Microsoft is gradually approaching the release of its next versions of Windows and Office. For the largest software R&D spender in the world, their progress has been rather like a dead turtle swimming backwards through treacle. But at least that means the products will be bug free and secure, right? Yeah, right. But it does have interesting implications for total global knowledge capital.
You can probably guess my opinion on Microsoft software in general. But one aspect of the release does interest me: the Office user interface. It seems Office 12 will have a number of substantially different user interface tools, such as a much more context-sensitive “ribbon” toolbar, and much less use of menus. And it’s about time.
I really dislike the existing interface, in Word in particular — it’s hard to find useful tools, and Word is forever making the wrong assumptions about the formatting I want. Oh, I miss the days of WordPerfect’s “reveal codes” feature! Unfortunately, open-source competition such as OpenOffice.org is forced to essentially duplicate Word’s broken interface, since that is what everyone is familiar with. Apparently nearly all user-requested features these days are in fact already in Office, but users are unaware of their presence. So I really hope that this release introduces some new ideas in user interfaces. Chances are, since it is Microsoft, that the features will be a little too “cute” to be really useable, but it will hopefully open up some new ideas and options for others to use.
But thinking of OpenOffice.org’s dilema made me realise just how much intellectual capital the human race has invested in learning the interface of Microsoft Office-type software. There are hundreds of millions, or maybe billions, of people who have had to learn the idiosyncrasies of the menu layout; what the little icons mean; or which of the boxes on the ruler correspond to margins and which to indents in just the first line of paragraphs.
For the sake of argument, lets do some back-of-the-envel…. uh, -blogpost calculations. A quick online search suggests a conservative cost of around $200 for a basic Office training course. Advanced courses can go WAY beyond this cost. Many people are of course self-taught — but I’ve certainly spent much more than $200-worth of my time learning Office’s tricks (and lost years of my life in stress, but let’s forget about that for the moment). Companies routinely send people on Office courses, so this cost is really a basic, required investment in personnel intellectual capital.
Now Office 12 claims to be revolutionary — doing away with menus and completely redoing the toolbar. So easily half of our hard-won knowledge will be written off as soon as we upgrade — $100 value per person. Assuming around 500 million Office or Office-clone users in the world, that means that Microsoft’s release of Office 12 will immediately write off $50 billion in knowledge capital around the world — compared to Microsoft’s total annual sales of about $40 billion.
So yes, change and even improvement does have a cost. But anything is better than Word as it currently is.