21st: Office97 -- or Office 1984

Move into Microsoft's suite and Big Brother Paper Clip will be watching you.

Published June 1, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The dancing paper clip gave me the creeps. That sidelong way it leered at me. Those eyeballs bulging out of its wire frame.

I generally strive to avoid letting software programs get under my skin. But within hours of installing Microsoft's Office97 "productivity suite," my mind was made up. The paper clip -- an animated guide to the Office97 help system -- had to go. My desktop wasn't big enough for the both of us.

"How do I turn you off?" I typed into the paper clip's "natural language" query form. The wiggly automaton played dumb, offering me a list of useless pointers to information I did not want to know.

I decided on a less direct approach. "How do I turn off the Office Assistant?" I asked.

That did the trick. The Assistant directed me to a set of useful options for squelching itself. Now my software -- an integrated set of "the best desktop applications in the world" -- was working for me.

Or was it? Had the Office Assistant learned what I wanted? Or had it forced me into its own mold -- to speak paper clip pidgin, to think paper clip thoughts? Office97 is supposed to be empowering, to allow users to "get their work done faster and more effectively than ever before." Theoretically, we get to run the show. But in reality, we're less in control than ever before.

On April 17, Microsoft announced that it had sold 8 million copies of Office97 since its January release -- one per second, as Microsoft Office97 product manager Beth Herrell is quick to point out. Corporations, says Herrell, are upgrading in droves, accounting for some 60 percent of the sales, and helping drive Microsoft's profits to one of its most successful quarters ever.

But individual users are also flocking to the program. What's not to like? Office97 boasts features galore: seamless interoperability between word processing, database, spreadsheet, personal information and presentation management programs; "Web-centric" orientation; even animated cartoon helpers. It is Microsoft's state-of-the-art offering, the distillation of thousands of hours of usability testing and hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development. Office97 bestrides the software landscape like a colossus.

"We don't have a hard time convincing people that it is a quantum leap forward in terms of technology and customer benefits," says Herrell.

Indeed, to assay a critique of Office97 is to make a feeble gesture -- like waving a fly swatter at a tidal wave. The desktop belongs to Microsoft.

That doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot of grumbling and griping going on, of course. Usenet groups, mailing lists and Web pages are alive with the usual anti-"Microsloth" dissent. Microsoft Word 97 and Excel 97 files are not backwards compatible; they can't be read by earlier versions of the programs unless specially saved. Upgrading over previously installed versions can be tricky. Office97 is far from being free from bugs. The program is pricey -- around $500, depending on which version you want. And it is a classic instance of "bloatware" -- a monstrously huge program that can require as much as 200 megabytes of hard-drive space. The Net is rife with tales of Pentium 133, 16 meg RAM machines -- last year's top-of-the-line -- "brought to their knees" by Office97.

"The high price, the incompatibilities, the whole Office Assistant idea, the extra support issues that it has created for me and my staff are high costs not warranted by the product," says Richard Frisch, an insurance executive who posted his dissatisfaction on the Net and who has decided not to upgrade for now. "My productivity is not enhanced by this. I would rather they tighten the code, reduce the disk-size requirements of the package, and make the change more transparent from a support stance. But then again, I also hope to win the lottery someday soon."

Frisch's sense of resignation is a common reaction to the Microsoft onslaught. When dealing with Microsoft software, consumers are losing control on at least three levels. First, there's the long-familiar and accelerating upgrade treadmill: Each new version of Microsoft software seems to require a new computer, or at least another couple hundred dollars of RAM ugrades.

Second, there's the "buy one, buy them all" logic that kicks in once you start using Microsoft programs. Microsoft's choice of the image of a jigsaw puzzle as the marketing metaphor for Office is revealing, not just because of how well each piece fits together, but because of how pointless it is to attempt to jam a piece from a different puzzle into the picture. The more you use Microsoft software, the more sense it makes to use more Microsoft software. In economics, this is known as the law of increasing returns -- a theory that attempts to explain how certain products (the VHS cassette tape and the QWERTY keyboard leap to mind) command dominating positions in the marketplace regardless of whether or not they are technically superior to their competition. Once a technology commands enough of these "increasing returns," control and choice rests not with the purchaser, but with the seller.

