’s support for the Word document format was very limited — too limited in my situation. But I know what you mean. Nisus Writer Express looks promising as well, but it’s still in the process of getting some essential features.

    I always keep my eyes open, but I am also a realist. My employers/customers demand MS Word compatibility, and I have to be able to provide it to them transparently.

  5. Warren Beck says:

    Pierre: I agree with you–Word is still indispensable for jobs like yours involving document interchange. I depend similarly on Word on the Mac to deal with documents written by others at my University and in my research group. So that’s why we must continue to ask MS to improve Word.

    My point about Mellel in this context has to do with what Word could be if the MacBU were to start from scratch so as to obtain the feature set of Word using a truly Mac OS X-native code base. What they have done at this point is port the underlying WinWord architecture with jury-riggged wrappers that convert Windows processes and services more or less to the equivalent Mac ones. If the MacBU _really_ cared to produce the best possible product, Word on the Mac would be based on Cocoa with certain Carbon routines included in order to fill out the services that would be needed. Unfortunately, the MacBU isn’t going to take full advantage of the Mac OS X platform because it would require an investment of effort that, in their world view, isn’t worth the money. Mellel was written from the ground up using Cocoa–it could never be ported to Windows.

    (Well, if Apple were to release the so-called Yellow Box, the Cocoa apps could be more or less instantaneously ported to Windows–but this probably won’t happen because it would not necessarily help Apple’s bottom line as a hardware-focused business. We’ve had a similar conversation before when we discussed the iTMS and the essentially closed nature of the protected-AAC music-file format. It is not clear what Apple should do with respect to transferring its technologies to include the Windows platform.)

    For a user who is doing work on his own, Mellel is an excellent solution provided that it has the features needed for the job at hand. The developers continue to fill out the list of features. An important one that is expected fairly soon is a switch to a XML-based file format from the current binary format. The .doc (Word) interchange provided by Mellel uses the Panther-based .doc facilities that TextEdit also uses–this needs improvement. RTF input and output was improved radically in the v1.75 release. But at this point Mellel cannot serve as a replacement for Word in its role as a conduit. But for my own use, in writing research manuscripts and in writing grant proposals, etc., Mellel is just fine and the quality of its execution and interface has significantly improved the way I feel while writing. (Mellel is good enough that I just might be able to get over my bad feelings for Adobe for dropping FrameMaker on the Mac–but as long as Acrobat is as bad as it is, I still have my doubts about Adobe’s competence with respect to the Mac platform.)

  6. Pierre Igot says:

    When it comes to the so-called “Yellow Box”, I suspect that it is quite handy for Apple internally when it comes to porting their applications to Windows (although since iTunes is a Carbon application and not a Cocoa application, they probably still had a lot of work to do to port that particular application). As with the protected AAC file format, these are political/strategic issues in which Jobs is probably heavily involved, and our impact as lowly Mac users is probably quite limited :).

    I am not entirely convinced that a complete rewrite in Cocoa for MS Word is truly needed. Based on what I am reading, there is a fair amount of cross-pollination (so to speak) going on and Carbon applications can make use of Cocoa routines and vice versa. I believe that, more than a rewrite in Cocoa, we need a Word rewrite. In other words, regardless of whether Carbon or Cocoa is used, the core Word code itself needs to be rebuilt from scratch, because right now as an end user you can tell that it’s a complete mess. To take a simple example, character styles were added to Word without being properly integrated into the style formatting interface. The Styles menu in the Formatting Palette is an utterly unintuitive mix of paragrap styles and character styles. It’s horribly confusing.

    I can appreciate that people working in relative “isolation” don’t necessarily need full Word compatibility. However, in this day and age, being able to exchange electronic files is a pretty basic requirement for many people. In addition, there’s always a fear, when you go with a proprietary, closed file format created by a small company with limited resources, that you will not have the required support down the road (in say, 10 or 20 years). I am not sure it’s a realistic alternative for many people.

    As for Adobe, well, I can only agree with you regarding Acrobat. I use it, but I am not impressed. And I really wish someone would come up with a good tool for large structured documents.

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