Obnoxious Office

December 18, 2012

It’s amazing that Microsoft Office still manages to dominate the world of ‘productivity’ applications. The feature set is good (though stuck firmly in the 1990s), but the under the hood it’s the worst-programmed mess I’ve ever encountered. What’s particularly galling is that a lot of the problems are there not by accident, but by design. Case in point:

  • I need to install holidays in the Outlook calendar for 2013. No can do. Outlook 2007 only goes up to 2012.
  • Is there a simple fix? A tiny download, perhaps? No. You need, at minimum, a Microsoft executable ‘hotfix.’
  • Can you just download it? No. You need to request a link to be sent to your email address.
  • Can you just install it? No. You need at least Outlook SP2.

Remember: I’m not having any particular problems with Outlook that need a whole service pack. I just want holidays for 2013.

  • Does SP2 just install itself politely and go away? No. It needs a Windows reboot. Which means shutting down all the stuff I was working on when I discovered I needed holidays for 2013.
  • Upon rebooting, does Outlook just run? No. It pops up a dialog cryptically (and incorrectly) reporting “Preparing Outlook for first use.” Then proceeds to process all my data, for compatibility with the update.
  • Does this process complete quickly? No. In fact, I can hear my disk thrashing as I type. Why?? Outlook itself is running from my SSD, and the data files will easily fit into my 16GB of system RAM. So no disk access should be required.
  • The process completes after about 10 minutes. Are my problems over? Hardly! A warning pops up: “Microsoft Office Outlook has not been installed for the current user. Please run setup to install the application.” There is only one user: me. When I click “OK” (my only option), Outlook shuts down. Now I have to find my original disks, or something.
  • The installer runs, but now Outlook won’t recognize itself as legitimate. Neither Internet nor phone activation will work. Microsoft’s automated phone-registration robot implies that I’ve got an ‘illegitimate’ copy. I most definitely don’t… it’s a review copy I got directly from Microsoft. (The big plastic box is in front of me now… although I still can’t figure out how to open it.)
  • Does tech support have an answer? Oh, sure, but it’s not very satisfying: “This product is very old, there’s no free support, so pay up for support or pay up for a newer version.” (The support rep was very nice about it, and even confirmed that my product key was indeed legitimate. I’m afraid I was a bit testy with him, which I regret… none of this is his fault.)

What an incredible productivity-suck. If Outlook were just a regular program, with clearly-defined data structures, and without low-level hooks or obnoxious DRM, I’d have had the data I needed in a minute or two and been on my way. Instead, my afternoon is shot, I have no access to my huge file of email, and I still don’t have the 2013 holidays for my calendar. At the very least, I’m looking at a full re-install and probable loss of all my settings.

All for what? A tiny calendar-data update. This is just plain bad.

In fairness, I have to add that Outlook is the only email client that comes close to giving me the features I need. In particular, the ability to define custom columns, which allow me quickly access all messages relating to a particular company. Ironically, this feature seems to be gone in recent versions of the software. Fortunately, the columns I originally created in Outlook 2003 remain.

Despite the creeping de-featuring, Outlook remains my best option. But I’m always painfully aware that it’s a pale shadow of what it could be. The masses of priceless information in its store are only barely accessible to me. The tools for finding, correlating and exploiting all that information are rudimentary at best. The data files are monolithic, inaccessible to third-party tools. Performance, even on my Core i7 system is often lethargic. And every so often, it dumps me into a pit… like it has today.