When You’re a Productivity Suite, Everything’s a Nail

May 14, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Posted in Content Management, Information Work, Office | Leave a comment

One of the arguments that many alternate productivity suite vendors have made is that most users of Office are not power users and don’t need all the complex functionality it provides.  These basic users just want the ability to create simple documents, spreadsheets, and presentations and the unneeded complexity of Office makes Office bloated, overly complex, and too expensive.  Guy Creese summed it up well:

Both sides of this argument are wrong: Microsoft saying that you need to overbuy because you never know when a worker might need a certain feature (true, but not as often as Microsoft claims); Google, IBM, and Sun saying that you don’t need all that functionality (actually, sometimes you do).

In thinking through some common productivity use cases with Guy for some upcoming research he’s doing on productivity suites, it occurred to me that an argument could be made that certain complex features should be left out not because they’re infrequently needed, but because they don’t belong in that tool in the first place. 

Microsoft has given the world three hammers in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and now every content situation looks like a nail to information workers weaned on these tools.  They are very generalized tools and have been expanding in functionality to incorporate many situations that other tools would be better for.

To give just a few examples I often see:

  • Excel as a database and reporting tool.  It’s not uncommon to see spreadsheets with thousands of rows being maintained and various tricks to get summary data out of them and enable multiple users to input data into it.  Isn’t that what simple end-user databases are supposed to do for you?
  • PowerPoint as a photo slide show.  I keep getting .pps files with slide shows of funny pictures or inspirational images, one .jpg per slide.  Why?  Just to save the trouble of someone figuring out how to use a zip file of .jpgs?
  • Excel as business intelligence tool. Excel is often cited as the #1 BI tool.  Depending on how high-falutin’ your definition of BI is (and mine stretches to OLAP), shouldn’t you just use a BI tool if that’s what you want to do?
  • Word or PowerPoint as a page layout tool.  Want to create a greeting card?  Or do fancy layout of a newsletter?  That’s why there’s a category of software for doing page layout and publishing, ranging from consumer-level to professional. 

While there’s no doubt sometimes people stretch tools too far simply because they are familiar with them, it shows forethought and flexibility when new uses for a tool keep cropping up.  Specialized tools can be expensive and require learning yet one more interface.

Ultimately, this is just one facet of the “which tool to use?” problem I outlined previously, and it extends to most tools in the information worker toolbelt, from using e-mail for collaboration instead of a collaborative workspace to collating changes in Word docs instead of using a wiki.

This is a cross-posting from the KnowledgeForward blog, but here in my personal blog I’ll add one more example of stretching the boundaries of Office: using PowerPoint to design a New Year’s hat for my kid (see below).  Not quite what its creators intended I’m sure!

New years baby 2009 sm

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