Word 2004: Repeatable crashes caused by Clipboard functions

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
April 17th, 2007 • 10:35 am

I am currently translating this 20-page Word document that was authored by somebody else, probably using a Windows PC.

As per usual, I am expected to do the translation “in place,” i.e. using the existing document, with all its paragraph and character formatting—however flawed that formatting might be (and it is always very flawed, because no one I know knows how to use Word “properly”).

I have been working on this file for a while, and have already experienced several application crashes. Most of them seem to involve Word 2004 crashing right after I have used a Clipboard-related command, i.e. “Cut,” “Copy,” or “Paste.” But these crashes were not 100% reproducible, i.e. after I restarted Word and reopened the document, things usually worked fine again for a while. (Thank God I am a compulsive command-S user. I save my document pretty much after each sentence, or after each paragraph at worst. So I don’t lose too much in the event of a crash. But it is still a major irritant.)

Now, however, I have a crash that I can reliably reproduce on my machine very easily. All I have to do is the following:

  1. Open the document in question. It is in Page Layout view.
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of the first page.
  3. Double-click on the page footer to edit it. This causes the appearance of the Header/Footer toolbar (or whatever it is called: It doesn’t have a name in the Word interface and is not listed in the “Toolbars” menu).
  4. Double-click on the first word of the text in the footer and drag the mouse to select the rest of the line.
  5. Press command-C.
  6. Click on “Close” button in Header/Footer toolbar to exit the footer and return to the body of the document and make the Header/Footer toolbar disappear.

I systematically get a crash either after step 5 or after step 6. Sometimes Word hangs for a little bit after I have clicked on the “Close” button in step 6, and then crashes.

So as far as I am concerned, this is a 100% reproducible crash, and I have the crash log to prove it.

However, I am perfectly aware that, for it to be a 100% reproducible crash for Microsoft engineers, I need make sure I can reproduce it in a “plain vanilla” Word environment without any of the customizations that I have in my own environment.

And unfortunately, that’s where things get tricky.

I have another user environment in Mac OS X that does not include any customizations or third-party software of any kind. I have launched Word 2004 in that environment, which of course has caused it to install all these MS fonts in that user’s library environment without my consent. (That’s Microsoft for you.)

After doing that, I get the default Word 2004 environment. If I try to open the same Word document that causes the crashes in that environment, and then do the steps listed above, I do not get a crash. Instead, after step 6 (clicking on the “Close” button), Word 2004 hangs for two or three seconds, and then closes the footer, makes the Header/Footer toolbar disappear, and returns me to the body of the document.

In other words, it works as expected (albeit with that worrying pause for a couple of seconds).

I have tried copying something else from the document to the Clipboard, just to see if the crash was related to having already something in the Clipboard in the first place. But that hasn’t made a difference.

So the next step for me was to restore my customized Word environment, at least in part.

The Microsoft approach to work environment customizations and how they are stored is, of course, as usual, utterly confusing. As soon as you launch Word in a virgin user environment, Word creates a “Microsoft User Data” folder inside your home folder’s “Documents” folder, and populates it with various files, including a brand new “Normal” template. But all the other templates are located inside the “Microsoft Office 2004” application folder (including the original “Normal” template used to create that new one in your “Documents” folder).

Then you have to travel to the “File Locations” section in Word’s preferences, and change the “User Templates” file location to wherever your templates are. But then nothing happens. Even if you quit and relaunch Word, Word still doesn’t take your customizations into account.

That’s because you actually have to trash that “Normal” template that Word created in the “Documents” folder. Otherwise Word will continue to use it instead of the “Normal” template that you have in your customized templates folder, even though you’ve now told Word to use the templates in that folder. If you quit Word, trash that “Normal” template in the “Microsoft User Data” folder, and then relaunch Word, then finally it takes your customized “Normal” template in your own templates folder into account and starts offering you your usual customized environment (albeit with a number of application-wide settings still wrong, of course, because they are not stored in the “Normal” template). What a mess!

Anyway, after all this, I did manage to reproduce the crash in my virgin user environment, but not 100% reliably. I actually only managed to reproduce it once. The other times, I would get the worrying pause after clicking on the “Close” button in the Header/Footer folder, and then instead of crashing Word would switch me back to the body of the document and continue to work as expected.

