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Brislen on Tech: Office Wars

Paul Brislen, Editor. 04 December 2020, 3:22 pm

I downloaded LibreOffice the other day on my Mac. I was sick of using Pages for word processing only because it autosaves everything as a .pages file and I have to export to .docx for every client I have. But I didn't want Word because I have customised word so very often and yet every time I log in to a new iteration it doesn't have a clue who I am.

LibreOffice clearly has not had a facelift since the 1800s. Honestly, it was a giant leap back in time to the Netscape 3.1 era of design. The icons alone were quite quaint but what really got me was the bewildering array of tools on offer for managing a simple document and, more importantly, the things that were missing.

Office and Microsoft Word are sadly very similar in that regard. Sure, I can chose from a thousand fonts, I can format, I can paste with formatting, or without, or with some other form of formatting. I can publish as HTML, I can save as a PDF, I can justify to my heart's content. There are templates, there are designs and there are styles (these are different things) and I can merge with lists, with other documents or with previous versions of the same thing.

Office Wars

But all these tools are overblown. There are so many options and so many tools that can or might plug in that simply aren't necessary and a lack of the tools that are necessary.

What I wouldn't give for one set of accepted words across all my devices. Or those shortcuts we all develop (when I type in nez and add a space my processor fills it out to New Zealand. This has been the hardest sentence to write because of that) and which I have to reteach every version I come across.

I have set up one processor to automatically lose the formatting by default as it pastes copy into a document, but I can't find the setting to let me do that on the other one, yet both are linked to the same account and both have my name on them. Instead, we get extra tools and extra capability added on all the time that don't seem to actually be on the wishlist of users.

Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the Salesforce purchase of Slack.

Slack was really the flagship  product of the new era of productivity tools. Never mind bundling Word and Excel and PowerPoint together, Slack (and Trello and Jira and Teams and all the others) bring together cloud storage, collaborative working, messaging (including video chats), calendars and meetings project planning and so much more.

For the early days of the gig economy, Slack was the business. You could belong to Slack channels for different companies! You could share documents and manage workflows independently of each other yet have it all in one interface! Truly, these were the best of times.

But for all the make busy, organising and sharing that goes on, I often wonder just how much actual y'know work takes place on these channels. I'm often reminded of my eldest daughter who, when she was starting out in high school, would make folders for each class, colour coordinated with tabs and goodness knows what else. Then she would make flip cards with notes on them and hole punch them and add them in. It would take hours and looked great but I'm not sure it actually counted as studying. (Mind you, having said that, she got much better grades than I ever did so what do I know?)

Salesforce used to be a CRM system (customer resource management) but has ballooned in recent years, buying up associated products and their owners and bolting them all together. Radian 6, long the high-end social media management platform, was an early acquisition but there are plenty more since then, and today Salesforce lumbers along with all manner of beast and fowl flapping and slithering and grunting and squawking and it's not alone.

Microsoft's productivity suite now centres around Teams which is a fancy front end to its own cloud-based storage-slash-CRM thing wherein you can set up a group of users (a Team) and give them access to certain files, a private chat facility complete with emoji, bolt on your Outlook calendar and Microsoft Planner should you want to plan things (or you can add Monday or Jira or a dozen or more besides) and you can make phone calls, have video conference calls, send tweets over Yammer (are they Yams?) and also allows you to open documents in the relevant online version of the app (even if you have the app installed) and auto-save it to the cloud (if you're connected) but again, this is a new iteration of the world processor, spreadsheet, slide deck so you don't have any of the tools you've personalised over on the other version.

I can see where they were going with all this. A word processor that is connected to other processors means multiple users can work on a document all at the same time (Google does this astonishingly well - if you want to see collaboration in action watch a classroom of primary kids working on a Google Doc) but the way all these tools work is to give everyone a second-class experience and call it progress.

But with two giants like Salesforce and Microsoft ready to duke it out for the new office revolution you can bet we're going to see innovation thrown at us in spades in the coming months and years. And, while I question just how productive this will make us, in a time when so many are working remotely and we might need to drop everything and get out of the office and work from a different device, all these new office tools give us the ability to carry on regardless, and that's worth a huge amount.

Welcome to the new Office Wars.


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David Lane 04 December 2020, 4:47 pm

Paul, unlike underlying code quality, UX "appeal" is generally a matter of resources invested. If NZ gov't invested 1/10th of what they out of the country to MSFT yearly on commissioning NZ devs to enhance LibreOffice, I'm sure you'd not only have a sexier interface, but you could have many of your pan-app niceties, too. The root cause of all the "lack of coordination" you bemoan is the fact that the proprietary products you use are written by market-research teams who don't talk to you. You're totally insignificant to them and always will be. When, however, *you* can hire someone to fix the handful of little niggles you have with your software (rather than vainly throw yourself to the mercy of the whims of the Frightful Five), you *might* have a hope of getting what you desire. And then maybe you'd be less likely to hurl shade at the stuff that actually values your freedom ;)

David Lane 04 December 2020, 4:52 pm

I should add, to explain my first sentence, the non-UX code that underlies much of the software we use is written by open source developers, often working without budget or with miniscule budgets compared to the $billions MSFT Research burns through every year (just to create a thicket of patent applications design to thwart competition rather than improve the state of the art for the benefit of software users)... and often that open source code is far far better quality than anything developed by the proprietary world. That's why, perhaps paradoxically, most of the Frightful Five's consumer offerings are a (often very thin) proprietary veneer over humble open source software frameworks & libraries.

David Lane 04 December 2020, 5:03 pm

That should be "what they *send* out of the country"....

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