Microsoft Office 2004: Zooming in and out of documents with the scroll wheel

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
January 18th, 2007 • 10:01 am

This is a perfect example of how Microsoft’s developers always manage to get even the simplest things wrong—even things that independent developers working for free are able to get right.

Microsoft Word 2004 and Microsoft Excel 2004 have a feature where you can use your mouse’s scroll wheel to zoom in and out of documents. In order to use this feature, you need to hold down the Control and Command keys while scrolling up or down with your scroll wheel.

(This is not to be confused with the system-wide zooming feature with the mouse introduced in Mac OS X 10.4.8, which works similarly, with the Control key, but affects the entire screen.)

However, if you try Microsoft’s implementation of the feature yourself at home with Apple’s Mighty Mouse, you’ll soon realize that the feature in Microsoft’s applications is pretty much unusable. Simply put, it feels like the applications are way too sensitive and zoom in and out of documents at an uncontrollably high rate.

Unless you move your Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel very carefully, making sure that you are only scrolling up or down with individual increments (which requires very tiny finger movements with the highly sensitive scroll wheel on the Mighty Mouse), Word and Excel zoom in and out of documents at such a rate that you almost always end up zooming in and out way too far, and having to do a lot of self-correction.

Why is this? As far as I can tell, it’s because of the way Microsoft implemented the feature and how it responds to scroll wheel movements. If you scroll very carefully by individual increments with the Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel, Microsoft’s applications increase or decrease the zoom value by 10% for each step. That’s fine.

But if you move the scroll wheel any faster, then for some reason Microsoft’s applications interpret this as a wish to zoom in and out in much higher increments. And so if, say, you quickly move your Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel up by 5 increments, instead of zooming out by 5×10 = 50%, Word actually zooms out by 300% or something like that.

It is utterly stupid and makes the feature completely useless, because unless you are very careful with your finger movements, you always end up overshooting.

What is really telling is to compare this implementation with the way zooming with the scroll wheel was implemented in NeoOffice, the Mac OS X-native implementation of the open source OpenOffice software suite. If you try command-scrolling with the Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel in a text document in NeoOffice’s word processor, you’ll see that NeoOffice also increases/decreases the zoom value by 10% increments. But it does that regardless of the speed with which you scroll with your Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel. The end result is that zooming in and out feels much smoother and works much better, in a way that never makes the user feel like he’s losing control.

In other words, open source developers working with a tiny fraction of the budget available to a large corporation such as Microsoft are able to implement such a simple feature properly, whereas Microsoft’s developers are patently unable to do so.

You really wouldn’t think that open source developers would “get” the Mac in a way that seems perpetually beyond the grasp of Microsoft’s MacBU team—yet that’s exactly what the situation is.

Now, I strongly suspect that the way Microsoft implemented zooming with the mouse scroll wheel in Office documents works better with third-party mice such as Microsoft’s own products, which use a more traditional scroll wheel requiring much bigger finger movements than the Mighty Mouse’s scroll wheel. But I am not going to bother to check, for a very simple reason: The Mighty Mouse is the mouse that ships with all desktop Macs. It’s the mouse that Mac users are more likely to be using these days. So Microsoft’s software should be designed to work properly with that mouse. That’s all there is to it. But that’s obviously too much to ask of Microsoft.

5 Responses to “Microsoft Office 2004: Zooming in and out of documents with the scroll wheel”

  1. danridley says:

    To be fair, with regard to your last paragraph, Office 2004 predates the Mighty Mouse.

    On the other hand, you’re wrong; this feature is terrible even with Microsoft mice, so my above statement kind of a moot point.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    Yes, of course, Office 2004 predates the Mighty Mouse, but there have been numerous updates since… That’s what updates are for: maintaining compatibility—except in the case of developers like Microsoft and Adobe, of course.

    But then, if you say the feature is just as bad with Microsoft’s own mice… That means that they really have no idea what they are doing anyway :).

