Excel 2008: Multiple flaws in text engine

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft, Pages
March 31st, 2009 • 12:01 pm

Some day, developers at Apple and Microsoft (and probably in a few other places) are going to have to wake up to the fact that, in the real world, table cells are not used just for numbers or other types of numerical data, but also as containers for blocks of text of varying length.

And because they are used as containers for blocks of text, they need to support text navigation and selection in the same way that text editors and word processors do. Even though I am a heavy user of keyboard shortcuts for text navigation and selection myself, I am also including mouse-based interactions here.

The support for keyboard shortcuts for text navigation and selection has been notoriously poor in table editing tools in both Apple’s Pages and Microsoft Excel for ages, but there are also numerous problems when attempting to work with blocks of text in table cells with the mouse.

Today, I would like to focus on Microsoft Excel. I am using Excel 2008 as the reference here, but I am pretty sure that the problems are the same in previous versions of Excel for Mac OS and probably in Excel for Windows as well. (I don’t have time to check, but these types of bugs have been around forever and I highly doubt that they have been fixed in any version of Excel.)

Let’s start with something very simple: a table cell in Excel with some text in it.

Table cell with text

Right now, the cell is simply selected as a whole (see green outline) and the cursor is the regular cross-shaped cursor for cell selection in Excel. Now let’s get down to business and enter the cell in order to edit its contents, by double-clicking on it:

Table cell with text - active

Already, we have a glitch: Why did the flow of the text change? How does the simple fact of entering a cell to edit it alter its contents in any way? Microsoft has never cared about such “details,” so we just have to live with it and constantly adjust our eyes to the unpredictable way the text flows, depending on whether the cell is in editable mode or not.

Right now the insertion point (I-beam) is right in the middle of the text in the cell—more specifically after the “s” in “support.”

I am in editing mode, so I expect Excel to behave like a proper text editor here. But as soon as I start pressing the Left or Right cursor key repeatedly to move my insertion point around, another “glitch” surfaces, this time one that really affects the usability of the software in a very significant way: While I am pressing the Left or Right cursor key repeatedly, the cursor keeps blinking! Instead of saying constantly visible as it should while it is moving, it keeps going on and off, which means that it is impossible to follow its exact position with one’s eyes.

This is ridiculous. It is Text Editor 101 stuff. Any text editor, any context in Mac OS X where text is being edited has the same behaviour: When the user hits the Left or Right cursor key repeatedly, the cursor stays visible at all times, so that the user can keep track of where the cursor is.

Only Microsoft is incompetent enough not to be able to produce software that complies with this basic rule of text edition. And it’s not an isolated occurrence. Consider these blog items that I have written in the past:

I think it’s hard not to see a patter here: Microsoft’s Mac developers don’t know how to program a Mac application where the blinking cursor behaves as expected. Considering how basic, how fundamental the function of the cursor is, this gives you an idea of the level of competence of Microsoft’s Mac developers. We are not talking about some obscure bug here. We are talking about what happens when you hit the Left or Right cursor key repeatedly, which is an action that must be repeated dozens of times per day by hundreds of millions of computer users worldwide. If you happen to be a Mac OS X user using Microsoft products, tough luck. Your cursor will keep blinking and you’ll keep having to adjust your actions because, inevitably, when the cursor disappears and you can no longer see where it is, you end up hitting the cursor keys too many times and overshooting.

It’s pathetic. But it’s not all.

Now see what happens when I double-click on a word next to a parenthesis:

Table cell with text - word selection

A double-click on a word is a shortcut to select that word. Any text editor worthy of the name is smart enough to know that, when the target word is preceded or followed by a parenthesis, it should not select the parenthesis as well, because it’s not really part of the word, even though there is no space separating the word from the parenthesis.

Not Microsoft Excel. No, that is too much to ask. Even though Word 2008 behaves properly here, Excel 2008 does not and systematically selects the parenthesis as well, which makes it utterly frustrating to try and use the double-click to select words in a table cell in Excel.

And it does not stop here. See what happens when I attempt to double-click and drag near the top of the table cell. First I double-click on the second word in the cell to select it:

Table cell with text - word selection

Then, while still holding my mouse button down, I accidentally drag to the left and up, which adds the previous word (i.e. the first word in the cell) to the selection:

Table cell with text - word selection

I didn’t mean to do that but hey, stuff happens. People’s fingers slip. Big deal. So, while still holding my mouse button down, I drag in the opposite direction to correct my wrong selection:

Table cell with text - word selection

Thanks Excel. Now it has changed the direction of the word-by-word selection, but without deselecting the first word, which was accidentally selected when I dragged the mouse in the wrong direction!

If you try to reproduce this at home (at your own risk), you’ll notice that the problem does not occur every time. Sometimes Excel behaves properly, and deselects the first word after the change of direction. But not always. It appears to depend on the exact curve of your mouse movement. I am not going to keep experimenting for half an hour to determine exactly which mouse movements cause the bug to occur. That’s Microsoft’s job. Suffice to say that it is easy enough to reproduce on your own.

The bug probably has to do with the proximity of the cell’s top or bottom edge. If I try to reproduce it in the middle of the cell, I cannot, probably because my error in direction is not large enough to cause my mouse pointer to reach the edges of the cell. But if I reach the edges of the cell, the bug is fairly easy to reproduce.

And of course, here again, if you go back to previous blog posts on this very blog, you’ll see that there is nothing new about word-by-word selection bugs in tables in Microsoft products:

So it’s hardly a surprise that this bug exists in Excel 2008. There are probably still similar bugs in Word 2008 and PowerPoint 2008, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were such bugs in Microsoft products for Windows as well.

You know I could go on. There are many more bugs and quirks in Excel 2008’s basic text editing tools when you try to edit text in table cells.

Again, I want to stress that the problem is not unique to Microsoft. Apple’s Pages and Numbers also have a number of quirks and bugs when editing text in tables, some which I have already documented on this blog.

But I think any reasonable person would agree that, in this area as in so many others, Microsoft takes the cake. They are the only company that has consistently paid so little attention to these small “details” which are so important to get right in order to provide the user with a consistent, predictable user experience and avoid creating all kinds of unnecessary frustration and wasted time.

They are the only company that is utterly unable to get even the smallest, most fundamental things right. They are, in a word, incompetent Mac software developers, and they obviously do not care enough about the Mac platform to fix the quality of their software by hiring competent developers that would pay attention to such “details” and ensure that Microsoft applications behave like normal, quality Mac applications.

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