So the next step was to restore the rest of the customized Word environment, i.e. all the preference files. I went to the “Preferences” folder in my regular user environment, copied all the files starting with “com.microsoft.” as well as the folder called “Microsoft,” and then switched to the other user environment and copied all these files to that user’s “Preferences” folder. (I had to authenticate to validate the change of user ownership and privileges for the files.)

I launched Word after that, and indeed I finally had something that looked and behaved like my regular, heavily customized Word environment.

Sadly, however, even with that environment, I am still unable to reproduce the crash reliably.

Yet if I return to my regular user environment right now and open the same file and do the same steps, I still get a crash 100% of the time.

So that’s where I am. I have a 100% reproducible crash in my own user environment (and the lengthy crash report to prove it), but I cannot reproduce my environment itself reliably—which effectively means that I cannot report the bug, even though it’s a pretty serious, crashing bug.

All I know is that Microsoft Word is the only Mac OS X application I have that crashes on me so often, and that the crashes always occur when I am working on files authored by other people, and that most of the time, the crashes appear to be related to actions involving the Clipboard.

It confirms that Word 2004 is a crap application, but of course we already knew that. It also shows how easy and convenient it is for Microsoft’s engineers to do nothing about the crappiness of their application. After all, while I can reproduce the crash 100% reliably in my Word environment, I don’t seem to be able to reproduce my Word environment itself 100% reliably. Maybe it is some third party tool that I am using, such as Spell Catcher X or Default Folder X. Maybe it’s something else. Who knows?

But of course I don’t exactly have time to entirely restore my whole Mac OS X user environment one step at a time on another test machine and check the problem with this particular Word file after each step to see if I can reproduce it. I do have a day job and a life!

All I know is that Word is the only application that I have that crashes so often. Safari crashes every once in a while, either because of a specific web site or because it’s been running for too long with too many web sites loaded in its windows and tabs. Adobe applications crash occasionally. And GarageBand crashes every once in a while with a weird crash where it stays open and says that it has unexpectedly quit at the same time. (I then have to force-quit it and relaunch it.) But that’s it.

Word, on the other hand, crashes on me repeatedly. Not daily, because fortunately I don’t always have to work on Word files created by other users, and my own files don’t seem to cause Word to crash, and also because I try to use Pages as often as I can. But it still crashes far more often than any other application that I use.

The lessons here are multiple. Word is obviously far too fragile and unreliable. It is far too complex for the user to restore a customized Word environment. And Word punishes you for customizing it. It supports all kinds of customizations (menus, shortcuts, toolbars, etc.), but as soon as you customize, you are basically on your own, because these customizations are too complex and involve too many aspects of the application (preferences, templates, etc.), which Microsoft’s engineers won’t bother to try and reproduce themselves and which you cannot afford to reproduce yourself step by step because it is far too time-consuming and, unless you are lucky (or terribly unlucky, depending on your point of view) you don’t get paid by your employer to troubleshoot Microsoft software all day long.

Hence the status quo, and hence the never-ending frustration with Microsoft products.

5 Responses to “Word 2004: Repeatable crashes caused by Clipboard functions”

  1. henryn says:

    Yeah. Not surprised. I’m not going to try to reproduce this… life is toooo short.

    On the point about customization –which we’ve discussed at length off-line– I have always avoided all Word customizations as much as possible, for fear of _increasing_ Word’s instability — and also because there is no way that one can take a snapshot of the customizations one has accumulated, understand what they do, and apply them to another installation. Granted, I rarely move to another installation; I’m most concerned about understanding exactly what what the work environment is.

    Yes, I suppose one could make the point that testing is complicated with so many potential variations in settings, but there are many quite stable applications out there with myriad user settings.

    From what I understand of the Word architecture, there are three factors contributing to its instability:

    –Word composed of a significant amount of spaghetti code, some dating back to the earliest versions. The maintainers have “forbidden zones” that they dare not modify in the least, with very good reason.

    –Word is based on a “container model” of how characteristics apply to different portions of the text. Apparently this was designed by well-meaning people without sufficient knowledge of the real world, e.g., second or third-rate recent graduates of computer science programs.

