Feature Creature

Forbes ASAP , October 04, 1998

THE LATEST VERSIONS OF Microsoft Word are so helpful they drive people crazy. Computer columnists curse when they mention the program's animated Office Assistant: "that damned paper clip," "that $#@! paper clip," and so on. One writer calls it "a cheesy gimmick that appeals only to bonehead Teletubbies fans."

But it's a big mistake to attribute user aggravation to Word's cutesy graphics or, worse, to suggest that the cure is to replaceat you want better than you do.

What drives people nuts about Word is that it presumes to know what they want to do and then to tell them how to do it. In its eagerness to anticipate their every plan (You wrote "A." You must be making an outline. I'll turn your document into one, whether you like it or not.), Word restricts users' flexibility and freedom. Yet even as it enfeebles users, it awards itself surprising flexibility, making changes in screen formats seemingly at random, with no input from the user.

To those who already understand it, or who want to devote hours to reconfiguring its options, Word's helpfulness may be a wonderful thing, its bizarre changes perfectly intelligible. But to people who just want to go about their business without becoming Word experts, its features look like bugs.

In a letter to the editor of PC World, John Groo writes, "I don't need cash register sounds in my accounting program, unsolicited pearls of wisdom exploding onto the screen, or dancing paper clips and all these other features that deliver little more than enhanced cuteness. I don't need applications telling me what I want, resizing their main window for no apparent reason every time I launch the program, or adding and removing toolbar icons without notice or request. I need apps that are rock-solid from top to bottom -- and can help me get my work done."

If "intelligence" means programs that do what they want instead of serving the user, many customers would prefer something stupid but reliable. Your phone, after all, does not anticipate the number you want to dial when you are halfway through; it lets you decide, even though you sometimes make mistakes. Your car does not suddenly reconfigure the pedals or rearrange the dashboard displays.

The New Republic's Margaret Talbot skewers the "tyrannically solicitous program." Word's dumbed-down explanations, she notes, apply only to things most people already know, such as how to write a letter. But "when it comes to explaining something the average computer user is not at all likely to understand -- say, why a program repeatedly malfunctions -- the computer spews gobbledygook. 'Cannot access NR2.Sys,' it told me the other day when I did what I have done to it every previous morning of its life. . . . Where's little Mr. Scampering Paper Clip now?"

The great thing about Word, of course, is that almost all its solicitous tyranny can be switched off. The problem is that it's often hard to figure out how. That keeps all those computer columnists in business, but it exacts a cost from people who just want to get their work done.

Unfortunately, the program's initiating helpfulness mimics the harder-to-escape fallacies of technocratic law. Instead of simple, reliable rules that allow users to create their own complexity, both offer complex regulations designed to make the world simple. Both substitute the designer's knowledge and preferences for the user's, confident that experts can anticipate every problem and eliminate it before it occurs. Both presume that global "top-sight" is wiser than on-the-spot experience. Both reserve for themselves the discretion to act without explanation yet fail to grant similar discretion to their users. Both disregard the costs they add to everyday life. Both create a caste of expert guides.

COMPARED TO THE LAW, of course, Word is incredibly simple. Nor does Microsoft prosecute users who don't write short enough sentences or properly format their letters. And you can always switch to WordPerfect. As Microsoft's executives and a raft of antitrust lawyers are well aware, that last trick won't work when dealing with the government.