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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Microsoft Office 2010: A cry for help?

Pardon the melodramatic headline, but I've had this thought bouncing around my head since I first installed Office 2010 -- the subject of today's column -- about two weeks ago.

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It's not just that Microsoft faces serious competitive pressure from the likes of Google, Apple, open-source developers and such startup firms as Evernote. It's not just that it's handcuffed itself to the contradiction of selling the same applications to IT professionals and to home users who barely touch its features. (Note: If you're an IT professional and feel that my reviews slight your needs, you should remember that I'm a consumer-technology columnist; that means that your problems aren't mine unless they affect what home users do on their own time.)

No, it's that a company that, until recently, was the biggest software firm in America seems incapable of shipping a clean, current, consistently functional set of programs.

The most obvious evidence of this problem is Office 2010's incoherent "co-authoring" options. While OneNote lets you keep the same document open between copies of the desktop program and its pared-down Office Web App equivalent, Word and PowerPoint only permit real-time sharing between their desktop selves (though you first have to set up that link through the Office Live site in a procedure so convoluted that I would have denounced it if I'd had more room to write). Excel 2010, meanwhile, doesn't allow any simultaneous work on a document -- but if you upload it to Office Web Apps, two Excel Web users can hack away at once on the file.

Microsoft deserves some credit for bringing even these limited features to home users, after years of reserving them for corporate users logged into its SharePoint server software. But it also deserves blame for doing so in a form most concisely described in an Excel spreadsheet.

Spending time in Office will reveal other telling details. One of my favorites is the absurd, 19-item menu Outlook 2010 offers to label a phone number you've added to a contact's listing. Your choices don't include "VoIP" or "satellite" (much less "Google Voice"), but they do feature such relics as "Car," "ISDN," "Other Fax," "Pager," and "Telex."

(Won't somebody at Microsoft please answer their StarTAC? 1987 is calling and wants its NYNEX Mobile phone back.)

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Then there's the dialog at the left, which appears when you save a document to Office Web Apps, even in Windows 7. That little sideways-face icon, apparently unchanged from its debut in Windows 95, may catch your attention first. But also note the logo at the bottom advertising Microsoft's .Net Passport -- as in, the Web-login system that Microsoft renamed and scaled back in the spring of 2006.

If we ran a story that got the basic points across but was also littered with obsolete or incorrect references, you would still doubt its worth. Well, what are you supposed to think of a product with as many signs of sloppy work as Office 2010? Is somebody at Microsoft trying to say they need some time off? Or is that an illogical scenario for a company with the resources of a Microsoft? Tell me in the comments -- or stop by my Web chat, at 1 p.m. instead of the usual noon today, to discuss it in real time.
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