×

Alpha-testing on Microsoft Word 1.0.

Co.Design

Why Microsoft Word Really Sucks: It Was Invented In A Paper-Powered World

Can you list how Word has changed for the better in 20 years? Because we really can’t. Will Word 15 turn things around?

If you’re reading this, you probably have Microsoft Word installed on your computer. It’s hard to function without it. Eventually, someone, somewhere, will send you a dreaded .doc (or .docx). And for a few brief moments, as you leave the rock-solid dependability of Gmail, you double click it, hold your breath, and hope that your old copy of the software is compatible with whatever was sent.

You never bothered to update because Word hasn’t fundamentally changed in the last 20 years. That means its core functions are timelessly usable. That also means the product has ignored the most important two decades in all of computing. Slate’s Tom Scocca argues the point with cutting prose in his recent article, "Death to Word," lamenting everything we’ve all come to hate about the product—namely, a dichotomy between desktop publishing and web publishing—and all of the annoying workarounds it necessitates.

Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.

When Word’s web approach "works," we can copy and paste a hyperlink into the document…a hyperlink that no one would ever open on paper. And when it doesn’t, well, Scocca cites pasting a piece of text that inserted eight pages of this metadata into his work. That’s eight pages of jargon solely explaining how the original pasted text is meant to appear in Word!

And then he moves to my personal, biggest pet peeve: Track Changes.

Word’s idea of effective collaboration is its Track Changes feature, which makes an uneventful edit read like a color-coded transcript of an argument between the world’s most narcissistic writer and the world’s most pedantic and passive-aggressive copy editor. No change is too small to pass without the writer’s explicit approval, and the editor is psychopathically unwilling to accept a blanket concession.

Track Changes is meant to be a handy way to follow collaborative edits. Instead, it reads like fistfight over the Oxford comma (does the default color scheme really need to be "you got an answer wrong" red?). When I’m edited in Google Docs, I feel like my editor is the most laid back boss in the world. When I’m edited in Word, I immediately want to walk off a project.

Now, to be fair to Microsoft, they have been addressing a lot of Word’s flaws. Their cloud product, Office 365, looks to be much better at allowing several people to fiddle in a shared file at once. And in the upcoming Office 15, not only will Track Changes get a makeover (the extent of which isn’t entirely clear in The Verge’s preview), Word will bridge a few gaps in its strange digital niche. Most importantly, it will allow inline editing of PDFs. Hallelujah.

Nice watermarks, Verge. And thanks for not responding to our image and interview requests, Microsoft.

Yet, none of these updates will really solve Word’s biggest shortcomings: Most publishing that we do is now online, and Word is fundamentally built for paper. We insert our text into a blogging backend that has 80% of the functionality of Word with none of the formatting fuss. And that simple backend isn’t saddled with fonts that we haven’t licensed or bulleted lists that arise out of nowhere. Then again, why is Word on every desktop in the world and not a single blogging backend? Why doesn’t Word exist where most people are actually writing?

I’m not sure that Word can solve this problem of scope. Even if it could publish straight to every major blogging platform (which would be an immediate, possible improvement), there’s no way Word could handle richer formatting like embedded multimedia because every single website is formatted differently.

Or, at least, there’s no way Word could handle this feat without Microsoft changing the way it approaches its product entirely. Iterating the aging word processor won’t be (and hasn’t been) enough to keep people using Word. They need to fundamentally rethink its purpose and innovate toward that purpose. Word needs to fix the impossibility of web standards as they once did our atrocious spelling.

[Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock]

Add New Comment

65 Comments

  • Alan Ralph

    I got a cheap copy of Office 2011 for Mac a few years back, for the primary reason that Apple's Pages application couldn't reproduce the formatting in a lot of the Word documents that I tried to open with it. About the best thing that I can saw about Word 2011, apart from the fact that it will export to PDF, is that it has a traditional menu system above the Ribbon interface (which I have yet to fully wrap my head around) - that has probably saved my sanity more times than I care to think!

    As Microsoft have yet to reveal any firm details on an Office 2014 package, I wouldn't gain anything from taking up an Office 365 subscription, even with the recently-announced iPad apps. So I'll keep Office 2011 around for as long as it will be supported on OS X, and as long as I still need to open and use other folk's Word documents.

  • GuyWithGuitars

    Chance are I have Microsoft Word on my computer? Not a chance. Grab OpenOffice or better yet, buy a Mac and install Pages on it.

  • Vaclav Krejci

    Microsoft Word is just a tool, it´s up to you how you use it. Don´t you believe me? What if I tell you that you can create stunning text effects using only Microsoft Word, and that it is fairly easy - check the free ebook "7 Best Text Effects in Microsoft Word"

    http://issuu.com/upir/docs/bes...

    A bad workman always blames his tools.

  • Alan Ralph

    I've used Word professionally for years, and I've lost count of the number of times I've had to backtrack or revert a load of changes because it decided to use a different font somewhere without telling me, or suddenly change the text style of an entire paragraph on a whim. Yes, you can create brilliant documents with Word, but it requires perseverance and a steady hand. And even then, you've no guarantee that it'll look the same on someone else's computer and version of Word.

    Probably the single best thing that Microsoft did in recent years was to add the ability to export your creations from Word as PDFs, which at least nails down the appearance and formatting.

