When equivalence is the wrong question

When equivalence is the wrong question

Summary: Use the wrong tool for the job long enough and you'll become convinced that what you know how to do defines the job - and that tools which do it right must therefore be wrong. Sound absurd? It is; but it's true too - and the basis for a lot of negative decisions about open source.

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Probably the single most common mistake people make when assessing open source tool choices against the Microsoft toolset is to seek direct functional equivalence.

You see a popular variation of this among people who decry open source word processors like Writer because these don't allow the kind of near desktop publishing Microsoft's Word can be stretched to accommodate.

What's really going on, however, is that the Microsoft tool is the wrong tool for the job - and when these people demand equivelance from the open source community they're really asking us to legitimize and perpetuate their mistakes.

It's easy, of course, to see how this evolves: early Word users got assignments requiring them to stretch its appropriate use just a little further - and a little further - and pretty soon lots of users had learning and ego investments in pushing the envelope, quality compromises got institutionalized, Microsoft responded by stacking another floor on tottering foundations - and the communications gap between Word users pretending to desktop publishing and the people who know what the results should be, and use the right tools to get them, just got larger and larger.

At some point what you get out of that process is business applications written in Access; statistical applications written for Excel; thundering MCSE denunciations of guys like me who think this almost criminally absurd; and mounting corporate loses in accountability, compliance, data security, and organizational productivity.

Using Microsoft Word in desktop publishing is a classic example of the co-evolution of a product, its markets, human barriers to change, and a learning curve gone wrong: it's easy to get into but impossible to do well -and the rejection of open source tools because they get stuff like this right ultimately just an almost inconsequential component of the overall productivity loss this imposes on its victims.

In the general case it all comes down to this: a house made of straw has to have a design that's appropriate to straw - and if you change to brick you can build a better, stronger, house that will last longer - but you can't just replace a few bales with bricks, you can't use the same design, and you better re-assess the foundations before starting work.

Topics: Open Source, CXO, Collaboration, Microsoft, Software

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47 comments
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  • So, replace one tool with many?

    Since Microsoft Word can be used for a varity of tasks, and Writer can not, therefore one must use writer and a varity of other tools to do the work of one program.

    And here you claim that open source is [i]allways[/i] more productive.
    GuidingLight
    • You can use an M1 tank to go grocery shopping

      But it's certainly not the most efficient way to do it. You're conflating productivity with singularity, which is just silly. There are a lot of tasks you can do more easily in Writer than Word, even if you can't do as many. So you're saying you should stick with a program that is more complicated and difficult to use for 90% of your day to day tasks just because it can also do that 10% that you perform once a month?

      That's not even the most common situation to be in. Typically, the bulk of the users in an organization only ever use a small fraction of Word's capabilities; only a few power users ever get into the more advanced features, and would be served just as well, every day, by Writer or similar. So it's more efficient for the organization to equip workers according to their task, isn't it?

      But not so fast. Turns out that increasing the number of applications in an organization is one of the key factors in increasing the support burden and IT staffing costs. From a support perspective, it [i]may well be[/i] cheaper to just run Word for everything. When you extend that logic to the entire Office suite, you increase the savings... one mouth-breathing MCSE has all the fundamental knowledge to support the whole package without having to go out and learn anything novel or new. Take that same MCSE, ask him to support Office, OpenOffice, Abiword, Google Docs, etc, etc, and he suffers brain melt and suddenly needs an assistant or a pay raise (as he has just become a Unix administrator).

      So, that may be where Paul's argument breaks down: it may not be about equivalence at all, but simplicity and the implicit support burden introduced by the "right tool for the task" mentality.
      IMS_Scott
      • Effects of specialization on support

        The issue you raise is interesting and bears on a much broader consequence of the way PC support is handled.

        I agree that the typical MCSE isn't up to supporting specialty software like Adobe's publishing tools. However.. what actually happens when you deploy specialized tools is that the users form their own support groups - so the sysadmins never acquire "help" functions for the specialized tools.

        In general having lead users support other users is more productive than having outsiders do it- so, in general, use of specialized but appropriate tools works better than having the help desk people support generic software whose specific task usage they don't understand.
        murph_z
        • I get that all the time in my job....

          I'm "The Mac Guy" in my company however I'm still
          Desktop Support. I keep Mac's running. However I keep
          getting questions about how to actually "USE" specialty
          programs like Quark or CS2 for instance. I often reply "I'm
          not an expert in the field known as Desktop Publishing.
          See there are titles that indicate a certain knowledge base
          and that one is not me. I can help you if Quark in not
          running correctly that I can fix but I can't tell you how to
          create a page and such."