The third way that Office97 takes control from the consumer is at once the most elusive and the most disturbing. Microsoft hype is predicated on claims of ever-increasing "ease of use" and productivity. As part of its game plan, the company is betting on artificial intelligence techniques developed by an impressive and innovative stable of some of the best minds in the world in the fields of decision-making theory, natural language processing and human-computer interface design. But as the programs are getting smarter, we are getting dumber.

It's easy to miss this fact as we rush to play with neat new features. I, certainly, have been seduced. I have a new computer, pre-installed with Office97, and I am wont to chuckle over it in unthinking glee. I tremble with joy when Word automatically transforms e-mail addresses and Web URLs into live, clickable pieces of code that launch my chosen browser or e-mail app. I groove on Outlook, Microsoft's new personal information manager, a dandy program that encourages me to use Word as my e-mail editor. I can hardly contain my euphoria when I drag and drop a name from my contact database into my Outlook "inbox" and it automatically creates an e-mail message with the proper e-mail address already inserted. As I sit at my computer, customizing my toolbars and playing with the outline-generating Document Map feature, I feel so productive I can hardly stand it. How I was able to get any work done in my pre-Office97 days, I'll never know.

But moving in wasn't easy. A new software program is like a wild horse; it has to be broken before you can ride it. As one Office97 user pointed out in a newsgroup, "The first thing you have to do to use Word is turn off all the automatic features. This makes it responsive enough to be usable."

Microsoft understands that users need to be able to turn off features. That gives them the illusion of control -- but that's all it is, an illusion. As I spent hour after hour struggling with the vast complexity of Office 97 in a frustrating battle to make the program do exactly what I wanted, I realized that I would never really know what I was doing. There were too many variables, and too many things were purposefully kept hidden from me. Even today, after most of my most pressing problems have been solved, inscrutable mysteries remain. Word plays strange formatting tricks on me. Upgrade patches cause more problems than they solve.

It's clear that Microsoft doesn't want me to know what I am doing. The company is quite frank -- listen to its description of the interactive help technology embodied by the Office Assistant:

"With IntelliSense in Office," reads the description on Microsoft's Web site, "the user can actually delegate tasks to the computer, without having to understand or perform all the steps involved in completing the task."

We don't need to understand. Microsoft's Office, Microsoft's design for the future, is a room with central heating, air-conditioning and lighting all controlled behind the scenes. If something goes wrong, we can try fiddling with a few onboard controls, but god forbid that we rip out the drywall and attempt to see what's really awry. With each new version of Microsoft software, be it an operating system or an application, the nuts and bolts of the program have become more obscure, the internal workings of the machinery further removed from the user's ken.

As a consequence, not only must we trust the interface, but we must also learn to behave as the software requires. And what the software increasingly pushes us toward is one seamless Microsoftian mind -- defined by focus groups and usability testing, by interoperability and cut-and-paste ease-of-use.

This may not be the conscious intent at Microsoft. I'm fully prepared to believe Eric Horvitz, a research scientist at Microsoft who works on the IntelliSense project, when he contends that the Office product group "wants nothing more than to make this a better experience for people." But when one company dominates the marketplace, when one company's "productivity suite" becomes the standard equipment for journeys into the digital domain, malicious intent is irrelevant. We learn to think the Microsoftian way, or no way at all.

And as the software progresses, the stakes will only rise. Horvitz says Microsoft is constantly searching for new "fundamental innovations and metaphors that allow for less of a separation between the central processing unit and the human mind. In a few decades we won't think twice about talking to a box and having it do what we want it to do. "

Do we really want Microsoft to determine the best way to organize a direct interface between the human mind and digital information? Do we have any other choice?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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