Friday, August 06, 2010

Why is MS Office still a suite of programs?

Can anyone answer me a simple question - which is why Microsoft Office is still a suite of programs? I really mean the three standard applications of Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

Since their very separate creations - Word as the word processor that succeeded Word Perfect as the standard, Excel as the inheritor of the Visicalc/Multiplan/Lotus 1-2-3 development and Powerpoint as a PC Incarnation of what I think was first "Pagemaker" - they have been increasingly integrated.

So we now see that the drawing tools are common between Word and Powerpoint, that Excel objects can be embedded in Word and Powerpoint. What we don't have is the same text editing support in powerpoint that we have in word. We also have very limited text support (including simple things like super and subscripts) in Excel.

Two things made me think of this today. The first was yet another exercise of seeing an information paper for a Board being rendered in Powerpoint. I actually don't get that as a method. In all the Boards I've been a member of I'd prefer a standard A4 word doc. But corporate Boards seem to like the presentation format even if it isn't presented. Telecom NZ allowed ONLY presentation format but that was because they also only read papers on screen and so needed a landscape format.

The second was a really good item of the 12 Rules for better spreadsheets. Ultimately a lot of these rules are about the TEXT that needs to be included rather than the format of numbers etc. The ABS does a reasonable god job with their workbooks of including an Index up front that hyperlinks to relevant sheets and columns. I know that i the last two days I generate about five workbooks all of which were undernoted.

This posed two simple questions? Why is Powerpoint still a separate application rather than a front end to word - that is a set (for slides handouts etc) of ways of presenting what is ultimately prepared as a Word document? Secondly why isn't it possible to include a Word page as a sheet in Excel?

More specifically why doesn't the whole suite distinguish between "objects" made up of "pictures"- including drawings, pictures and other graphics, "spreadsheets" = tables of all kinds the contents of which can include simple text and formulae, and "text" = formatted text with all the bells and whistles of a word processing come desktop publishing suite.

These objects all then can get presented in two fundamental formats, workbook or document. "Workbooks" are where each tab is either a "text" document (good for the text explaining the rest of the workbook), a "spreadsheet" - a standard table or a "picture" - most commonly the type of picture that is a graph generated from the data that is a spreadsheet.

A "document" is a single sequential and formatted presentation of text, pictures and "spreadshhets" (as in tables). What we know and love as Powerpoint slides is really just one version of a document. All Documents should have Templates that designate different parts of each page to be occupied by certai carry over info. In Word they are climitted to Headers and Footers whereas you get more control on Powerpoint. On top of standard documents there should be Meta-documents - which is what the "Notes" version of a powerpoint preso is - but you should be able to completely control the format of both - e.g. why not a landscape doc that in the left panel has the representation of the A4 pages of a piece of text and the right hand allows for commentary on it.

I'm sure someone will tell me that something else does this .... but I don't know it.

1 comment:

ian said...

My comment is probably going to be along the lines of the program that "told me more about penguins than I wanted to know".

MS Office documents are an object (in the sense of object oriented programming) which contain collections of other objects. (This can be seen by unzipping the new format and looking at the resultant XML.)

The objects are described (incompletely) in the MS Office Object Model which outlines the "properties" (what the object can contain) and "methods" (what you can do to the object). Programmers can use these, and indeed the applications are just programs which do this.

In principle there is no reason why the applications could not include all objects. Files would be bigger, but this is probably not an issue today.

The real reason is that they have been and still are developed by different teams. When you get down to the Object Model you can see that the objects are inconsistent - similar objects work quite differently. E.g. Excel and Word (and Windows file system) sort strings in different orders.

A concerted effort could resolve these - but this could only be achieved by abandoning backward compatibility. I doubt there is the market value in doing this.

A more interesting question is why most people slavishly buy the same (overpriced) programs when there are equivalents e.g. Open Office.