  3. henryn says:

    Here’s how MS appears to work on human interface issues: They hand them off to a junior-level designer , giving instructions like “do something that functions”, secure in the knowledge that if the design isn’t very good, there will always be a chance to do something different in the future. The corporate customer base –the only real revenue source for Word– may be demanding, but doesn’t show much discrimination or memory, and yesterday’s mediocre implementations become the basis for tomorrow’s revenue-generating upgrade.

    Brilliant! I wish I’d thought of it! MS knows exactly what they are doing.

    Even better: MS simply doesn’t bother fixing or improving a long list of such issues. It’s a lot cheaper to make mostly cosmetic changes the basis for upgrades. Very few people seem to notice that Office hasn’t fundamentally improved in … a very long time.

    Full disclosure: As far as I can tell Office components don’t crash as much as they used to; they seem to crash now at about the same rate as other complex apps. A “fundamental improvement”?

    The more I think of it –and I have been thinking about it for LONG TIME– I’m beginning to think that corporate customers in practice strongly oppose Office innovation. It is all-around easier to accept slow (VERY slow) evolution of the product. Absolutely correct in detail, really, but disastrous in the big picture. Sound familiar?

    Do you know if the Mac version of Office has any significant corporate customers? Or is it kept afloat primarily by contracts between Apple and MS and/or as an anti-trust action preventative?

  4. Pierre Igot says:

    I doubt very much that Office for Mac has significant corporate customers. I certainly have never heard of any myself. By Microsoft’s own admission, Office for Mac is kept afloat by the very fact that it’s actually a very profitable business.

    It’s not particularly surprising: Due to their quasi-monopoly situation, the MacBU doesn’t really have to provide any of the services that a competitive environment would require from them, i.e. proper technical support, decent updates, etc.

    So they can actually devote all their energies to the development and marketing of new features that no one wants or needs, and I am sure it’s quite cost-effective for them, even though the relation between cost and revenue is totally imaginary.

    On at least two occasions in the past 6 years, Mac users will have been pretty much forced to upgrade, regardless of whether the new versions contained any new features or not: because of the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X, and because of the transition from PowerPC to Intel.

    Yes, you could still use Office 2001 under Classic in Mac OS X for a while, but it was painful, and now it’s no longer possible since Mac OS X no longer supports Classic. And yes you can still use Office 2004 under Rosetta in Mac OS X for Intel, but eventually you’ll have to move to Office 2008 because of performance or reliability issues.

    Of course, I am quite sure that the MacBU’s answer would be that it’s all Apple’s fault, with those recurring migrations (OS 9 to OS X, PowerPC to Intel). But each Mac developer chooses to handle those migrations in his own way. There are many Mac developers out there who never charged their users a penny for either of these transitions.

    I am also more than familiar with Microsoft’s excuse that Office includes “millions of lines of code” and that these transitions require a lot of work. We all know that, if Microsoft had written decent code in the first place, the transitions would have been much easier. The legacy issue is their problem, not their users’ problem. Instead of absorbing the cost of their own mistakes themselves, they keep making their users pay for them. It’s their typical attitude, and I don’t expect it to change. Until Apple makes iWork really competitive, Microsoft’s MacBU will continue to have a captive customer base and to make obscene profits on the back of Mac users.

  5. henryn says:

    Legacy code? Yes, they probably have millions of lines of code, some of which dates back to the days of Word-for-DOS. Does MS still maintain that Mac and Win Word code bases are different? I can believe it, but the fact points at their own incompetence or greed –you choose– because there is no technical reason for this to be so, and many business reasons for the code bases to be identical except as minimally necessary. The platform on which Word runs is essentially irrelevant and the inner workings are or by now should be completely insulated from the human interface.

    As you and I have discussed over the years, there’s almost certainty that a lot of this code is “spaghetti” — impossible to maintain, scary even to change even the smallest detail for fear of total breakdowns. That is probably the second reason for the near-stasis of this product. Users did not create this spaghetti code, MS “innovators” did.

    Ummm, this is getting really tedious. We seem to be having the same discussion, year after year. Sigh. How long has it been?

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