Microsoft Word 2004 in the real world: Slow, unreliable, crappy

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
August 8th, 2006 • 11:04 am

I have been quite busy in the past couple of weeks with family stuff and with major translation work.

The major translation work involved a couple of long English-language documents that were provided to me in Microsoft Word format. Since these documents involved table-based layouts, lots of manual formatting, and automatic tables of contents, and since the client expected the French translations to be provided in the same format, with the same layout, tables of contents, etc., I had no choice but to use Microsoft Word 2004 for the translation work.

Whenever there’s little document formatting involved, I actually work in Pages and just export my Pages document as a Word document when I am finished. If there is little page layout or manual formatting involved, I can usually be reasonably sure that the client won’t notice the difference, i.e. won’t notice that I didn’t actually use Word to produce my translation. In this case, however, there were just too many risks involved. When a Word document is somewhat complex and badly formatted to begin with, converting it into a Pages document and then exporting the Pages document as a Word document at the end of the process is almost certain to generate undesirable formatting issues.

And since all the Word documents that I receive from clients are badly formatted, there is just no hope… Sometimes I really do feel like I am the only one in the world who actually uses paragraph and character styles and tables etc. more or less “properly” in Word. I simply have never seen a Word document produced by a client that didn’t have loads of bad manual formatting. What does that tell you about the actual usability of Word’s “proper” formatting features?

Anyway, in this particular case, I really did have no option but to use Word 2004—and it was, once again, atrociously painful. After all these years, I really still find it quite unbelievable that we are forced to use such a crappy piece of software. Here is just a small sample of the major issues that I encountered while trying to work on these two major documents that I had to translate:

