Microsoft Word is Not “Bad Technology”

Stephen Downes (2000) writes, "Bad technology forces you to fit its requirements. I purchased my copy of Microsoft Word in Canada, but the default dictionary was for American English. I could install a British dictionary, but Canadian English is distinct from both British and American English. Like many users, I am forced to add each distinctly Canadian word to a custom dictionary. This is bad technology. Why can't I simply tell Word that I am Canadian (or an architect, or a member of some other specialized group) and have it retrieve the appropriate spellings for me?"

With the release of the Office 2000 suite of products, based on feedback from customers like Mr. Downes, the entire family of Microsoft Office products are designed to support multiple languages and the personalization of the software to a particular users needs. In particular, if Mr. Downes sits down to a computer and tells it he is Canadian (assuming that their computer network is properly configured to support roaming users), then not only will spelling and grammar checkers be configured to use Canadian English, but when he moves to another computer within that networked environment, it will also default to his personal settings. However, when I, as an American English user log on to those same computers, it will automatically track my preferences and use the American English spell checker and grammar checker.

In addition, for people that need to use multiple computers that are not part of a network that support roaming users, Microsoft has provided through the a utility called "Save My Settings" which allows you to store your personalization settings to a server on the Internet, and then retrieve them on a different machine (also connected to the Internet). In addition to the language settings, it also saves things such as customized dictionaries, personalized template files, and all other customizations you may have made to the Office suite of products.

The important thing to note is that Office does allow significant levels of personalization and customization, more so than any other productivity suite on the market.

Mr. Downes, in this article requests the following of good technology:

  1. Simplicity

  2. Customizability (personalization)

  3. Reliability (it just works)

Unfortunately, simplicity and reliability and customizability are in

Some sense at odds with each other. There is nothing simple about the ATM network, except that to the end user, it is very simple. The ATM network is indeed personalized... but it is not simple in any sense of the word. It is actually quite a complicated network of business to business transactions, networks talking to each other, etc. The end-user does not see any of that.

When you give people the ability to customize a piece of technology, you are reducing its "standardization" in that now two people, trying to do the same thing, may have customized their environment to the point where the software looks completely different.

A good example of how Microsoft Word addresses this paradox of wanting to make software standard, simple, yet personal, are the smart menus. When I use Microsoft Word (or any other product in the office suite), and click on a menu item, initially, only the features I use most often appear (not the other 10 or so items I have never used). If I do not find what I want, in a few seconds, more options will appear. By tracking features I use and promoting them to the smart menu, and demoting the features I have not used in a long time, the software learns what I like to do and makes it easier for me to do those things.

Another way that Word meets Mr. Downes definition of good technology is the help system. Rather than having to search through an index or table of contents, I can simply ask it a question in natural language. This is a good example of how technology is not forcing people to fit its requirements, but that software has been innovated to make it fit each individual’s requirements.

While I do indeed agree with many of Mr. Downes points in his article, his critique of Microsoft Word in this context is simply unfounded.