Office 2004: Useless, inconsistent behaviour for Maximize button

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
May 1st, 2006 • 3:12 pm

If you ever stray from the norm, you just know that things like Microsoft’s software are going to punish you.

In this case, the norm is using only one screen, and straying away from the norm is daring to try and use Microsoft Word on a Macintosh computer running two monitors side by side in an “extended desktop” configuration.

If you have a Word document open on the main screen, i.e. the screen that also contains the Mac OS X menu bar, then when you click on the green “Maximize” button in the document window’s title bar, Word… moves the document window back to its previous state/position.

If, for example, you take a Word document window and resize it, and then you click on the green button, Word switches back to the window’s previous size. If you click on the green button a second time, Word reverts to the resized window. In other words, clicking on the green button toggles between the last two window sizes.

If, instead of resizing the window, you move it around on the main monitor, then clicking on the green button moves the window back to its previous position. Clicking on it again moves the window to the new position. In other words, in this case clicking on the green button toggles between the last two window positions.

If you both resize and move the window, then clicking on the green button toggles between the last two size/position combinations.

This is quite obviously a proprietary behaviour adopted by Microsoft that is quite inconsistent with the behaviour of the green button in other applications. Typically, the green button is meant to “maximize” the window size by making it show as much of the contents of the window as possible, but not more than that.

In the Finder, for example, if you have a window showing the contents of a folder in column view (with the enclosing structure displayed in the previous columns on the left), when you click on the green button, Mac OS X adjusts the size of the window so that it fits the contents of the window. If the window is too big and has empty columns on the right-hand size, then Mac OS X shrinks the window so that the right-most column is the last column that contains something.

In Microsoft Word, on the other hand, the behaviour of the green button does not care one bit about the size requirements of the actual contents of the window. Even if the content of your Word document window is too large to fit inside the window (meaning that you have to scroll horizontally to see parts hidden beyond the edges of the window), clicking on the green button does not change anything about this. It just moves and resizes the window based on the scheme described above.

Adopting a proprietary behaviour is one thing, though. Applying it inconsistently within one’s own application, however, is quite another. If you have a dual-monitor set-up, take a Word document window and move it to your secondary monitor (the one that does not contain the Mac OS X menu bar). Now click on the green “Maximize” button of the document window.

What does Word do? It resizes the document window to fill the entire screen! If your secondary monitor happens to be a 23″ LCD display, as it is in my case, this is an utterly stupid behaviour. On that monitor, even with a 150% zoom setting, typically a Word document with a US Letter page size in portrait orientation takes up at most one third of the width of the screen. Yet when I click on the green button, Word gleefully changes the window width to fill the entire width of the monitor, with acres of white space in the right margin!

Not only is it a completely useless behaviour (even on smaller secondary monitors), but on top of it it’s not even consistent with the behaviour of the green button when the Word document window is on the main monitor! The only thing that it is consistent with, as far as I can tell, is the behaviour of the green button in Excel 2004, where Microsoft pulls out the same wonderful trick and causes your spreadsheet to fill the entire screen.

When your main screen is a 30″ LCD display, this means that an Excel spreadsheet with the default column width ends up being 2560 pixels wide and displaying a staggering 36 columns of data.

In Excel 2004, at least, the behaviour is consistent across both the main display and the secondary display. In both cases, it fills out the entire screen. It’s utterly useless, but at least it’s consistent. But then trust Microsoft to introduce another twist. If you have more than one document window open in Excel 2004 at the same time, and you click on the green button in the forefront document window, which results in one gigantic window, and then you close that gigantic window, Excel switches the focus to the next available document window (as expected), but also resizes that window to fill the entire screen!


In the case of Word, obviously a far more useful behaviour would have been to adjust the window size so that it displays the full width of the page, and then to adjust the window height in order to display as much of the document as possible vertically. But that would have been a rather smart thing to do, and unfortunately smart and Microsoft very rarely end up being used in the same sentence (except this one, of course).

Instead, we have this weird behaviour, which manages to combine uselessness and inconsistency, thereby providing an unlimited supply of daily frustration for Mac users with a dual-monitor set-up.

