Let’s get back to Word 5.1

Microsoft is getting a new CEO and whoever that is, that person is going to have a herculean task ahead of changing Microsoft so it can really compete in today’s new software market. BGR gives this blunt assessment:

Asymco’s Horace Dediu on Tuesday wrote quite bluntly that “the problem for Microsoft” is that “you can’t charge for software anymore.” It goes without saying that if Dediu is right then Microsoft is facing an enormous long-term challenge since charging for software has long been its bread-and-butter.

Which I think is overly simplistic. You can charge for software, as long as it’s software that people really want and need. Alternatively, you can give the software away, but charge small amounts for services people need to make the software better or more useful. However neither of these choices will fix the problems at Microsoft. For Microsoft it isn’t about how much to charge for software—it’s about how to make their software better. And by “better” I mean simpler and more efficient.

I was talking with someone about software recently and I mentioned that the last version of Word I really liked to use was Word 5.1. That was a long, long time ago now (nearly 20 years I think), but that was the last time Word was a great word processor. Today Word, and all the other Office apps—with the exception of Excel, are bloated pieces of crap that try to do everything for everyone and do it all badly. I’d love to give up Word entirely (I have little need for Powerpoint or Excel), but still need it for my publisher. For all other things I use tools that have been simplified and refined for their task.

Writing? Short things: Ulysses III in Markdown and converted to various formats with Marked. Longer things (like books): Scrivener. I dust off Pages for resumes and letters, but that is pretty rare. All of these tools let me export in the “universal translator of documents”: Word.

Presentations? Haiku Deck or Keynote. Simple and effective (and with transferable formats like PDF and PPT).

Data? Well, if really need to crunch numbers I have to admit Excel is the best tool. I don’t need to do it often, so most of the time I could live with Numbers.

And this is Microsoft’s challenge. There are a lot of better tools out there for a lot less that do a better job at what Microsoft tools used to be great at doing. Why do people keep using Office? Because they feel they have to, and believe me if you want to make people hate your product just make it mediocre and force them to use it. Microsoft should make simpler, focused versions of Office apps, charge (like Apple does) $20 a pop for them. Then, like Apple, if people need hard core features, have “Pro” versions. Word Pro, Excel Pro, PowerPoint Pro, tools that go beyond what 99% of consumer need, but are designed for pros. Put serious thought and polish into the Pro apps so professionals want to use them. Consumer apps? I think if the app is simple, elegant, and functional people will use it—and buy it.

If Microsoft embraced the simplicity of Word 5.1 (a nice, simple writing tool) in all its apps and then created powerful professional tools for the core people who need them, they will have a fair shot at making a new comeback.

As far as Windows goes…well I can’t help you there. I’d switch to Ubuntu before I’d switch to Windows.

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