Skip to content

Come on Charlie - tell us what you really think

Charlie Stross unloads on Microsoft Word


Author Charles Stross has dumped fully on Microsoft Word in a blog posting called ‘Why Microsoft Word must Die‘ and in case the title isn’t sufficiently clear he opens with:

“I hate Microsoft Word. I want Microsoft Word to die. I hate Microsoft Word with a burning, fiery passion.”

Here at we’ve never been the unthinking promoters of Microsoft Office. Sometimes we’re the first and only ones pointing out limitations in Microsoft’s work. But in this case perhaps Mr Stross has gone a little too far?

Some of his complaints are valid but outdated. Certainly the old .doc format (also .xls and .ppt) were a horrible mess and the cause of many corrupted and lost documents over the years.

However the new file formats (.docx .xlsx, pptx etc) are much more reliable, logical, safe and corrupt files can be recovered in whole or part. But Charlie is right that some elements of the XML base in the new formats is Microsoft centric. Microsoft deliberately split off from the plan to make a common OpenDocument format to make their own similar files which had Microsoft proprietary requirements.

Word may have worked with a mix of control codes and styles – but that’s long gone. These days Word uses styles throughout, even if it doesn’t seem that way. Individual character and paragraph formatting are implemented with custom, hidden styles.

It’s also very true that Microsoft Word is mostly intended for business use – after all, the vast majority of purchasers are organizations. So it’s little wonder that Word is skewed towards making business documents.

Certainly Word’s features effect how documents are written these days. Before Word, people used less bullet or numbered lists, bold, italic, sub-headings etc (thinking only of text here – setting aside graphics and charts for the moment). Business letters used to be long, unbroken series of paragraphs, now they are more likely to be separated with sub-headings or include bulleted points. All these things help deliver the message intended by the writer, who chooses those tools because they are on the toolbar/ribbon, ready to click.

The unfortunate downside is a sameness to document formatting. Too many of us use the Word defaults for fonts, bullet points etc.

Word is flexible but doesn’t suit all purposes. For example, TV, movie and theatre writing have their own demands that don’t fit well in Word.   It’s a general purpose tool but can’t be “everything for everyone” much as Microsoft might like to pretend that it is.

It’s hard to understand Mr Stross’s complaint that “Each new version of Word defaulted to writing a new format of file which could not be parsed by older copies of the program.” It’s true that almost every release of Word has meant a new file format, or at least an upgrade to the existing format. Word 2007, Word 2010 and Word 2013 all use the .docx format – but each new version of Word has changed the technical details of the format. Happily those differences are mostly shielded from users. Office has always been able to open documents from previous versions – even Word 2013 can open and save to the Word 97 format. Changing file formats is a pain in the euphemism and has been exploited by Microsoft to push buying software upgrades, but evolving formats are necessary to support new features in documents.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking with an older version of Word, if it suits your needs. While Microsoft loves to push the idea that ‘everyone’ has the latest version of Office, that’s never the case. We loved this comment on the blog:

Hey, I love Microsoft Word! By which I mean Word 5.1 for Macintosh, which next month will be old enough to vote.”

No one fully likes the Office interface and that’s understandable. Word has a lot of features, most people only use a fraction of those abilities but each person uses a different fraction. The interface is a necessary compromise between making features obvious and available while also being unobtrusive for people who don’t use some of those same features.

Word and Office have the vast majority of market share which is a good and bad thing.  The bad side of it is less development of features and higher prices.  On the other hand, MS Office ubiquity gives us a consistency of document formats and usability that we might not enjoy if the market was more fragmented.

By all means, rant and rave about Word and Office. That’s what has done since 1996. Complaints about Microsoft Office are a necessary balance against the fanciful world of perfection put out by Microsoft. Microsoft, like all companies, makes choices that suits their corporate needs which aren’t always the same as customers (Office ‘subscriptions’ or rental being the latest example).

About this author