See, I _told_ you Word was bad news! Pay attention next time!

Who needs PowerPoint - use LaTeX!
I’ve been warning people about the many problems with Microsoft Word (and all of Office, really) for years (I gave a talk entitled “Is Microsoft Word Inherently evil?” five years ago), with about as much success as Don Quixote. The problem, ultimately, isn’t that Microsoft is evil or their software sucks (although arguments could be made…), but that they continue to build their empire on closed document formats that they change quite arbitrarily from version to version, and without reliable support for converting between versions. This leaves everyone who lives in this bizarre world where Word is assumed to be some sort of “standard” scrambling to keep up with these changes. The scramble that M$ would obviously prefer is that we would all keep buying newer versions of Office on their whim. Those who can’t or (like me) won’t go down that road use cool things like OpenOffice, but the people that (mostly) donate their time to develop that sofware then have to reverse engineer (i.e., guess intelligently and test a lot) the format so that we can open everyone else’s Word/Excel/Office documents. Oh, joy.

Government and public entities who have some bizarre notion that their documents need to be readable into the foreseeable future have been growing increasingly concerned about this for several years now, and in several cases no longer allow documents of record to be stored in Word format for fear that they will be unreadable at some point in the future. Well, it would appear that some of the biggest guns in scientific publishing have also put their feet down in this mess, as the mega-journals Science and Nature are officially asking authors to not use Word 2007 formats for submissions. As reported by Rob Weir:

It appears that Science, the journal of the America Association for the Advancement of Science, itself the largest scientific society in the world, has updated its authoring guidelines to include advice for Office 2007 users. The news is not good.

“Because of changes Microsoft has made in its recent Word release that are incompatible with our internal workflow, which was built around previous versions of the software, Science cannot at present accept any files in the new .docx format produced through Microsoft Word 2007, either for initial submission or for revision. Users of this release of Word should convert these files to a format compatible with Word 2003 or Word for Macintosh 2004 (or, for initial submission, to a PDF file) before submitting to Science.”

That’s annoying and stupid, but not devastating. If I was silly enough to write serious technical work (complete with those crazy formulas and graphs that are at the core of most good science) in Word, I could always save in an older Word format or the much more sensible choice of PDF and submit that way. Presumably Science will get their workflow updated at some point, further enabling my Microsoft addiction.

Ah, but here’s the kicker:

“Users of Word 2007 should also be aware that equations created with the default equation editor included in Microsoft Word 2007 will be unacceptable in revision, even if the file is converted to a format compatible with earlier versions of Word; this is because conversion will render equations as graphics and prevent electronic printing of equations, and because the default equation editor packaged with Word 2007 — for reasons that, quite frankly, utterly baffle us — was not designed to be compatible with MathML. Regrettably, we will be forced to return any revised manuscript created with the Word 2007 default equation editor to authors for re-editing. To get around this, please use the Math Type equation editor or the equation editor included in previous versions of Microsoft Word.”

You gotta love it when serious academic journals use phrases like “for reasons that, quite frankly, utterly baffle us”. Sounds like Microsoft really stepped in something this time, as good equation editing and formatting is crucial to a major part of scientific research publishing, and damned important to much of the rest! No one’s ever argued that LaTeX was particularly easy to use (although practice and good tools like TeXShop do make it pretty straightforward), but it still dominates large parts of the scientific publishing universe because it supports open, standard formats, and generates gorgeous results. I can tell you that when I’m reviewing conference submissions, it’s almost always immediately obvious when a submission was written in Word instead of LaTeX, and the difference never makes Word look good…

Weir’s piece continues with quotes regarding a similar position being taken at Nature, and one of the comments on Weir’s post indicates Wiley is disallowing Word 2007 for all of their journals.

Oh, but wait! Microsoft does (sort of) support open formats! They’ve had lots of opportunities to incorporate support for existing standards like the Open Document Format and, uh…, didn’t. They instead invented their own open format, while totally failing to support the reading of or writing to the existing standards. But you can get a plug-in for Office that will allow you to convert between their open format and a slightly out-of-date version of the standard. If that’s the best that a giant like M$ can do, we’re all in serious trouble!

Now if we can get some entities with similar levels of clout to disallow PowerPoint the world would truly be a better place…

Big thanks to John Naughton for the initial pointer.

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6 Responses to See, I _told_ you Word was bad news! Pay attention next time!

  1. Desert Donkey says:

    Phi, Well said. I must have taken great restraint to so thoroughly delineate the problems with docx without also being driven to retaliatory reaction by the shiny new ‘ribbon’ menu system. As an executive at a small software company I can barely begin to express the unnecessary work and risk imposed by the whole of Microsoft’s continual and random software bloating system. Vista, docx, ribbons, aero themes, registry in, registry out….

    But it is late and we have not time to engage all of these impediments to civilization tonight.

  2. Phi says:

    Amen, brother! It continues to amaze me with great irksomeness how most people just keep riding the Windows/Office train, buying into the shiney nothings, complete with great oceans of security holes. The sadest thing, perhaps, is that these are very often bright people who want to do good things. But M$ has created a world where they don’t even realize that they have options, or if they do they feel too trapped to take advantage of them.