    — Concretely, these designers failed to adequately separate the user’s data (formatted text and graphics, plus all the supporting stuff) from the program’s data. As a result, editing changes, especially complex editing in lengthy sessions, corrupts Word’s internal storage. We see this when, apparently, the data “inside” a paragraph mark is corrupted.

    I suppose I could say this in defense of the designers and implementors: Word has morphed by aggressive marketing, at which MS is peerless, into a product far more complex than I expect they ever imagined.

    As we’ve also discussed off-line, it appears that MS has avoided re-architecting Word because a huge proportion of Word users use only the basic Word functions on very short documents; if they use “special features”, they use only one or two at a time, again, on short documents.

    We should divide Word’s instability into two classes: those problems that lead to crashes and those that lead to corrupted documents or simple data loss without crashes. It appears that MS has managed to reduce the number of simple crashes over the past 10 years, and they’ve improved the ability of Word to recover documents after crashes. In terms of the second classification, I don’t detect any progress. In this case, I think the strategy is to blame the victims or lead them to blame themselves. This naturally would influence users tp scale back their expectations, use fewer and less complex Word features, and producing shorter, less sophisticated documents. The tail wags the dog!

    Sigh. Double sigh.

  2. Arden says:

    One problem is that Microsoft makes using Word “properly” so damn difficult. Take styles, for example. It’s infinitely more useful to modify a style that is applied throughout the document than to have to update the entire document in every place with that style (with the potential to miss places), similar to the benefits of using CSS classes instead of inline styles (or, heaven forbid, the font tag). You define once, implement everywhere, done. Unfortunately, actually modifying the styles is an exercise in carpal tunnel discovery, as it takes way too many clicks to get to a useful point to change the margin on header text. A program like OmniOutliner does it much better, where styles are defined as text is modified, and it’s quite easy to change the style for all text because it’s in one neat spot. This is probably one of many reasons most people (including me, after a while) don’t use styles (or other features of Word) properly: it’s just too convoluted, even for a simple one-page document like a résumé.

    And GarageBand crashes every once in a while with a weird crash where it stays open and says that it has unexpectedly quit at the same time. (I then have to force-quit it and relaunch it.) But that’s it.

    I actually had GB crash on me to the point where I couldn’t even get it to force-quit, no matter what I did. Eventually, I tried to get it to die by restarting the computer, and even then, I believe, I had to hold the power button down. ‘Twas teh strange…

  3. Pierre Igot says:

    Arden’s notes exemplify why I myself find it impossible to use Word without customizing. I want to use styles and other features because ultimately they make me more efficient and help me produce “smarter” documents that are far easier to edit, without much risk of corruption or other types of MS-induced chaos.

    But using Word’s “smart” features with the default interface is simply utterly maddening. The interface is far too convoluted, with far too many idiosyncrasies. When you know that it is possible to modify the interface to make these features much more accessible and easier to use, then you cannot help but customize Word. Otherwise, the efficiency you gain by using the “smart” features is hugely reduced by the amount of time spent just trying to use the features.

    This would all be well and good if a heavily customized Word was just as reliable and stable and fast as a plain vanilla Word. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and it is probably because Microsoft’s testers do not spend nearly enough time testing customized Word environments as they do the default one, hiding behind the excuse that there are just “too many possible combinations.” This coming from a company that also makes an operating system.

    So effectively, like I said, one is “punished” for having customized Word, with an application that might be actually more usable, but is now slower, crashes more, and is more generally unreliable.

    Will any of this change with Word 2008? I highly doubt it. There is just no indication, from a historical perspective, that Microsoft’s engineers are capable of much more than a paint job. So that’s what we’ll get—with the same bugs, flaws, vulnerabilities, and overall unreliability still intact.

    I’d love to be surprised by Word 2008, but I just know I won’t be. The last time I was naively fooled by a paint job into thinking that Microsoft had achieved a quantum leap in usability was with… Word 6. We all know what actually took place at that time.

  4. Arden says:

    Wait, you were actually fooled by Word 6? I would have at least said Word 98.

  5. Pierre Igot says:

    Well, I remember quite distinctly getting all excited by the possibilities offered by WordBasic (new in Word 6) and the more flexible customization options.

    That was before I actually started to try using the thing, obviously :).

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