The Microsoft way... or the Highway

I finally have to bring this up, as it's been bothering me for years. At one location, I'm forced to use Microsoft Outlook 2010 for email, because it is all that is supported.
Written by Chris Clay Clay, Contributor

I finally have to bring this up, as it's been bothering me for years. At one location, I'm forced to use Microsoft Outlook 2010 for email, because it is all that is supported. Being in IT, I can adjust to various programs, even ones I don't like. Except that there's one thing with Outlook 2010 that I cannot stand. When replying to an HTML message, I cannot insert line breaks within the reply text from other users, that is indented to show previous correspondence, while keeping the original text marked so that it is together. In Outlook 2003 I could do this by right-clicking and decreasing the indent as many times as needed which would eventually put in a true line break where I could insert my comments within the reply text from other users. In Outlook 2010, this option is mysteriously gone. I can press the "Decrease Indent" button a million times and the cursor just sits there. Ah, this must be a "new feature" of Outlook 2010. Unfortunately, it is extremely counterproductive. When replying to somebody's message, I find it very convenient to insert my reply lines within their original message text. This functionality has been around since the early days of email in every email program I've used. This way, when the recipient sees my reply, they can see exactly what my reply comments relate to, and their original text is grouped together. This also makes back and forth correspondence much more visible and easier to follow when both the sender and recipient do this. I am not a big fan of including all of my message text in one area, either in the very top or bottom of the message, because it is more work for the me and the recipient to try and figure out what each section of it applies to. It gets messier with the more back and forth correspondences, because there's reply text above and below the original text from multiple sends back and forth.

I've been in IT for many years, close to 14 now. In the early days of email, this was easy with text messages. Every email client back then would place the ">" symbol in front of the line. I can set Outlook to do this, by going under Options and under "Replies and forwards", set it to "Prefix each line of the original message". This also indents the original HTML message when I reply to it which is what most email clients do, even today. But, for some reason Microsoft got the idea that nobody needs to insert comments within the original message at the same time as marking the original message text. This is ludicrous. Thanks Microsoft, you've taught me that I don't know what I need, and that you do. Even though the rest of the industry still knows that this is a good idea. Every other email client that I've seen (I use Thunderbird on Linux for my own PCs), lets me do this just fine as it's been standard email practice for years. In fact I find Thunderbird one of the best at this as it even color codes the indent character for each block of original message text, so that it's even easier to see what replies were sent with what message if there are several back and forth correspondences. Mozilla seems to realize that this feature is important and they've enhanced it like this. This works well for me as I can review the email and see the exact correspondences for each section or point in the message.

Luckily, I have found a workaround for Outlook which will get by, but it's not as good as how it should be. The workaround is to go into Options, and under "Replies and forwards", select "Include and indent original message text". This indents the original text same as before and lets me insert my text justified fully to the left margin. Good, that's better, although it's not perfect because it doesn't color code the indents like Thunderbird does. This article sums up the problem and workaround I found, fairly well. I also found that when set this way, for plain text messages, the original message text is not indented or marked at all, so I'm back to the Microsoft way of doing things for text messages only. Luckily, plain text messages aren't as common as HTML ones are. But, there's no way to have Outlook indent and mark original message text for replies of both HTML and plain text messages.

What other ways does Microsoft try to control the users? Well, another one that still bugs me is the ribbon interface in Microsoft Office. Again, I am forced to use Office at times and while the ribbon isn't a huge deal to me, Microsoft doesn't offer any option to switch the interface back to "classic" menus and toolbars. Sure, you can customize the toolbars a little, but it's just not as efficient (in my opinion) as the menus/toolbars were before they were redesigned. I find myself clicking on tabs and sorting through the big and small buttons looking for things, whereas before it was a lot easier for me to go through each dropdown menu one at a time and see everything listed together at once. Plus, the ribbon interface takes up more screen space than the single menubar and toolbar (even though it can be "minimized"). Again, Microsoft knows what users want, the users certainly don't, according to Microsoft.

Unfortunately, I see this type of thing happen with open source and GNU/Linux as well. There has been talk of having a ribbon interface in future versions OpenOffice, and I have seen some users in an uproar about it. But, I am suspecting that if this were to happen, there would be a way to switch the view back to classic mode. I can only hope this would be the case. Firefox has redesigned the interface but it allows users to easily switch it back to the old interface with menus. Gnome 3 is another example where I think that the developers thought they knew what was best for the users because the interface was changed drastically from Gnome 2 which was acclaimed by the community and user base for years. There is the "fallback mode" of Gnome 3, which sort of gets back to the regular Gnome 2 shell, but that one is still a touchy subject with users. I can't draw any solid conclusions yet on Gnome 3 as it is still very young and features and enhancements are still being added.

I've mentioned before that Microsoft has control of its customers, and these are just a couple of examples. Microsoft says that they do take feedback into consideration, and I believe they do to an extent. But I think that their R&D teams have more influence on the way that their software is designed, and I'm not sure that this always represents the majority of customer desires. And open source? There really isn't an R&D barrier, because the customers of the software include the same ones that develop it, and feedback is more widely accepted in my opinion than closed source and proprietary software.

Editorial standards