  • Gera Meyman

    When the tool is completely unintuitive and unmanageable for something that should be as simple as separating a document into two different types of page numbers, there's something wrong with the tool! I didn't find out that I should've used section breaks instead of page breaks until it was too late, and now my huge law school paper is all screwed up beyond belief and I can only hope I can remedy this by copying and pasting section by section instead of the whole document. I tried to undo the stupid page breaks by clicking "link to previous" again, but it still insisted on separating them, but when it does, instead of doing it right, it repeats a lot of the arabic numeral pages. What kind of tool do you call that? My professor couldn't even figure out how to undo this mess. I'm going to have to go to IT about it, and may God help them. You don't even sound like a real Microsoft user. I think you're an employee they planted in this message board to make this atrocity look better.

  • Ergo

    I give up trying to use Word on Win 7 - the minute it encounters a problem it shuts Word down immediately - no hanging, no saving, no auto-recovery, BOOM, work gone.. 'Word not working', no questons asked, no answers given, your work wiped...

    I can't work with such an unreliable, pre-programmed win 7 'shut-down' default. We're trying to run a business, but then you wouldn't use MSN and innovation in the same sentence, so we switched to Open Office

  • Erick

    It really sucks. I can`t save my document pressing CTRL + S. In my coutry, we have to press CTRL + B. Other shortcuts sucks too.

  • Stevesky

    At my Copy and Print store we often get customer files made in Word. I've yet to see any DOC file representing what the customer has created on his computer. Adobe knows more about Word than Microsoft apparently. Converting to a PDF using Acrobat PRO always gives satisfactory proofs, i.e. fonts & sizes, photo layouts and pagination. Occasionally, I'll convert to an EPS format when that fails.

  • Ian Bridge

    I have a different take: My challenge to anyone is to show me a single redeeming feature of word. If you want to want to type text it i fine, if you want to format something, (and I mean anything) word fails the test.

  • Chris

    Neither the author nor any commentors have yet mentioned Windows Live Writer (part of Windows Live Essentials).  Wikipedia describes Windows Live Writer as:

    "Windows Live Writer, developed by Microsoft, is a desktop blog-publishing application that is part of the Windows Live range of products. It features WYSIWYG authoring, photo-publishing and map-publishing functionality, and is currently compatible with Windows Live Spaces, SharePoint blogs, Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad, WordPress, Telligent Community, PBlogs.gr, JournalHome, the MetaWeblog API, the Movable Type API, Blogengine, Squarespace, and all blogs that support RSD (Really Simple Discoverability)."

    It sounds like this may be the right tool for the job.  The downside is that I'm not sure if Microsoft will be continuing support of this product with all of up upcoming changes, but I wanted to at least point out that they had created a product specifically for the niche you're referring to.

    I'm not saying Word couldn't use some other improvements, but I think you have to start by recognizing what it was designed for.  I've seen people make similar complaints about Excel when people don't recognize that what they really want is a database - in that case use Access.  As users we have to take some responsibility for selecting the right tool for the job.

  • Alan Ralph

    For blog-writing, I suspect that most people do that directly within the blogging platform that their site uses if it's a short post, or else use a text editor if it's a longer one.

    I actually had to go check to confirm that Live Writer is still available, as I've not heard anything about it in years. Looks like the most recent version is two years old now, and although it does run on Windows 8 it's still a desktop rather than Modern app.

    As for Access... I still have nightmares about previous versions of that application. shudder I hope that it has improved now, but as it doesn't appear to get the attention that Word, Excel and Powerpoint receive from Microsoft developers, I have my doubts.

  • Francine Ziev

    As Nathan Hornby notes below, one of my pet peeves with Word is the inclusion of layout and graphics features. As a designer, and fairly bright person, even I struggle with making these "features" work. I watch typical users tear their hair out. Word has gotten bloated -- a victim of feature creep. I think it has value for long text docs with references and footnotes, etc. But trying to use it for newsletters, brochures, and other more "designy" projects is a mistake. Use Publisher, if you have to (or better, hire a professional designer to do the job right) and leave Word for words only.

  • Joesteinhardt

    "CAN YOU LIST HOW WORD HAS CHANGED FOR THE BETTER IN 20 YEARS? BECAUSE WE REALLY CAN’T."

    Are you KIDDING!?

    I really shouldn't rise to such an absurd statement, Word 2010 and Word 2.0 are utterly different, and if you don't already know that, there is no hope for you. I could write a list of one hundred things, but here's just two:

    1. Tracked changes - get over the fact that deletions are red - you can customize the colour of them. If you don't want tracked changes, don't use them, if you need them, you NEED them. They've continued to improve with each version too, with moves, format changes, etc.

    2. VBA. Word is so massively customizable thanks to this feature. Maybe you're not a programmer, but there's no excuse for not learning how to record macros. If Word hasn't improved, why don't YOU improve it?

  • nadeemha

    here's just one here are just two

    Give it up. Word sucks. Making your work look like the work of a 12 year-old since Word 1.0.

  • derwood kirkwood

    My god, are you seriously trying to defend Word? Word is the most horrible, absolute POS on the planet--i can't fathom how Microsoft stays in business. The rants on here are about functionality that may or may not really matter to most users--but I could go on and on and on about daily issues w. hot keys, lists, totally non-intuitive behavior, bugs. it is an absolute piece of crap, as are all MS products. If you don't see that, you need to improve.