Word 2008: What it breaks (which worked fine in Word 2004)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
June 10th, 2008 • 3:41 pm

Now that I have had the unfortunate pleasure of having to use Microsoft Word 2008 for my work for a number of weeks (I use it as little as I can, but I still have to use it), I thought it would be a good time to recap all the things that Microsoft’s engineers have managed to break in the “new and improved” application, even though the same things worked perfectly fine in the previous version of the software (Word 2004).

The first and most obvious one has to do with window size and position. Believe it or not, when you save a Word document in Word 2008, Word fails to save the window size and position on the screen with the document. This means that, every time you close and reopen the document, it will be back on the left-hand side of your screen, with the default width and height that Microsoft has decided is the best for you, regardless of what the window size and position were when you saved the document.

I work in an extended desktop environment with a 30″ monitor and a 23″ monitor side by side, and I frequently have multiple documents open at the same time, positioned next to each other so that I can look at them simultaneously. Every time I close and reopen a document, Word completely destroys the spatial organization of my work. And since Word 2008 is just as bad as its predecessors in terms of stability, and crashes just as often, this means that I frequently have to rebuild my entire work window layout again and again, thanks to this completely idiotic regression in Word 2008.

In addition, for some reason, Word 2008 does not save the window size, but it saves the zoom setting. This means that, if you’ve changed a window to a 75% zoom setting and reduced its width accordingly, in order to avoid wasting screen space, when you close and reopen the document window, the zoom setting is still at 75%, but the window size is back to the full width that it had before the resizing, resulting in tons of wasted screen space.

I would very much like to be able to sit down with a Microsoft engineer and discuss the reasoning that led them to the decision that saving a document’s window size and position was unimportant and something that they could and should remove from Word’s feature set in Word 2008. Sadly, I suspect I shall never have this opportunity. They’d probably feel too “insulted” by my harsh words.

In Word 2008, Microsoft’s engineers have also managed to make switching applications more painful than it is supposed to be. See, in the real world, people work with more than one application at the same time. They work on a Word document, and then they have to switch to Safari to look up something on the web. And then they want to switch back to the Word document, but keep the Safari window visible in the background, so that they can refer to it while they are writing/editing their text in Word, without having to constantly switch back and forth.

Now, thanks to the new and improved (not!) support for Mac OS X’s default window layering scheme in Word 2008, this simple process that real world users repeat a hundred times every day can quickly become a major pain, because of a new bug that causes Word 2008 to bring all its windows to the foreground every time after you’ve used Mac OS X’s “Hide Word” command once to hide the application’s windows temporarily.

Just these first two things are already enough to ruin the computing experience with Word 2008 for me. These are not just bugs that one encounters occasionally. These are bugs that severely affect the usability of the application in real-world situations, and in an on-going fashion.

But there is more.

Thanks for Word 2008’s revamped graphic engine, it is now quite easy to cause the application to completely scramble text on the screen, simply by scrolling up and down the document:

Mangled text in document


And it’s not just scrolling that’s affected. If you work in Page Layout view mode (now rechristened “Print Layout View”), whenever you edit text near the bottom of a page, quite frequently, there is a lag of several seconds between your editing actions and the redrawing of the text on the screen, obviously because of repagination issues. During that lag, you might get the same text drawn in two different places (the bottom of one page and the top of the next) at the same time:

Duplicate text

Of course, during that period where the text is visible in two different locations at the same time, only one of these locations is actually editable, because the other one is a “phantom” version of the text that is not actually there in reality. If your cursor happens to be somewhere in the phantom version of the text, then good luck trying to understand how Word responds to your keystrokes.

Yes, it all goes away after a few seconds, but some of us real-world users actually do prefer using our valuable time for interesting stuff instead of waiting for frigging Word to redraw its text on the screen.

And, in the case of text in table cells, the problem is actually worse: it does not go away, even if you wait half a minute. As indicated in this post (with screen shots), the only way to force Word 2008 to finally redraw the text properly is to start typing something new in the dark (i.e. without seeing what you’re doing).