    One of the best (or worst, depending) examples of the power of marketing.

    Whenever I go on one of my little tirades about Office, the standard response is “But what do you use instead?”, usually with the same sort of bewildered look you’d expect if you suggested going without gravity for a day. OpenOffice has gotten very usable over time. It still has its issues (can be slow to start up, for example), but it’s not full of weirdo nasty security problems, it relies on open standards and formats, and can generally read and write Office stuff quite effectively. In reality, though, I almost never use an old-school word processor any more, except for opening other people’s annoying Word and Excel documents. The vast majority of my writing is on-line (e-mail, blog, wiki, etc.). Most people, if they were honest, would find that an awful lot of what they’re writing is for on-line purposes as well, and there is darn near nothing worse than an e-mail with a .doc attachment that’s three sentences and a five item bullet list! Don’t make me open up a Word document to read a few sentences that should have just been typed straight into the e-mail, or at least pasted there if you have to compose in Word!

    OK, I’ll calm down now.

  3. Brent says:

    Hi NFM:

    I agree with your thoughts on Word, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘disallowing Powerpoint.’ Where do you want to disallow Powerpoint? In talks? If so, do you also want to disallow Apple’s Keynote?

  4. Phi says:

    That’s a throw away comment with a long answer. To be honest, I think there are a lot of environments where I would disallow (or at least discourage) both PowerPoint and Keynote. There are times where these are obviously useful things, and they can be used well. Sadly, however, they are useful crutches that are used badly and lead to talks being worse than they might have been without them. It’s like filmmakers spending all their money on special effectis and big names, but forgetting to actually hire good people to write the script.

    Over the past several years I’ve seen a lot of very bad PowerPoint, and few that I thought were neutral (i.e., they made the talk neither substantially better or substantially worse), and probably only a handful that were genuinely good. Given that, I’d say disallowing or discouraging would probably be a Good Thing in many contexts :-).

  5. Brent says:

    Pure speculation: remove the presentation software and the percentage of bad talks remains the same. That is, I’m not convinced Powerpoint (or Keynote) is an enabler. In fact, the best technical talks today are probably better than the best technical talks a decade ago because of presentation software.

    p.s. What does JOCP abbreviate?

  6. Phi says:

    I suspect you’re right about the best talks, but I think the average and median has distinctly dropped, especially among unskilled speakers.

    An exerienced, thoughtful, skilled speaker is going to match the best tools to their material. Modern presentation software provides a good speaker with additional tools that they may be able to use to good effect.

    The problem is everyone else (and even the better speakers in their weaker moments) that use these things as a crutch, as a replacement for thinking. We live in a world of people who don’t like speaking in public yet have to do so. My father, for example, got a degree in mechanical engineering with no particular training in either speaking or writing, but spent most of his career in management having to do both those things, and not much enjoying either.

    What does PowerPoint do to help those people? It gives them the ability to become distracted by themes, fonts, colors, flashy transitions, flying bullet points, and things that blink and twirl. A good presentation ultimately has to be about content, but PowerPoint not only allows, but even encourages everyone involved to focus on PowerPoint Phluff instead of content.

    Also, in the interest of full disclosure I’ve never used Keynote. I can certainly hope that it’s less icky than PowerPoint (it’s hard to imagine that it’s worse!). To the degree, however, that it continues to represent a crutch that distracts people from content and presentation, then it’s at least a potential problem. In my experience presentations made with tools like LaTeX tend not have as much Phluff as ones made with PowerPoint, but packages like Beamer (which I use and like well enough) can still lead to a lot of visual clutter; many of the pre-definied themes have a lot of fiddly bits that look impressive but don’t really pay their way in terms of content. One (myself included) can also spend more than a little time fiddling with themes and such instead of organizing content.

    One of my biggest personal complaints, though, is how many conference talks are now almost entirely unpracticed because the visuals can be written at the last minute. Back In The Day (TM), one used transparencies, which usually had to be organized and printed well in advance of a conference. As a result one had time to go over the slides numerous times and rehearse the talk in your head if not out loud. Now we can write the talk an hour before of the presentation, hoping we can make some sense of the slides as we go through them for the first time in front of the audience. Or those real winners where someone shows up at a talk with 80 or a 100 slides for a 20 minute presentation; they’ve apparently brought every slide they’ve ever written on this or any related subject, skipping and choosing on the fly.

    I’ve been watching people give job talks here at UMM for 16 years, which includes the transition from overhead transparencies to PowerPoint. This includes everything from the very good to the remarkably dreadful. The best almost always had a minimal of visual aids, some with none at all and instead focussed on content and communication and good use of a black (or white) board. The worst were hopelessly disorganized and hastily assembled, whether on overheads or via PowerPoint. But my (admittedly anecdotal) experience is that substantially more (3 to 1?) of the dreadful ones were done with PowerPoint than without.

    And JOCP = “Jeez O’ Criminey Pete!”, or it least it does in my weird universe. :-)

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