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Microsoft products have always presented a paradox for organizations. On one hand they seem to be universally derided. On the other, they remain the corporate standard. Open source, SaaS/online and other alternatives have had a hard time gaining widespread traction in large organizations. That's partly because companies would likely rather deal with the devil they know, a de facto standard, rather than something else, and partly due to institutional inertia. It may not make sense, especially from a bottom-line cost perspective, but Don Lesser, who has been writing about computers since the early 80s, says that comfort level and the guaranteed ability to exchange documents internally and externally keep many companies on the Microsoft leash in spite of the known limitations of the products and the business practices of the company.

Lesser is in a position to speak intelligently about this subject. He has been writing about computers since before the first IBM PC saw the light of day. He has worked as a freelance technical writer, owned his own technical writing business (and actually gave me my start in technical writing) and since 1990 has run Pioneer Training, a company that helps train users, mostly inside businesses, to use Microsoft products. Lesser is also a food writer and accomplished cook and sees connections between technical writing and recipe writing. I recently asked him his opinions on Microsoft, corporate adoption of Vista and Office 2007 and the link between recipe writing and tech writing.

RM: You’ve been running a training company for many years, what products give your customers the most issues?

DL: Excel and Access are the current leaders in problems. Excel because there is a lot to the program that self-taught or basic users can’t discover on their own. Creating complex formulas to perform data transformation or using LOOKUP or Pivot Tables are things that basic users don’t need, but serious users find extremely useful. Not knowing the extent of the built-in functions also limits intermediate users. In addition, students are amazed at some of the shortcuts built into the program.

Access, because you need to understand relational database principles, data normalization, etc. in order to create an efficient database. The forms, reports, and queries also give some problems, but mostly people run into problems because they have not designed their tables properly. This is not something most people can pick up on their own and they approach Access as they would PowerPoint—show me how to create what I need—rather than understand that database design requires understanding of some non-intuitive concepts.

While most users can get around in Word, they steadfastly refuse to use styles or learn how to use Word as more than a “super-typewriter.” This is especially hard since Word 2007 makes extensive use of styles that present problems for users who do not know why fonts are changing/not changing or paragraph spacing is behaving as it does. Also, since WordPerfect and other DOS-based word processors needed macros to enforce formatting, users try to create macros to perform formatting that are best done with styles or other Word features.

In fact, that is one of the single biggest issues that I see: users do not learn how to perform tasks in the new application. Instead, they see how they can perform tasks as they have always done, even when the new application has better, faster, or just different ways of accomplishing the task. The older the user, the more they try to make a modern word processor behave as a DOS word processor.

Training is declining and I do not expect it to change any time soon. High Schoolers graduate with enough familiarity with Word to be productive and employers do not want to spend money to improve their schools.

RM: Are you seeing widespread adoption of Vista and Office 2007 or are people sticking with XP and Office 2003? Why do you think this is?

DL: No. Vista seems to be universally hated. People forget that each new version of an operating system is universally derided as “buggy” and “slow.” That said, Vista is the first time that after you struggle to learn the new paradigm, there is not much that is improved. From DOS 1.1 through each version of Windows, the new OS provided you with increased functionality. Vista does not seem to be doing that for most people. There are improvements in security and deployment best appreciated by IT departments.

Office 2007, because it has a new look, is also meeting with slow acceptance. I see more people using it today, but the adoption rate seems way below the similar adoption rates of Office 2000, XP, and 2003. Word, because of its reliance on styles and the “21st Century Document” look is a hard sell. Excel, with 1 million rows and 16,000 columns and some new functionality, is an easier sell and, after the 65,536 bug was fixed, is pretty much improved.

In general, the current economic climate, the resistance to change, the need for a hardware/software upgrade, and the steeper learning curve on the new OS/Office seem to combine to limit acceptance. Plus, when you get there, Vista doesn’t seem to offer much that is improved, at least in the interface (what most users see).

RM: What’s your personal view of Vista and Office 2007? Have they been good for business?

DL: I joked that Office 2007 was the “training employment act of 2007.” We did a number of large conversions that were good, but the small to mid-sized businesses have not converted. We have done no Vista training nor been asked for any.

RM: You’ve worked with enterprises and individuals. What fundamental differences do you see between the two?

DL: Businesses will spend the money. Their needs are for greater efficiency in performing office tasks and they see training as a way to improve business processes. They understand the costs of support and reducing them. Because the company is paying, the students tend to concentrate on the class and not on the cost and there is some accountability. Plus, their problems tend to be more interesting—“How can I shorten the time for this repetitive task?” “How can I get this project done?”

Individuals tend to be in two categories:

  1. The “I don’t understand computers at all; I need a basic class.” category.
  2. I’ve been using computers for 20 years, but I can’t figure out…

In either case, they don’t like to pay anything close to what the training is worth. Beginners, we send to libraries, adult ed, Career Point, and the other agencies that offer inexpensive classes for novices. In the later case, you don’t want to touch their systems. Often, they have so much stuff jury-rigged one on top of the other and have their own idiosyncratic way of doing things. Once you make one change, you own the computer and anything that goes wrong in the next 6 months is your responsibility.