Unbelievable stuff.

The screen redrawing mishaps do not stop here, however. If you happen to try editing a header or footer in your Word 2008 document, the text is likely to disappear altogether as soon as you start typing something. Very useful behaviour when you are trying to enter text or edit existing headers/footers.

How in the world can Microsoft release a software application that exhibits such a bug in the first place, and then fail to fix the bug in the subsequent major 12.1 update? What are we supposed to conclude? That Microsoft’s engineers and testers never use headers and footers? Or that they enjoy typing in the dark and think that it is a fun new “feature”? It boggles the mind.

These are only the most obvious new bugs in Word 2008. For any other software developer, these are show-stoppers that would bring heaps of opprobrium and cries of “Shame!” from all around the world. But I suppose that Mac Office users are resigned to their fates. That is the only explanation I can see for the absence of any kind of major outcry in the Mac web community.

Of course, Microsoft’s engineers also seem to take particular delight in introducing problems that will only affect minority users. In the real world, this is called discrimination, and there are laws against it. In Microsoftland, it is the norm.

For example, if you are a user of Spell Catcher X (the vastly superior alternative to Word’s spell checking and automatic correction features), you’ll be delighted to know that Word 2008 makes it extra painful for you to undo your typing, because, in the new application, any text that is entered using an input method (and Spell Catcher X is an input method, a fully-supported mode of text input in Mac OS X, and not a third-party “hack” that would be unsupported by Apple itself) is treated as individual keystrokes, and, in Word 2008, undoing your typing undoes it one keystroke at a time. Imagine that: You type “Hello” and then, if you want to undo your typing, you have to press command-Z five times, once for each letter in the word. Great.

I am a professional translator and editor, which means that I spend lots of time selecting stuff and deleting it or replacing it with new text. I guess no one at Microsoft does such fancy things with their word processor, because Word 2008 also introduces a new bug that regularly causes extra paragraph marks to appear when you try to delete a selection.

Casual users will just dismiss the behaviour as “one of these things” that computers do and that are beyond comprehension, and press the Delete key once more to delete the extra paragraph mark. Professional users like myself have to put up with such behaviours all the time, twenty times per hour, a hundred times per day, five hundred times per week (and that’s a very conservative estimate).

I could go on and on. This post is just scratching the surface. But I think it gives you a fairly good idea of how careless Microsoft’s developers are with their software, and how flawed their testing procedures must be if they are unable to identify such bugs and fix them.

And I am not even mentioning the other “improvements” in Word 2008, such as the lousy real-world performance (only Microsoft could develop native Intel applications that are actually slower than their PowerPC counterparts running under Rosetta emulation) and the removal of support for Visual Basic for Applications macro commands.

Does anyone still need buying advice? If you can live with a couple of applications running under Rosetta emulation for a few more years, then there absolutely no incentive in purchasing Office 2008. It’s that simple.

2 Responses to “Word 2008: What it breaks (which worked fine in Word 2004)”

  1. Doxxic says:

    I’ve switched back to 2004 for two reasons:
    First, docx is still far from the standard for office documents and most people I send docx files to return them, saying they can’t open them. The alternative is saving as .doc, but Word 2008 does everything to make you feel awkward about that.
    Second, an important document I made with a lot of autoforms, based on one of the new templates, appeared to show up as only one page of text and 3 empty ones on all Windows versions of Word and Word Viewer I could find. My employer thought I had delivered strangely bad work and thought I was a bit crazy for it.

  2. Pierre Igot says:

    And we all love it when our employers’ opinion of us is negatively impacted by the shoddy work of Microsoft’s MacBU, don’t we? :)

    I find that the way that Word 2008 handles .doc files is tolerable. The main thing is that it keeps adding “[Compatibility Mode]” to the window title, but other than that, I don’t really see any difference. You can choose .doc as the default format for saving in the prefs. I too will continue to avoid using the .docx format until it becomes more widespread.

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