Another long-standing bug with Word document windows on a secondary monitor is that the split bar becomes invisible while you move it up or down—again, a quite remarkably effective way to deliver daily frustration. This is still not fixed in Word 2004, and probably won’t be fixed until someone at Microsoft actually bothers to try and use Word with a dual-monitor set-up, which obviously no one there has ever managed to do. Like I said, that’s what you get when you dare to stray away from the established norm. (Never mind that dual-monitor set-ups are fully supported by Mac OS X itself. This is Microsoft that we are talking about. They don’t have to comply with the established standards of the underlying operating system. That would be too user-friendly.)

2 Responses to “Office 2004: Useless, inconsistent behaviour for Maximize button”

  1. Mike Lauder says:

    Don’t get me started on window resizing in Microsoft Office, or almost any other app for that matter!

    First off, your right, the resizing of windows in Office is a total mess, but really not much worse than the situation Apple has got themselves into. There is no consistency between applications, Mail maximises, Finder tries to optimise, Preview does something totally strange. Apple need to come up with a consistent system whether that be maximising everything, optimising everything, or the option of both.

    About optimising, I’d have this to say: It works well when there isn’t very much content in a window, which is what made it work so well in the Classic Finder, but to me it doesn’t work so well when there is a long list of stuff to be displayed – you just end up with a very tall window. Obviously, not liking very long windows is just a personal thing but many apps these days are maximising because the optimise feature just doesn’t make sense. Another thing to note is that it’s very hard to maximise a window by hand but not that hard to ‘optimise’ it by hand. I know which I’d rather have the computer do for me.

    I do understand that for some things there is no need to maximise, especially if you’ve got a large monitor (I’m working with a 20 inch widescreen attached to a PowerBook), but for many instances it makes life so much easier if you can just make the application take up the whole screen. Working in Aperture is a case in point.

    I suspect that Apple may actually drop the optimise feature. Just have a look at how many of their own applications maximise these days; Mail, iPhoto, Grapher, Dictionary, Help Viewer, Sherlock, Text Edit, Font Book, Automator, iCal, and all of the pro apps.

    As far as Office is concerned and in particular, Word, I think that if they want to keep the optimise feature (will they even do anything?) it should work like it does in Photoshop – only making the window big enough to view the document at the selected magnification, without extending beyond the edges of the floating palettes. Talking of floating palettes, why does the formatting palette change width depending on which parts are active? It always ends up covering the scroll bar. Pretty daft, if you ask me.

    Right that’s enough of me. I don’t have any real solutions, just a bunch of stuff that needs to be considered. One thing’s for sure, Apple needs to take better control of windows at the operating system level rather that letting the situation develop where Microsoft can implement something proprietary.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    At the same time you are saying that Apple too is guilty of inconsistency and you’re saying that they are using the green button to maximize (i.e. fill the entire screen) in many of their applications. Sounds pretty consistent to me :).

    Unfortunately, I fail to see what the use is of a Help Viewer window that fills out my entire 30″ screen. There’s not a single help page out there that is designed to make use of all that space. Even those help pages that do manage to fill out the whole screen end up being unreadable, because having ultra-wide paragraphs of text make absolutely no sense. There is a reason why the printed page is usually taller than it is wide. The human eye needs to be able to go from the end of one line to the beginning of the next one without losing its way in the process.

    In other words, there are far too many situations (many of them involving text) where filling the entire screen is utterly useless—and this is something that will only get worse as screens get bigger and bigger and with a finer resolution.

    I agree with you that Apple needs to sort out this situation—although the most important thing here, in my opinion, is to take the specific requirements of the application into account. For text-based applications, there is most definitely a need to optimize rather than maximize. For column- or list-based applications, it all depends on what the list consists of.

    I feel that a modern computer should definitely be smart enough to guess that maximizing a Help Viewer window to fill out an entire 30″ screen makes no sense. It should have an upper limit for the width of the window (proportional to the font size, of course), and not go beyond that.

    There are situations where you might not want your windows to be too long either, but again this is a behaviour that could be adapted depending on the actual contents of the document. If there is nothing further down in the document to scroll down to, then it makes no sense to make the window taller.

    The fact remains that, of all the various behaviours triggered by the Maximize buttons in OS X applications, the behaviours in Microsoft Word are among the most inconsistent and useless.

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