Blog » Microsoft and global knowledge assets

30 Nov 2005

Microsoft and global knowledge assets

Filed under: Digital revolution,Economics — paulcook @ 2:13 pm

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.

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  1. That is an interesting way of evaluating the situation. And Microsoft is certainly a unique case in the sense that it has one of the strongest monopolies on any consumer market in the world today.

    It’s also interesting that you mention OpenOffice’s need to copy the Microsoft Office interface, since they’re trying to lure existing Microsoft customers. In addition to the amount of knowlege capital written off by the next Microsoft upgrade, think about the amount of capital that could be saved if OpenOffice developers didn’t have to reverse-engineer Microsoft’s proprietary formats.

    There are whole careers built around this reverse-engineering process, careers that could be shifted to pushing back the frontiers of software if it weren’t for Microsoft’s aversion to open formats. How much knowledge capital must be sunk into that task annually? And that number is only growing.

    Comment by jjk — 30 Nov 2005 @ 4:26 pm

  2. On the subject of turtles swimming in treacle: except for being really sticky when they got where they were going back to, they’d go just as fast as in water. Recall this year’s Ig Nobel prize for chem? ;) Admittedly I am making an undergrad physics type assumption that you can approximate a turtle to be a human when in treacle.

    Agree with your comments on MS and OpenOffice. I still use WordPerfect and then print to PDF if at all possible. The biggest point for me, aside from not having to have all the margins everywhere exactly the same and my document arbitrarily reformated every couple of minutes while I am working, is that old LaTex-style equation editor in WordPerfect which works like a dream.

    As for MS and the lost capital, a side you didn’t look at was the $50-billion in revenue for MS required to retrain the world’s Word users.

    And my last comment is that I hope that they have killed Clipit or whatever that annoying little jumping hyperactive resource chomping animation was called.

    “CHEMISTRY: Edward Cussler of the University of Minnesota and Brian Gettelfinger of the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin, for conducting a careful experiment to settle the longstanding scientific question: can people swim faster in syrup or in water?
    REFERENCE: “Will Humans Swim Faster or Slower in Syrup?” American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal, Brian Gettelfinger and E. L. Cussler, vol. 50, no. 11, October 2004, pp. 2646-7.
    WHO ATTENDED THE IG NOBEL CEREMONY: Brian Gettelfinger and Edward Cussler”

    Comment by Paul F — 30 Nov 2005 @ 6:43 pm

  3. I suspect that the syrup Messrs Cussler and Gettelfinger used was substantially less viscous (in the style of American syrup) than treacle! But the analogy was there just to sweeten the piece, so I won’t let it be a sticking point!

    But on the retraining costs: Microsoft offers few or no training courses itself, it’s all done by other companies, all over the world. So it’s creating a great trickle-down economic niche for them, I suppose, sort of like all the companies that base their businesses on using eBay.

    Comment by paulcook — 30 Nov 2005 @ 7:51 pm

  4. Boo puns! Away! Begone! Shame on you Paul!

    Comment by Adam — 1 Dec 2005 @ 12:56 am

  5. Must agree with Paul F about MS and those margins and the reformating – thought it was just an over 50’s inability to use computer! I too prefer WordPerfect even though my version is seriously sick!

    Comment by Sally — 2 Dec 2005 @ 12:54 am

  6. Damnit wheres my brainjack?! I don’t want no namby-pamby ‘more intuitive user interface’ I want direct mind to media data-etching, I want my thoughts on the screen, I want the interface from Minority Report – and the kicker is, I reckon I could do it too – the tech is there – powergloves or that new 3D mouse from the Nintendo revolution, add a reasonably big screen – or a projector or a visor none of which are mad – and one of those projected infrared keyboards.

    I’m not ever a serious techie and I reckon it could be done, why are we seeing such horrible lag?

    Comment by xaosseed — 9 Jan 2006 @ 1:17 pm

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