The Broken Office Paradigm
In this post I describe the current paradigm of office productivity
software and why it is broken.
I have been the IT Manager/Network Administrator for a small
business for two years. The business, a Mergers & Acquisitions
brokerage, like many small businesses, generates many documents.
These documents are printed, mailed, faxed, e-mailed and posted
to the Web.
The type of documents vary from standard letters and faxes to
advertisements, brochures, product/service announcements, etc.
We have a company logo and a corporate "style" which we
use when designing documents. These documents are collectively
called our "literature".
We use Personal Computers and standard "office productivity software" such as
word processor, spreadsheet, graphics manipulation, and an HTML
editor to create these documents. Very typical small office stuff.
I have come to the conclusion that the office document paradigm
is seriously broken for it causes excessive waste of time and
For complete disclosure, we use Microsoft Office (Word, Excel,
Outlook, Frontpage) and Adobe Acrobat and Photoshop. At times we
use other similar Windows software such as from Lotus and Macromedia.
We have a small computer network (a dozen) all running versions of
Microsoft Windows, along with a few networked printers, a copier and
a fax machine.
All of this is what I figure the majority of small businesses use.
And it is a complete waste of my time.
And I cringe at the thought of millions of businesses all wasting
their time--and paper--dealing with the problems that result from
The problems are many. I will take on the many issues one at a time.
Most are technical but some are human issues.
First, let me dispel the notion of a "paper-less office" ever being
achieved under this paradigm. In fact, we generate (and waste) more
paper than ever I would have imagined. Part of this excess of
paper generation is that the non-technically inclined are just so used to
paper (as far as I can tell) that they can not deal with information
unless they can hold it in their hands. Many in the office distribute
inter-office memos by writing them in a word processor and printing
them and putting them on people's desks and "in-boxes". The first
thing some people do with received e-mails is to print them out!
(One of the worst examples of this is when someone in the office
wants a new advertisement, mailing or letter generated, they write
the text they want in Word, print it out, and then hand that paper
to the IT department for processing.)
This techno-illiteracy, it seems to me, can not be solved without
time consuming training on the computers and software people use,
even though they use them every day. (This may, of course, be an
isolated case limited to the people in the office I work in.//1)
Part of the reason for techno-illiteracy is the extreme, and I do
mean extreme, complexity of the Microsoft Windows menu/dialog-box
interface--but that is a separate issue.
Perhaps to grasp the difficulties of office document life, I should
just examine the life of a typical office document.
The act of saving a document makes no sense to the inexperienced
computer user, I see it all the time. Discussing this is a bit off
topic, but consider: you are presented with a dialog-box with a
"save in" location which is the current folder--you do not see the entire folder
path--with a linear, branching folder hierarchy knowing the full
folder path is crucial to understanding where you are in the Windows
computer file system. And in this "current folder" there is a list
of other documents and other sub-folders.
If simply clicking the "save" button was enough there would be no
issues, but saving documents in a single location is too confusing
when one has thousands of documents to deal with. Hence, we put
documents in folders. But folders live in "paths" and traversing
back-and-forth along these paths is difficult when all one sees is
one part of the path only.//2
Having successfully created a new document in a word processor, it
now exists as a file somewhere on some file system on some computer
in the office. With the standard set of "office productivity software"
there is no easy way of locating documents--one has to know the full
name and the full path of the document to find it--you have to know
where it is located to locate it. All the programs I have used have
a small "recent file history", and there is a Windows "search"
interface--that is it.
Broken piece number one: Non-intuitive, overly complex GUI designs.
Once we have documents, and have learned the ways of saving and
opening them, we start to do things with them. Most of the documents
are to be printed; letters for example, letters on "letterhead".
To print a document on letterhead (a really nice paper with or logo,
printed by a real printer) we have to format it to fit the margins.
This process generally goes well for that is what word processors
are designed for. You can even set the word processor up to default
to the right settings for new documents. This works well. Until you
need to change something global.
If your office is like ours you have many documents. And when you change
something global, like the size of your logo, which effects say, the top
margin, with a standard office word processor, you have to manually
change every document you have to update to the new margin settings. Sometimes,
word processors can store "styles" in a common template, but not some
things like margins and paper size.
Broken piece number two: Outdated software design of embedding
sheet parameters within each document.
Microsoft Office documents are, of course, of a proprietary format.
This means that the documents I create can not be shared with
anyone who does not have the same program that I used to create
the document; sometimes even the exact same version. (This is known
as "planned obsolescence".) This problem is so widespread that we
all know about it. It is quite ironic, to me anyway, that the main
"solution" to this is a well advertised, widespread format calling
itself a "portable document format" that is itself a proprietary
format which requires everyone to have the same program and sometimes
even the exact same version to read.//3
So, let's say I want to send someone one of my Microsoft Word documents as
a "portable document". I load the document in Microsoft Word and I
"print" it using a specially purchased "driver" which converts it to
a PDF. I now have one of these "portable documents." Of course, I then
have hundreds of these portable documents, one for each of the Word
documents I originally created. And, of course, when I change my logo,
I have to manually locate, edit and "print" each document anew.
