Word 2008: Fails to show selection in background document window

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 24th, 2008 • 12:20 pm

In addition to its numerous bugs, Microsoft’s Word 2008 suffers from a myriad of flaws that consistently make it less useful than it could be and demonstrate an utter lack of attention to detail on the part of Microsoft’s engineers.

As a professional translator, editor and writer, I often—nearly always—have more than one document window open at the same time in my word processor. This is because I frequently have to be able to view more than one document at the same time, either because one is the French version and the other one is the English version, or because one is an older version and the other one is a newer version, and so on.

And because these document windows are often different versions of the same document, I frequently have to be able to compare the different versions, i.e. view the same section of the document in two different versions side by side at the same time.

I have already written about the fact that Word 2008 still does not support the use of the mouse’s scroll wheel/ball to scroll the text in a background document window, like other Mac OS X applications do. This is already a big drawback when having to compare documents, because it means that, when you need to scroll up or down to a different section in two documents open side by side, you need to change the focus from one window to the other in order to be able to scroll up and down the corresponding window.

But this problem is compounded by other flaws. One other thing that Microsoft Word is utterly unable to do is to show you the current selection in a background document window. As soon as you switch away from a document window, the current selection switches from your default selection highlighting colour to… invisible.

Here is an example. I have two document windows open, and I have selected the word “body” in the foreground window:

Selection in foreground window

Then I double-click the word “body” in the other window in order to select that word, without deselecting the current selection. Obviously, double-clicking on the word in the other document window will cause Word to switch the focus to the other document window, so the current document with its selected word becomes a background window.

But look at what happens to the highlighting of the selected word when the window is relegated to the background:

Selection in background window

It disappears!

This is completely wrong. When something is selected in a background window, the selection highlighting should not disappear. It should change from the default selection highlighting colour (green in my case) to the default background selection highlighting colour, which is a shade of grey.

This is exactly what happens in the same situation in Pages:

Selection in background window

Why is this so important? Well, when you are trying to compare different versions of the same document, you frequently use the “Find” command to identify specific words or phrases. And the way that the “Find” command works is that it selects each occurrence of the found word or phrase. So if you are looking for a word and use the “Find” command to find it, it becomes highlighted with the selection highlighting colour, which makes it possible to locate it within its enclosing paragraph.

And then if you switch to another document window in Word that highlighting simply disappears.

This is hugely irritating for me because it frequently causes my eyes to lose track of the words/phrases that I wanted to look at/compare. As soon as a Word document window is relegated to the background, I have to mentally focus on the text to try and keep in my head where exactly the word/phrase that I want to see is, because its selection highlighting colour disappears.

Now, of course, this is not a critical, application-crashing bug. But the thing is that it is a crucial flaw that has affected every version of Microsoft Word for Mac OS X that I can remember. (I cannot remember if the same flaw also affected previous versions of Word in the classic Mac OS.)

I can understand that the priority is always on fixing critical, application-crashing bugs. But at some point in the software development process, these other, less critical flaws need to be addressed as well.

At Microsoft, they never are. In fact, I am willing to bet that there is not a single software engineer at Microsoft’s MacBU at this time who is even aware that such a flaw exists and that it really ought to be fixed. They simply operate in a different world, where such details are and forever remain unimportant and never get noticed, let alone fixed.

Meanwhile, a few years ago Apple came up with its own word processor for Mac OS X, and guess what? They got this particular thing right from the very first version, i.e. in Pages 1.0.

Pages has had and still has many flaws, but at least, as such a fundamental level, for “small” yet hugely significant details, it gets things right.

Microsoft Word for Mac OS X does not, and probably never will. And this has a very real productivity cost for those of us who are obliged to use Microsoft Word to make a living.

UPDATE: A reader writes to confirm that he was able to reproduce the exact same problem with Microsoft Word 4.0 under the classic Mac OS v. 7.0.1 (using the Mini vMac emulator). I think it’s safe to say that Microsoft never has and never will pay attention to such “details.”

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