          Pagan jim
          James Quinn
        • Somewhat agree

          You're absolutely right that having lead users supporting other users is a more efficient approach for specialized software packages, but it doesn't always happen that they figure this out themselves and form their own support groups. I've seen a lot of support techs sink hours into troubleshooting Adobe problems when Joe Graphic Designer two cubicles down could have fixed the problem in five minutes. Perhaps the best thing that IT could do in such situations is seek to formalize and facilitate the user to user support, while simultaneously fending off managers who are stuck in the "But it's a computer problem, that's IT's job!" mindset.
          IMS_Scott
        • You mean "free" of cost for the vendor

          You mean free of cost for the vendor making the profit on the sale of the application. Another solution would be to ensure that help desk people were adequately trained so they DO understand the software they are being paid to support. Yet another solution would be for the vendor to offer to hire/pay "lead users," or whomever IS qualified to support their product, for their time & trouble.

          The vendor wants to sell you something, take the profit from the sale and then abdicate support for any mistakes in the product or for their inadequate instruction manuals (remember manuals?)
          maggietoo9
      • Old news

        When Microsoft asked people what added features would make Word and the rest of Office more effective, (what) 80% of the responses requested features that were already in the product.

        Microsoft considered how to make feature availability more obvious and came up with the ribbon design for Office 2007. Though there were some complaints from people who saw any change as a bad change, the sales figures indicate that the idea was largely accepted.

        You wrote:

        Typically, the bulk of the users in an organization only ever use a small fraction of Word's capabilities; only a few power users ever get into the more advanced features, and would be served just as well, every day, by Writer or similar.

        [End quote]

        But users who are concerned enough to look for a feature often find it. And the power users are glad to share their expertise, sometimes insist upon it.

        So I suggest that the limited feature use argument against Office components is an anachronism.
        Anton Philidor
        • I think you're reading too much into the sales figures

          People buy Office because someone else did, and they get annoying messages when they try to open the files from the newer version. :)

          At any rate, I don't see how any of what you said addresses my argument. We're talking about those users who aren't concerned with new features at all, for whom the redesign was just another impediment to using the product.
          IMS_Scott
          • ... and you too little.

            Your ideal user is insistent on having software which provides as little functionality and as few efficiencies as possible and who, as a result, resents improvements. He also must reject efforts by others to expand his knowledge and never encounter materials which show available advantages, because otherwise he might come to appreciate them.

            You wrote:

            We're talking about those users who aren't concerned with new features at all, for whom the redesign was just another impediment to using the product.

            [End quote]

            He has accepted the IT restrictions on his work, come to value them like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, and lost hope that his life can ever be improved. That's a depiction of angry despair.

            I was considering an alternate group of users.
            Anton Philidor
          • Those are called "power users"

            Which are, by definition, in the minority. I think you're falling into a common trap among the technically savvy, which is assuming that everyone is just as fascinated with how cool technology is as you may be yourself. Trust me, they're not--they want to get their work done, they don't want some geek from the IT department showing up every six months with a "better" way to do things, "better" being defined narrowly enough to disregard all the disruption that the very fact of an interface or program change rains down on them.

            If the world worked the way you would like it to, more than half of all technology projects wouldn't fail, users wouldn't constantly circumvent IT systems in order to get things done, and a body of transcriptionists of my acquiantance wouldn't continue to regard WordPerfect 5.1 as the height of word processing application UI design. They may well be right, at that.
            IMS_Scott
          • IT's better and users' better...

            ... are two different things. IT may be suspect because the enthusiasms of IT are not the enthusiasms of users. But improved applications that solve known problems and provide new functionality which users can recognize are appreciated.

            Otherwise no one would have upgraded software at home.

            You're right that IT has difficulties: "more than half of all technology projects ... fail, users ... constantly circumvent IT systems in order to get things done, and a body of transcriptionists of my acquiantance ... continue to regard WordPerfect 5.1 as the height of word processing application UI design."

            Partly the loyalty to WordPerfect is because they're accustomed to it. Do you think, though, that they wouldn't accept an improved WordPerfect? Especially if they requested the software themselves rather than receiving it through IT's initiative.
            Anton Philidor
          • Oh, and speaking of sales figures...

            You didn't really think that your "alternate group of users" were driving those, did you? It's that same IT department you characterize as holding users hostage that is upgrading Office. As with most such upgrades, most users have little to say about it.
            IMS_Scott
          • Agreed

            The best applications are completely invisible - they do the job, no one cares about them and most people will deny they even exist.

            I know business apps that have run unchanged for more than ten years. They're simply a fact of life for users - and on one cares simply because they work and the IT group has learned to leave them alone.

            You may not know of any, but go ahead, start your car - place a ph call - whatever - then ask yourself: how would that experience change if Microsoft's revenues depended on getting you to upgrade the software every few months?
            murph_z
          • No, no don't improve my software.

            I like Office 2000 because my pst file dies when it exceeds 2 gigs. Then I can feel like Indiana Jones when I have the adventure of bringing it back to life.

            Software never gets better, as Murph says in the post above, and the computer will never, can never do more for me than it does now.