Why don't you just change to a new word processor you ask? One
that saves as PDF? You can't. PDFs do not work that way. Adobe
only provides printer drivers. Adobe Acrobat, Adobe's PDF
editor, is extremely limited in what it can do. It has no real
word processing capabilities, it is basically for "touch
Adobe's conversion capabilities are also a bit limited; it does
not convert Microsoft Word forms for example, which is a dirty shame.
Adobe Acrobat needs to be used for creating PDF forms.//5
Broken piece number three: Vast gap in format conversion software.
Another related problem our office has is that some of our
literature we create is printed on pre-printed paper--that is
paper which has on it our color company logo. Having paper
pre-printed is cheaper than to buy and maintain a high-end printer
ourselves. But this "pre-printing" does not have a digital equivalent.
So we have to import images into our documents to duplicate the
pre-printed paper and then we make the PDF document. What that means
is that we have to have two versions of the original document--one
without images and one with.
Our office basically has to maintain three or four versions of most
of our documents, and we have to manually update each and every one
Broken piece number four: Multiple document formats means multiple
programs and editing processes per document.
Then along came the Internet.
The Internet changed everything. Well, it just added to the quagmire.
We have, of course, a company Website. And, of course, our literature
needs to get "published" on the Web. This means, of course, simply yet
another document format--another computer program and another way of
converting and editing our existing documents. The result is a
fourth version of every piece of our literature that gets to the
Web. And another manual edit every time there is a global change.
Broken piece number five: The edit/convert/maintain process grows
geometrically with each new format and always requires another
Well, that is how document handling using Microsoft Windows "office
productivity software" is currently "done".
There are solutions; I think. (Hopefully I will be writing more about
them at a later date.) For right now let me offer one solution, not viable
for me right now, for it will take a long time to convert to, and in the
meantime our office must deal with our current set of documents, but one
that I want to work on.
But before I talk of a solution, let me say that the solution is
not simply to replace Microsoft Office with StarOffice or OpenOffice.
Those do not change the paradigm one bit. They may cost less, but
they do the same thing and in the same manner.
Nor is the solution one great-big-does-everything-program like
integrated "solutions" such as Lotus SmartSuite or Microsoft Works.
I think the solution is Open Source or Free software using HTML and
XML along with programs running on an (internal) Apache server
written in a language such as PHP.
All documents would be created and written in ASCII and stored on
the server (the editing process would include some sort of WYSIWYG
interface). I think that HTML along with CSS and XML will be able to
provide a way to format documents just as does any advanced word
I don't think there needs to be a database other than a database
of information about the documents; for indexing, searching and
This way will present other issues (many I have not even thought of).
You can not highlight a line and make it bold when you are editing an
HTML form and text is in a TEXTAREA tag. And you don't want to have to mark your
text with some really weird syntax just to italicize a few words in a paragraph.
But here is something I just went through, and if I describe it,
it may help in conveying my meaning.
Someone gave we a word document of a bunch of paragraphs of text
and wanted the text up on their website. Each first line and last line
of the text was to be bold. There were about a hundred paragraphs.
Microsoft Word's export to HTML feature is horrible. And I was not
about to go through the process of highlight a line of text with the
mouse, press Control-B, highlight another line of text with the mouse
press Control-B, highlight another line of text press Control-B,
No need to. I saved the text as ASCII. Wrote a PHP script (I
could just as easily used Perl) to do the formatting for me; the
script generated output in HTML. Viola! I now have the text along with
a small piece of code that does the formatting they wanted. Perhaps they
want italics instead of bold? Minor change to the PHP and I
re-run the script. Viola!
That is the paradigm I am thinking of. Text and an algorithm to
display/convert that text. Perhaps there would be a template describing the
attributes of layout. Text, a template, and an algorithm.
We have the text, assign it to a category, the
category has a layout and we run a script to convert
the text using the layout to create either, a letter, a fax, a
memo, a brochure.
We can do anything with Free Software. But we will always be limited by
the current Broken Office Paradigm.
1. Some of the users in our office show absolutely no initiative
when it comes to computers.
2. I can write much more about some of the problems relating to
GUI designs, but wanted to keep this short. Maybe later...
3. I mean Adobe PDF of course. Perhaps PDF readers are freely
available enough now, but the format remains proprietary. Perhaps
there are some third-party programming libraries, but still, it
is a very difficult process to manipulate PDF documents; especially
to convert to and from PDF document. Try it with forms and see.
4. Perhaps there is a word processor out there that saves in PDF
form. I am not about to look. The process of trying demo versions
is too time consuming. Besides, converting to yet another set of
programs to edit documents is a long and expensive process.
5. There are some other conversion programs out there, but again,
the process of finding them is long and can be expensive.