Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Clippy's Revenge

When did Microsoft Word become such a lumbering, bloated behemoth?

It was not always thus.  Many years ago, I recall Word being a vaguely clunky but otherwise harmless word processing program.  In its early iterations, as I remember them, it was clearly nerdy -- not much in the way of fonts or colors -- but it got the job done without much fuss.  Even when the Windows versions came along and some of the simple elegance of the old DOS version fell away, it was still pretty tolerable.  For a time, Word and WordPerfect were the Coke and Pepsi of word processing programs; preference was a matter of taste, but you could pretty much move between them without especially noticing.

The first real sign that something had gone horribly wrong was Clippy.  (I think this was somewhere around 2000, though I’ve forgotten the particulars in the same way that the body forgets pain.)  Clippy was an animated paper clip who existed mostly to annoy users.  He asked presumptuous questions, and just getting him to go away took more labor than it should have.  “You look like you’re writing a letter!  Would you like some help?”  Sure, Clippy, what’s another way of saying GET THE %(&$ OFF MY SCREEN YOU &^*(%$&#^%*?

Clippy was eventually dispatched -- nobody asked too many questions -- and Word reverted to its mildly annoying self.  Soon, free alternatives like Open Office came along that fulfilled much the same role WordPerfect used to, only without having to pay for it.  I switched, as did most people I know.

I mostly skipped Office 2007, except for a few ill-fated experiments on a short-lived laptop.  This was the version in which Microsoft decided that easily found, clear commands like, say, “print,” just weren’t sporting enough, so it hid them.  I actually had to google “How to print in Word 2007.”  When you have to google “how to print,” something isn’t right.

By this point, of course, I had discovered Google Docs.  Google Docs is mercifully stripped down, like Word once was, and it has the virtues of zero cost, self-updating, and automatic online backup.  (That may not sound like much, but go through a hard drive crash or two, and you’ll see the appeal.)  I liked it because I could start noodling with a blog post on my lunch break on one computer, and then finish it at home that night without bothering with file transfer.  It also has an obvious “print” button.  This is not to be dismissed lightly.

For the last several years, I’ve been happily using NeoOffice at work, Google Docs at home, and Open Office on the road when I couldn’t get online.  Not perfect, but fine.

Then, the book came along.

I compose in Google Docs, but for reasons unknown, my publisher wants files in Word, and it sends files back and forth in Word, complete with obscure functions like “track changes.”  So I bit the bullet and got Word 2010.

The horror...the horror...

Clippy’s revenge is total.  In addition to being absurdly huge, the program is almost comically inscrutable.  Now it comes in “starter” as well as, I don’t know, “veteran” flavors.  Did you know that “starter” doesn’t include “track changes?”  I didn’t, either.  And can you buy the one additional feature you want?  Negative -- it’s all or nothing.  “Copy and paste” has become far more complex, and even something as simple as “save” requires changing screens.  Just figuring out how to change the line spacing from single to double required multiple trips to “help,” since its preferred solution was to change templates (!).  

I didn’t need Clippy.  I needed a sherpa.

I understand the impulse to add yet another feature whenever someone wants it, but Apple (and Google Docs) has shown us the virtue of keeping things simple enough that you don’t have to do internet searches to figure out how to print a damn document.  The 286 pc I bought in 1990 could print a damn document, even if it had to use dot matrix to do it.  (For younger readers, just imagine that I yelled at you to get off the lawn.)  First things first.

Clippy, you may be enjoying this bit of revenge now, but I’m putting you on notice.  I wrote this post, like nearly every other post, in Google Docs, and I liked it.  And as soon as this manuscript is in, I’m done with you.  

Keep it simple.  Life is too short to have to look up “save.”