            It's knowing that tomorrow will be the same today forever that makes me happy. I'd never ask for upgraded software like what I use at home, because software at work is supposed to be primitive and incapable. And the people outside IT would never tell IT to order new software because ... nobody tells IT anything.

            I think Murph is lulled by the COBOL model. And I think there's a chance you're confusing attitudes toward IT with attitudes toward software among users. They may have hope for one of those two.
            Anton Philidor
          • "Improvements"

            Anton, don't conflate :)

            Where software is unreliable and / or slow or lacks a key feature just about everyone would want that improved. And it can be done with minimal disruption or training requirement to the user.

            But too often software suppliers present gratuitous changes to an interface as "improvements".

            If the perperators visited my desk at the wrong time I'd be very tempted to mess up their interfaces, too.
            Ross44
        • Abrams vs SmartCar

          As was pointed out, you could use a tank to go shopping - but you'd be better off using a jeep or SmartCar.

          Why pay for bloatware that has about two features you want/need (and those less-than-perfectly-implemented), when you can spend less to get *precisely* what you want - in a form that uses your resources a lot more efficiently?

          The fact that Word *can* do a job is no reason to assume that it's *good* for that job.

          I don't use Word (or any part of Office); i generally use EditPad Lite (free - the Pro version starts at $49.95 for a single-user license)to enter and edit text, then i use a stand-alone DTP (Serif PagePlus [$99.99 but you can generally get some reductions]) if it has to be pretty. And i can make it a *lot* prettier with PP than i could with Word.

          And probably put less work into it.

          You *can* use a Swiss Army Knife to open cans, saw through (small) tree branches, check compass direstions, open cans, trim cloth, file down sharp edges on sheet metal, start a fire, etc., but you'd be better off with individual tools for the individual functions - and a SAK that can do all those things really isn't a pocket knife any more.
          fairportfan
          • If you want/need only two features...

            ... congratulations on your minimal success. Others appreciate having more done for them, and are willing to pay for the assistance. There's always difficulty extrapolating from one's self to everyone else.


            The comparison I'd make is Office as a toolkit with an axe, saw, compass, can opener, scissors, file, lighter, et al. That's why you call it bloatware. A versatile tool would not include all those specialized instruments, though inventiveness could make it serve each purpose.

            The third alternative is full-sized high quality tools obtained separately. That may be the highest quality solution, but it would be expensive and take a great deal of time and space.


            So Office is not a unique solution, but it is a reasonable response to what people and organizations want/need within its range of capabilities and functions. There might be better or cheaper or both, but that's a different issue.
            Anton Philidor
    • MS Publisher?

      Even MS knew that Word wasn't for desktop publishing, at least at one point.
      seanferd
    • Use a hammer instead of a screwdriver, right...

      I can do with Writer all I'd want Word to do. Desktop publishing and web editing can be done better with Writer than with Word, Writer is also used to create database states...

      Advanced publishing shouldn't be done with Writer (although PDF output alone blows Word away), and you can forget about it with Word; if you want to draw something, then OOo provides Draw - much better than Word's Wordart (Draw allows real OpenGL 3D rendering, lighting and shading).

      for publishing, I use Scibus - which leaves Publisher in the dust.

      I have yet to find a functionality in Word that doesn't exist in Writer, apart from those 'features' covering a Word format limitation.

      Right. The grammar checker. Hint: if you rely on it, go back to primary scholl, like, right now.
      Mitch 74
  • Access *is* an application development tool

    "At some point what you get out of that process is business applications written in Access"

    And what's your point? While it is true Access can be used by end users out of the box you need a developer to fully unleash Access, someone who knows it in depth.

    Remember, Access is a full-blown RDBMS. Even the much-maligned Jet engine is formidable in the right hands.

    While I wouldn't use it to create a web app for tens of thousands of users I *do* use it to create the backbone application of our 200 employee company--50 of which actually use the application regularly.

    It handles all aspects of our business too, from dispatch/paging of techs to vault tracking and service records, to customer billing, to employee records and management reports.

    It can create reports for any user to screen, printer, email, providing PDF files for customers--all with a single mouse click. It even allows limited automation to send chains of reports.

    While our company isn't a Fortune 100 with 50,000 employees we do keep busy, and that Access application acts as a central library for everything.

    You seem to think Office is just for doing memos. It isn't. And while I do shudder to see Excel pressed into service as an impromptu database (brr...) the truth is most such uses are for simple lists--that really don't *need* a database.

    If you're going to complain about a tool, you should actually live with the tool for a couple of years and learn it in depth.

    Notice I'm not knocking Unix/Linux/OS X? That's because I don't know them in depth. By the same token it's obvious your knowledge of Windows and Office is similarly shallow.

    Of course when all you have is a Sunray I guess everything looks like a nail... :)
    wolf_z