Word 2008: The case of the disappearing cursor

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Microsoft
July 13th, 2009 • 5:36 pm

Do you ever get the impression that Microsoft Word 2008 is a flaky, unreliable Mac OS X application? Do you ever feel that the reason for this impression is something seemingly minor yet obvious that affects your interaction with the application at all times?

Well, if so, I invite you to try the following experiment: open a blank document in Word 2008 and start typing.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. But you have to pay attention to one other thing while you’re typing: the state of the blinking I-beam cursor that indicates your current position in the document.

What does this I-beam cursor do while you are typing? It disappears.

Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, that is simply wrong. The cursor should not disappear. On the contrary, it should stop blinking at stay constantly visible as long as you are typing, moving along with your typed text. Once you stop typing, it should start blinking again.

It’s as simple as that.

You would think that something that simple would be universally accepted and supported. And you would think that, given that Word 2004 does the right thing here, Word 2008 would do the right thing as well.

But it does not. As soon as you start typing, the cursor disappears. And it only reappears when you stop typing.

Why is this wrong? For a variety of reasons. The most obvious that I have right now is what happens in tables. When you are in a table in Word, you can use the Tab key to jump from cell to cell. But since the Tab key is a keyboard key (duh), it is interpreted as “typing” and causes Word 2008 to stop displaying the cursor. If you are tabbing into a cell that contains text, that’s not a problem, because Word selects the contents of the cell by default, so you have some visual feedback about the fact that your selection is there now.

But if the cell is empty, the only visible sign that the selection is in the cell is… the I-beam cursor. And as long as you are pressing the Tab key, i.e. “typing,” the I-beam cursor remains invisible. When you are tabbing through a series of empty cells by pressing Tab repeatedly, this means that it is unfortunately very easy to lose track of where you are. The I-beam cursor only flashes by from time to time, presumably if you are hitting the Tab key repeatedly but slowly enough that Word thinks that you’ve stopped typing and starts making the cursor blink again.

Of course, it’s the type of flaw that primarily affects “power users” who tend to work fast and expect their application to be as responsive as possible. In other words, people who actually work for a living and try to be as efficient as possible. But Word 2008 is not designed for such people. In fact, it’s not designed for anyone in particular. It’s not designed, period. It’s a slapdash assembly of defective parts that makes a monster of an application with atrocious responsiveness. The only person that such an application would be designed for is some kind of monstrous alien creature with three heads, 2 fingers and a major eye/hand coordination problem. Word wouldn’t work any better for such a creature, but at least the creature probably wouldn’t notice the flaws.

For anyone else, Word 2008 is the kind of application that is crappy enough to ruin your mood as soon as you launch it and start typing. I mean, when it comes to word processing, it does not get much more fundamental than the I-beam cursor, does it?

Out of curiosity, I reviewed other applications. As indicated, Word 2004 does not suffer from the problem (but it does still suffer from disappearing cursor syndrome in some more specific situations). So obviously this is something that Microsoft’s engineers broke when converting Word into an Intel-native application.

I have already reported on the blinking cursor problems in Excel 2008 and PowerPoint 2008. So sadly Word 2008 is in good company here, even though the problem is by far the worst in Word 2008, i.e. the… word processor in the lot.

Other Apple tools that I use commonly for text editing, including Pages, TextEdit and Mail, do not suffer from the problem. When you type in these applications, the I-beam cursor stays constantly visible, until you stop typing, which is when it then starts blinking again.

The only other application where I have noticed the problem is… BBEdit, the application in which I am writing this post right now. It’s rather surprising to me, as Bare Bones usually pays close attention to such details. But the truth is that it has never bothered me much in BBEdit. I suspect that it is because, unlike Word 2008, BBEdit the application as whole is otherwise so highly responsive that you cannot really lose track of where you are. (It also helps that it’s only a text editor and not a word processor.)

Still, if I were a Bare Bones engineer, this would bother me and I would get it fixed eventually.

I cannot find a specific reference to the expected behaviour of the I-beam cursor while typing in the Apple User Experience Guides. A search for “blinking cursor” does not return any useful results. The correct/recommended behaviour might be in there somewhere, but it’s not in an obvious location.

Still, I don’t think it takes an official guide to figure out what the expected/recommended/correct/desirable behaviour is here. Besides, it’s not like Microsoft’s engineers ever follow Apple’s guidelines anyway…

To me, the simple fact that things were working fine in Word 2004 and got broken in Word 2008 and no one at Microsoft seems to have noticed or done anything about it, even after numerous incremental Word 2008 updates, is a clear indication of how bad things are at the MacBU and how little they care about the responsiveness and usability of their applications.

One Response to “Word 2008: The case of the disappearing cursor”

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