Sunday, July 02, 2006

Microsoft's buggy bloatware

I tend to actually do math with spreadsheets, not produce pretty documents, although some of what I do involves linking multiple spreadsheets, written documents (boilerplate), and databases, to mass produce customized reports. I did a lot of that sort of thing in Symphony, and as with 1-2-3, I pushed it right to the limit. Running out of physical memory was almost always my main complaint working with 1-2-3 or Symphony, even when I had maxed out the memory expansion possibilities on a high-end PC.

The way Microsoft approached application integration was rather different, conceptually, than how Lotus did. Lotus' scheme was very memory bound but if I could do the same thing using a Lotus product and a Microsoft product, it would be so much faster with the Lotus product that Microsoft's programs looked like escargot.

Microsoft takes the "it's good enough for the masses, so let's make it shiny" approach. MS relies on improvements in hardware (PC performance) to cover up the poor design and implementation of their core applications. Look at IE versus Firefox. Firefox is more secure, faster, does what you expect it to do (as opposed to what Microsoft wants it to do) and is presently the browser of choice for folks who want to add functionality by writing their own add-ons and plug-ins.

Excel is much the same way. PCs have become so powerful that a program such as Excel, burdened with all sorts of bells and whistles that most people never use and even power users rarely use in combinations very often, is just a software pig. You're right, it is relatively stable, but that was not always the case. When it was competing with 1-2-3 and Symphony, it won not on technical merits, but via MS's marketing clout. Users were convinced that then needed all the frills and that the slow performance would improve when faster machines became available, and that "nobody ever got fired for buying a Microsoft Office product" (Microsoft learned a lot about FUD from IBM).

Now, the amount of work that can be comfortably done in Excel on a typical new PC has so far surpassed what the majority of users require that the performance difference between Excel and what could be done is best summed up "plenty fast" versus "Warp 7". When 1-2-3 and Symphony were in their heydays, one usually turned off auto-recalculation as a matter of routine when developing complex spreadsheets. Excel made that a necessity back then. Now, it is only spreadsheet power users who you'll see developing spreadsheets big enough to make auto-recalculation a practical necessity.

In fairness, I consider gaping security holes to be bugs. Excel is king of the spreadsheets in a different day and age than 1-2-3 was. Lotus never had to worry much about security holes in its spreadsheets (dirty tricks used to by people creating spreadsheets to commit fraud were making a little news, but not much). Having malware infested documents passed around the 'Net infecting other people's machines was not an issue.

I'd like to see a spreadsheet built more like Linux; a lean mean core on which one could hang whatever features and options one wants -- they wouldn't slow it down or use resources unless one specifically installed and enabled them. Excel's "core" is too big and slow, IMNSHO, which qualifies it as bloatware in my book. Buggy? Well, yes, but mostly because of the security holes common to the entire Office suite and IE. Let's face it, ActiveX is just one of many serious problems that plague Microsoft's premiere product lines.

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