Tracking changes with Owen Glendower

Microsoft Word for DOS appeared in late 1983.  I’d started using a word processor only a few months before–WordStar, which at one time did bestride the computer world like a Colossus.  Relatively speaking, WordStar was geek heaven; its article on Wikipedia states, apparently with a straight face, that “WordStar is still considered by many to be one of the best examples of a ‘writing program.'”

That notion evidently comes from admiration of the small file sizes that WordStar produced because it didn’t fool around with things like WYSIWYG display on the screen or with formatting commands sent to the printer.  WordStar focused on text, dammit, and you were lucky it bothered doing that.

I got pretty good with WordStar, but when I came across a working demo of Microsoft Word for DOS, I was more than ready to switch.  Nowadays, the differences between the two seem minor (WordStar screen shot, Word screen shot), but the move away from technoid control codes and the inclusion of a few formatting touches (on-screen bolding and underlining) was a clear advance.

I use several obscure features in Word, like the seq field code, but I’m also painfully aware of drawbacks like its capricious approach to numbering paragraphs.  In general, software companies feel compelled to add features to their products.  I think that’s because they–and some of their customers–confuse “feature” with “benefit.”  There’s some relationship, of course, but over time it tends to be more hypothetical (if not downright fanciful).

Why?  As Naomi Dunford points out on the IttyBiz blog, “With very few exceptions (medicine and cutting-edge technology come to mind) you are wasting space and money by telling people about your features.”

This morning, one of the people I follow on Twitter shared this comment on feature-itis:

Track Changes is, as Senator Bob Dole said of another bright idea, is one of those things that seems great until you take a look at it.  I don’t know what aspect of Track Changes was making Chris shouty, but for me it’s always been quantity: the more changes (and changers), the more you feel like you’re being trampled to death by weasels.

One problem is that people try to cram several kinds of editing (for facts, for sequence, for syntax, for style) into a single Pickett’s Charge of revision.  A more dire problem is the confusion of “change” with “improvement.”  Shakespeare had something similar in mind in Henry IV, Part One.

I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

The number of changes tracked doesn’t equal the number of improvements made, any more than the number of features added equals the amount of benefit delivered (are you listening, Quicken?).

Which points toward an inherent contradiction for training or learning in organizations.  You can almost certainly reap benefits when you help people move from “can’t do X at all” to “can do Basic Things A, B, and C” — assuming, of course, that those people see A, B, and C as benefiting them.

Working further through the alphabet of features (D, E, and F…L, M, and N…) means you’re getting farther out on the long tail.  Each addition becomes more specific, which means more contextual, which means has decreasingly less appeal to most people (even though potentially more appeal to a small number of people).

I rarely see much mileage for me in talking to others about customizing Word toolbars, let alone creating multiple templates for different kinds of outlines.  As for Google Docs, one less-than-obvious reason for their popularity is that the relative lack of features makes for easier collaboration among groups of people who might have widely varying levels of skill in more traditional word processors.  If you can’t add internal cross-references or sequence codes, you’re not going to frustrate or confuse people who don’t know what to do with them.

WordStar box and disks image from Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Tracking changes with Owen Glendower

  1. Settle down there, Gramps. Time for some more meds.

    “Track Changes” is relatively easy to understand — I’ve been able to teach people how to use in in less than 80 hours of in-person instruction, unless they’ve never coded in either COBOL or Fortran. Then it takes longer.

    And the MS “ribbon” metaphor is just great for folks like you with Pheature Phobia. They take all the most commonly used features and hide them far, far away down inside somewhere — while leaving tasks only used by one guy in Micronesia right up top.

    The secret is DON’T EVER UPGRADE. I still do 90% of my photo manipulation with a copy of Photoshop 3.0 — seriously! Runs faster than greased lightning, tiny footprint, and serves almost every need I have.

    I’m happily running XP and Office 2003 on my main work box. (Yeah, I’ve got Win7 and Office 2010 on my laptop, just so I can impress people. “Whee, pretty! Looks like unicorns and sunbeams!”)

    But when stuff needs done (note my Southern grammatical construction) older’s better.

  2. Dick, one of my watchwords has been “never buy a low serial number.” So I do understand the hope-and-hype cycle of The Upgrade.

    Perhaps this is why I don’t have an iPhone. That, and the fact that I occasionally need to make a call.

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