If it sounds like I dislike individual user support, it is because I do.

RM: Microsoft recently announced the end of distribution of XP, while announcing the release date of the next version of Windows. Is this gap an opening for alternatives like Linux or the Mac, or will most businesses stick with Microsoft products?

DL: Definitely. The new Intel Mac lets you use Windows and Mac applications. I see more users, typically private and not corporate end-users, buying Macs. Don’t know any companies moving to Macs from PCs.

Since 1985, every year has been “The Year of UNIX.” I don’t see Linux as an end-user application in any wholesale way. Servers, particularly web servers, definitely. Perhaps custom workstations that run a single app, but I don’t see Linux replacing Windows.

Remember that in the 70’s “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” In the 80’s, DEC ruled the roost. These days, it’s Microsoft, although in my opinion, Microsoft’s star has crested and the new web paradigm will remake computing for the next period of time. Microsoft will be with us for a long time, and Office will be the tool of business for a long time. Still, as anyone who has ever used numbered lists in Word 97 on up can testify, some of the design decisions and implementation of Office features are remarkably bad.

Hosted solutions, SaaS, on-line apps are not quite there yet for widespread adoption. Open source software is like shareware of the 80’s—free, but not as good. Many will disagree with me, but I’d rather use Word for group collaboration than something else, despite its flaws. It is universal and you can count on your file being usable by others.

That said, I tend to get irritated by the anti-Microsoft bigots...In 1985, there were 10 major word processors, 10 databases, and 5 spreadsheets. By 1990, there were 3 in each category. Now, there is Office and the rest. What is the cost of individuation against standardization? I remember trying to convert data from one application to another as being a major hassle, not to mention figuring out how this program worked. Sort of like different roads for different cars; some things make sense as standards. Granted that MS made a ton of money and played pretty hard to get there. Balkanization may be good for regional cuisine, but not so good for communication. Compare and contrast: Gopher vs. HTML.

RM: You write your fair share of documentation as part your job and you are a cook. What in your view do food/recipe writing and documentation have in common?

DL: Both are descriptions of process requiring step-by-step instructions. You need to understand your user (experienced programmer? Experienced cook?) so you can speak to him/her correctly: you talk to a novice differently than an expert in both fields. You need to describe step by step processes correctly (1. “Remove Power supply.” “2. Disconnect from wall socket before removing power supply.” is the standard tech-writing example of a poor description. For a recipe, it is telling someone to pre-heat the oven to 425 after they have mixed their cake batter and not before they start.) A food-writer gave the example of telling a class of non-cooks to “toss the salad” and having one person actually throw it across the kitchen.

In fact, at the Greenbrier Professional Food Writers’ Conference this year, I had this very discussion in a Recipe Writing workshop. The panelists, both professional cookbook authors, wondered out loud whether any other discipline had the same type of problems of style and user knowledge in writing. I pointed out that tech writing did. Jeffrey Steingarten challenged me and I explained that you told a novice how to select an option in simple, step-by-step instructions while an expert could have it summarized, with options pointed out rather than enumerated. (Adding a footnote in a Word document was the example I gave.)

That said, there is much more room for personal style and variation in recipe writing than in a technical manual. Technical manuals rarely use first person narration or anecdotes while recipes rarely are written in the passive voice. Variations or options are typically summarized at the top or bottom of a recipe or in the accompanying text. These are often elided or placed in a sidebar in a technical work. There are more acceptable styles for recipe writing than tech manuals.

Also, professional recipes are tested, often by several cooks in different kitchens. Software manuals are often written with beta software and the steps re-tested just before release. As a result, tech manuals for new releases often lack examples and are successful if the steps correspond to the software. Software is often put to use by end users in ways the developers haven’t anticipated and these examples are lacking in a new release. By comparison, recipes have been tested enough for variations, tips, traps, or substitutions to be mentioned by the author and welcomed as valuable by the reader.

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Last Post by airbourne
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People "hating Microsoft" has become a self-fullfilling prophesy for the slashdot crowd.
The more they repeat their mantra, the more kids start to believe that you should "hate Microsoft" to be "kewl" and therefore proclaim loudly that they "hate Microsoft".

Meanwhile, real people who don't care for "kewlness" select the best tool for the job which more often than not is a Microsoft product.

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I like how people talk about standardization and interoperability, as if it was invented by Microsoft. Not including Office 2007, their products have always been behind the curve on both counts. Has Office 2007 gotten better? I have no idea, so I cannot comment directly about it.

I'm not a Microsoft "hater" and I actually enjoy Vista, minus the occasional migraine, but the higher up I get in my on the job education, the more I realize Microsoft isn't always the best tool for the job, it's just the one that everyone is used to.

In my experience, people that "hate Microsoft" are not being kewl, they are simply venting what is an increasingly frustrating "paid bug fixes" which Microsoft calls "feature enhancements" and "product upgrades".

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