Rick Schaut on the switch to Intel: Same old excuses

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
March 25th, 2006 • 4:39 pm

Following Adobe’s Scott Byer, Mac BU developer Rick Schaut has posted a blog entry about the switch to Intel-based Macs and what it means for Microsoft’s Mac software division (the Mac Business Unit or “Mac BU”).

I am afraid it’s back to the same old excuses about Microsoft Office consisting of millions of lines of complex code that need to be ported, blah blah blah. What this essentially means for Mac users is that, in order to get a native version of Microsoft Office for Intel-based Macs, they’ll have to buy an expensive upgrade (but we already knew that).

Also, more importantly, it means that the next version of Office will have very few new features and will also probably contain no significant changes when it comes to the cornucopia of bugs and flaws that plague the current version of the product.

What is essentially going to happen is that Microsoft’s Mac BU is going to devote its energies to porting millions of lines of flawed code without taking the opportunity to make any major improvements.

It was the exact same story with Microsoft Office v. X. The product was essentially a carbon copy of Microsoft Office 2001. The only difference is that it was Mac OS X-native. Microsoft charged the full upgrade price for this, as if it were the customers’ fault that the product was such a beast and was so complicated to port.

On top of it, Office v. X was marred by major new flaws, including very poor performance levels that haven’t improved one bit in the past five years. Even with an ultra fast G5 Quad, I still get these very annoying stalls in Word while typing or editing my documents.

The bottom-line is that Microsoft’s Office code is complicated to port because it’s not well written in the first place. You don’t need to be a developer to realize this. Based on what the user experience is for us, the code must be a complete mess.

Just look at the way the commands are named and organized “internally” when you look at them via the “Customize…” dialog box. It’s a disaster. Some commands have a name that includes the name of the “category” that they belong to (e.g. “TableInsertRow”), whereas other commands that belong to the same category have a name that doesn’t include the category (e.g. “NextCell,” which, as the description says, moves to the next table cell—why isn’t it called “TableNextCell” then?). And in most cases, these commands are not even listed when you select a specific category of commands (which only contains a seemingly arbitrary subset of commands from that category).

And you don’t need to go through the “Customize…” dialog box to see the mess. For example, the “Sort…” command is under the “Table” menu heading even though it’s a command that can also be used to sort paragraphs of text outside a table. It’s only taken Microsoft 12 versions of Office to figure out that they probably should move that command out of the “Table” menu.

Another example is the application’s “Preferences…” dialog box, which you cannot bring up if no document window is open, even if the Word application itself is running. Why? Because that “Preferences…” dialog box, contrary to what should be the standard architecture in a Mac OS X application, actually contains some document-specific settings. So of course it needs to have a document window open in order to be able to show these settings, even though it’s a command that appears under the application menu and should only contain application-wide preference settings. And if you want to know exactly which preference settings in Word’s “Preferences…” dialog box are actually document-specific settings, well, good luck, because they are all over the place and there is nothing that distinguishes them from application-wide settings in the user interface.

These are just a few examples of the complete mess that Word visibly is for the ordinary Mac user. Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine that an application that is so messy on the outside can actually be a model of cleanliness and organization on the inside, i.e. in its code.

The only obvious conclusion, based on the visible mess and on the extremely poor performance levels, is that Microsoft’s Office code is a complete and utter mess internally. So obviously it’s going to take a lot of work and testing to port it to a new architecture.

But is that the users’ fault? Is it the users’ fault if, year after year, Microsoft has consistently focused on piling on new features that nobody will use and that will slow down the application even further instead of actually trying to streamline and optimize the existing code and the existing feature set? Is it the users’ fault if Microsoft has created a software monster with a legacy of inextricable code that becomes a logistical nightmare when it needs to be updated to work properly in an updated computing environment?

It’s not like Microsoft has the excuse of not knowing that Apple was going to switch to Intel. As a company whose flagship product is an operating system, they should know as well as anybody else that, in the computing world, things are constantly evolving and you need to try your best to create code that is easy to manage and update. They have had more than enough time to do that. But, due to a lack of competition, they have had no real incentive to do so, because they essentially have a captive clientele that will have to pay up and smile regardless of how badly they manage things.

As for Adobe, well, I am afraid it’s pretty much the same story. In recent years, Adobe has clearly become another Microsoft-like software juggernaut. The performance levels of Adobe Creative Suite 2 are horrible. The interfaces have become messier and messier. The free updates fix very little, and if you want bug fixes, you usually have to buy the next version at a premium price.

It’s just the way it works in today’s world with today’s major software developers. They have become too big for their own good, and they are effectively slowing down innovation and productivity improvements for end users. Think about it: Back in, say, 1990, would you really have thought that in 2006, we would have a version of Word that is essentially slower than Word was in 1990—given the enormous performance improvements of the underlying hardware?

Yet that is exactly what has happened. Applications such as Word 2004 and Photoshop CS2 are unbelievably slow, even on a G5 Quad with 4 GB of RAM (I speak from personal experience), and there is really no justification for it, other than the fact that the lack of competition means that software giants such as Microsoft and Adobe have been allowed to avoid taking the necessary measures to ensure that their customers would actually benefit from hardware improvements over the years and see significant progress in the levels of performance and usability of their software products.

This is simply not happening these days. If you want real innovation and substantial improvements, you have to look at small software developers. It took only a couple of months for Bare Bones Software to come up with an Intel-native version of BBEdit free of charge for its users. It’s going to take more than a year for Microsoft and Adobe, and they are going to charge a premium for it.

Sure, Word might be a bit more complex than BBEdit. But not that much! And it would be significantly less complex if it didn’t have all these features that nobody uses either because they are useless or because they are so poorly implemented that no one can figure out how they work!

Again, my question is: How on earth is all this the users’ fault? These are just lame excuses that major developers like Microsoft and Adobe are coming up with in order to justify their own inertia and lack of investment in innovation and improvements that would actually be beneficial to end users.

It really is a sad, sad situation that we have where these companies have a de facto monopoly on essential software products that so many people are forced to use in their daily work. And I am afraid I just don’t see the situation changing any time soon. Apple could shake things up quite a bit if they were to become really serious about products such as Pages and Keynote and invest properly in their on-going development. But as far as one can tell, these products is still only half-hearted attempts to try and upset the established order.

We badly need a real software revolution!

3 Responses to “Rick Schaut on the switch to Intel: Same old excuses”

  1. odysseus says:


    I like your blog and I generally agree with your criticism of Office products. But you’re wrong when you write, “What is essentially going to happen is that Microsoft’s Mac BU is going to devote its energies to porting millions of lines of flawed code without taking the opportunity to make any major improvements.”

    I don’t know if you’ve been following all the news about Office 12, but it definitely will have major improvements.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    I haven’t followed the Office 12 news too closely, simply because there is no indication of what, if anything, of this new version will make it to the (still unnamed) Mac version. But what I have seen on this blog hasn’t been particular impressive.

  3. danridley says:

    As a consultant, I’ve had several companies who are defining their Microsoft software purchasing strategy over the next several years around avoiding Office 12.

    A handful of the new features are interesting (Excel’s ability to highlight the high and low numbers in a set, for example). However, the new UI looks like a train wreck. I’ve sat down with some users with the beta, and even for people who aren’t highly resistant to change, the amount of user hostility the new UI generates is incredible.

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