  • Constant crashes. Word 2004 is pretty much the only Mac OS X application I use on a regular basis that is so unreliable and crashes so easily. In this particular case, I frequently had to search specific phrases taken from the English original (in Word) in my on-line terminology database or on various bilingual Canadian government web sites. So I would typically select a phrase in the Word document, copy it to the clipboard with command-C, then switch to Safari and paste the contents of the clipboard in a search field. And typically, Word would actually crash in the background at the same time I was pasting the phrase in Safari. Word 2004 is the only Mac OS X application I know that is even capable of crashing while it is in the background doing nothing! I don’t know what the problem is, but there is clearly a problem with the way Word interacts with Mac OS X’s built-in copy/paste feature, a.k.a. the clipboard. It’s probably some kind of problem that Microsoft is blaming Apple for, and Apple is not doing anything about because it only affects Microsoft Word. Frankly, I don’t give a hoot. From the end user’s point of view, it happens with Microsoft Word, and it only happens with Microsoft Word. So Microsoft is quite clearly the culprit here. If they can’t be bothered to work around such problems for the sake of application stability for the end user and keep blaming Apple instead, then it’s their problem. Needless to say, this constant crashing was a royal pain in the neck. I am a compulsive document saver, which means that I press command-S all the time, and so I would only typically lose 30 seconds or one minute of work, but it was still a royal pain to have to reopen all the document windows that I had open at the time of the crash and scroll back down to the appropriate locations in those windows. (Word doesn’t remember where your cursor was at the time of the last document save, of course.)
  • Unwanted stuff in clipboard. Another source of constant annoyance when copying some text in the Word document and pasting it in a search field in Safari was that, whenever the text in question was part of a Word document paragraph that used some kind of bullet or automatic list numbering, Word would automatically include the automatic number or bullet when pasting the contents of the clipboard in the search field in Safari. In other words, if the text in the Word document was something like “1. internal audit,” with the “1.” being inserted automatically by Word as part of a automatic numbered list, when selecting “internal audit” in the Word document and then switching to Safari and pasting the contents of the clipboard into a search field, Mac OS X would actually insert “1. internal audit” in the search field, even if I never meant to copy and paste the number along with the text! Needless to say, when you are inserting the text in a search field, you do not want that automatic number at the beginning of the text to search for! Of course, I would constantly forget this and automatically paste my copied text and hit Return to start the search, only to get a list of completely unrelated search results starting with “1.,” because the web site was treating the number as part of the search string! Extremely annoying, and impossible to get used to, because there is nothing when you select and copy your text in Word that indicates that you are copying the automatic number at the same time (which is not visibly part of the selection).
  • Scroll wheel in tables. As indicated above, the Word documents I had to work with made heavy use of tables for page layout. That meant that many pages of the documents consisted of large table cells with multiple paragraphs of text in each cell. For some reason, this makes it almost impossible to use your mouse’s scroll wheel to scroll up and down a document in Word. Even on a very fast machine such as my G5 Quad, Word 2004 suffers from these very annoying stalls where there is a delay of several seconds between a user action (a mouse click, a mouse scroll, a keyboard shortcut) and Word’s actual response on screen. Well, when using the scroll wheel to scroll up or down a Word document consisting of large tables with big cells filled with text, the stalls become even worse. You can actually scroll your mouse wheel, stop scrolling, and then watch your Word document on the screen for 10 seconds with nothing happening. Word stays completely paralyzed. It only starts moving again when you do something else, like press a key on the keyboard. And of course when it finally does start moving, it does do the scrolling that it was supposed to do 10 seconds before—even though at that time you really thought that it hadn’t registered the user action at all, and so you had actually repeated the action several times (over-corrected) or tried scrolling using the scroll bar instead. So Word ends up jumping all over the place, and you end up completely losing track of where you were and where you wanted to go in your document. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I have tried all kinds of tactics over the years to try and eliminate these stalls. It’s impossible. As soon as you get a document that is a bit large and contains tables, Word becomes completely unpredictable, and you keep getting these stalls all the time. And it’s not like Word is busy doing other stuff. It’s not doing anything at all. It’s just paralyzed, for absolutely no reason other than the incompetence of Microsoft’s software engineers. (There is no other possible explanation for this. I don’t believe for one second that Microsoft’s engineers are unable to reproduce these stalls in-house. If they aren’t able to reproduce them, then it’s in their testing procedures that they are incompetent, which amounts to the same thing.)
  • Useless Find Next. As a translator, I am constantly searching for occurrences of certain phrases in my documents. So I am constantly using the “Find/Replace” dialog and the “Find Next” button/command. The “Find Next” command is supposed to jump from one occurrence of the found phrase to the next one, and to not only select the next occurrence, but also scroll down the document so that the section of the document that contains the occurrence becomes visible in the document window. Well, if your document contains large tables and the occurrences happen to be somewhere inside the cells of those large tables, you are completely screwed. Word does jump to the next occurrence, but completely fails to scroll down the document properly. It does scroll down, but to the wrong location, and ends up showing you a portion of the document that is completely irrelevant. And you cannot even correct this problem by pressing a cursor key or something to force Word to jump to the appropriate location. In normal Word documents, usually moving the cursor when it’s in a section of the document that is not visible in the document window forces Word to scroll up/down to that section and make the cursor visible in the window. But in tables, this completely fails too. So in effect, after a “Find Next” command, Word does select the next occurrence, but you cannot see it! This is completely infuriating and renders the “Find Next” command next to useless. I actually discovered later on that this problem only seems to occur in normal view mode, and that things seem to work properly when in page layout view mode—but the page layout view mode has its own problems, including even more sluggishness and longer stalls. So it’s essentially a no-win situation.
  • Screwed-up document scrolling. It gets even worse. In one of the documents I had, with large tables filled with paragraphs of text, scrolling with the mouse wheel would actually fail altogether when reaching approximately the middle of the document. Instead of continuing to scroll down smoothly page by page, Word would simply jump directly to the end of the document. In other words, I was completely unable to scroll down the second half of the document with the wheel. I was forced to use the scroll bar instead. What caused this? I have no idea. Probably some specific problem in the Word document in question (since it didn’t occur with other documents). But there was nothing that I could do about it, since I had to work with that document! And when you think about how essential document scrolling is when editing/working on a document, you can easily imagine how frustrating all these problems with scrolling were.
  • Document corruption. Finally, for good measure, Word 2004 managed to throw some document corruption in the mix. All of a sudden, while I was working on that document, the last few paragraphs of it became completely screwed, with the normal characters replaced by a whole series of “ÿ” characters. I have no idea where this came from. I tried scrolling up/down the document to force Word to “refresh” the display. It didn’t help. I tried to put my cursor in the middle of these “ÿ” characters and edit the text. It didn’t clear the problem. Fortunately, after I closed the document altogether and opened it again, the problem was gone, so it wasn’t a permanent kind of corruption, and my document was safe. But I can tell you that it did absolutely nothing to reassure me that Word wasn’t capable of doing a number on my document at any time while I was working on it and turning into an unusable mush of garbled text. So I did even more backups of my work-in-progress on various volumes than I usually do when forced to work with Word. Here again, Word is the only Mac OS X application that I know where such “glitches” even occur. Even if this one was ultimately harmless, it was yet another illustration of how unreliable this application is as a tool used by real workers trying to do real work in the real world with their computer.

I simply do not know of any other application that is so frighteningly unreliable and unusable for the simplest of tasks. (How complex is document scrolling?) There is no excuse for such bad software engineering. But of course, with the monopoly that Microsoft enjoys, we have no choice but to try and use their crappy software in the real world for real work. And there is absolutely no indication that the situation will change any time soon. Microsoft is still completely unable to even process user complaints, let alone do something about them. Apple’s Pages is a decent product, even if it has its own problems. But in a situation such as the one described above, it is not an option. There are just too many things that can go wrong in the process of converting a badly formatted document from Word format to Pages format and back again.

So we’re stuck, and all we can do is vent, like I am doing here. Venting doesn’t change anything to the situation, but sometimes it’s simply the only way to release the build-up of steam inside one’s head. I hate Microsoft Word. I simply hate it for the way that it turns what could and should be an enjoyable computing experience with a powerful machine powered by a smooth operating system into a nightmare of unresponsiveness, crashes, and overall uselessness.

5 Responses to “Microsoft Word 2004 in the real world: Slow, unreliable, crappy”

  1. Julik says:

    And I will kill you if you even say a word about Proofing Tools for the mac (I maen, availability thereof).
    Really, Pierre, they (MacBU) make a product that sucks, and your endless venting just reminds me abot it all the time. And recently one of the things they decided to detroy is VBA, in the whole Office – which means that not a single macro-driven Excel spreadsheet for doing calculations will work.

  2. AlanY says:

    Pierre, your comments about most of your clients not using styles in their documents are very interesting. One thing I’ve always wished for is a mode in Word where the *only* formatting available is using styles; all the other formatting options, menu items, and buttons get turned off. This would be a major boon for technical writers and collaboration with people, since you could effectively force everyone in the group working on the document to use styles, and moreover, to use a consistent set of styles. I’d use this mode all the time for my personal documents. (My set of personal Word styles hasn’t changed much in at least four years, and I use styles exclusively for markup.)

    I have been experimenting with LaTeX recently, trying to decide whether it’s worth using on a trial basis for a few projects, since really all I need in a word processing UI is a straightforward way to assign styles to text, and just have the software get out of my way beyond that. (Underneath the hood I need heavy features like cross-referencing and legal citations, but LaTeX does that well and seemingly more reliably than Word. Pages does not have a rich enough feature set here to meet my needs.) I still haven’t made any final decisions. It took me a weekend to convert my personal Word styles over to LaTeX equivalents. One interesting thing I noticed is that in Word, it’s the power features that are harder to figure out how to use (cross-referencing, etc.) while formatting is basically point and click easy, whereas with LaTeX it’s the actual formatting part that’s harder to learn. (Btw, if anyone cares, BibDesk, one of those OS X gems for working with LaTeX, is truly fantastic for keeping track of legal and academic citations.) I’ll admit though, I’d prefer a UI to edit LaTeX where the actual style tags were removed from the text. That bugs me. I’ve tried LyX, but it’s neither here nor there.

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Julik: Please don’t kill me. I am only a poor user :).

    Alan: Yes, the situation with styles is simply pathetic. I too have a set of styles that hasn’t changed in years and works great for me, but I never, ever get a Word document authored by someone else that uses any kind of coherent style sheet. Most of them use manual formatting exclusively (i.e. no styles at all) and, in those documents that use styles, it’s usually a complete mess that seems to indicate that the person tried to use styles but got completely confused and simply gave up on it. (I am not even mentioning character styles here, only paragraph styles.)

    Trying out LaTeX is one of my long-term projects, but I simply can’t seem to get around to it. Then again, my needs are obviously not as complex as yours, and Pages works fine for me in most situations. If you use paragraph and character styles in Pages, they get converted into Word styles when exporting the document as a Word document, so it works out quite well.

    Ultimately, the ideal tool would be something that is both simple and feature-rich. Pages is surprisingly feature-rich, but I agree that it needs more “smart document” features. And it badly needs keyboard shortcuts for styles!

    The bottom-line here, however, is that, whenever I have to work on an existing Word document like the one described above, I have no choice but to use Word. And that is always a profoundly discouraging experience.

  4. henryn says:

    Oh, gosh.

    How long have we been having this conversation? The years roll by, the complaints are unchanged, because the product is the same. MS adjusts the UI –which is quite separate from the rest of the program– and sells yet another “innovative” version of Word that’s fundamentally unchanged. We’re certainly talking years here. Are we starting to count decades that his has been going on? Bleah.

    One thing is for sure: MS marketing is certainly brilliant, having made this program the absolute standard in so many environments. No practical alternative.

    Internally, we’ve speculated, no one wants to touch a line of Word internals because it’s largely spaghetti code. We’ve also guessed that MS has an internal rule “do nothing unless absolutely necessary, then delay as long as possible.”

    The only explanation that makes sense to me to explain the lack of clamor for real improvements from users is that vanishingly few people write more than about two pages using Word. People use zero or maybe one “special feature” in that span, and the problems we’ve been discussing don’t show up. Add a few pages, use some more features, try to do professional amounts of work… and you-know-what happens.

    As an American, I am not proud of our overall low level of writing literacy, and maybe that explains some of why people don’t write more in Word: they wouldn’t write more in any environment. I wonder how many people are discouraged from writing because the tools they are forced to use are so rotten.

    While I’m being cynical, I’ll speculate that most people, maybe the overwhelming majority, have never used a sophisticated application that IS reliable and consistent.

    …OK, OK, I’ve said much the same before on this forum, nothing new, the same old riffs, sorry to say… This is as tedious to me as it is to you.


  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Henry (welcome back!): Right. I’d like to stress, however, that many of the issues described above are probably Mac-specific (although I have not checked this), and therefore affect an even smaller proportion of Word users. Part of my discouragement is clearly due to the fact that the Word monopoly is even worse on the Mac side (some Windows users still seem to favour WordPerfect) and that the abuse we suffer daily as a consequence is even worse, with even fewer chances of things ever improving.

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