Sci-fi author Charlie Stross pens definitive MS Word takedown


There was much discussion last week about the South African Department of Basic Education’s (DBE) new mandate to force students studying IT and computing at Grade 11 and 12 to use Microsoft Office for coursework and exams, despite a clearly worded regulation from 2007 which says free and open source (FOSS) software should be preferred for state use where there’s a choice.

According to ITWeb, the DBE has responded to critics of its decision by saying that it has to standardise on something for the purposes of evaluation, and Office makes sense in this context. For other subjects, there’s no mandate to use any particular word processor or spreadsheet.

“The decision was made considering matters that impact on curriculum delivery and national examinations where different software tools and versions impact on the delivery and fairness of these matters. Matters that negatively affect learners such as migration between provinces or schools that use different tools, the cost to develop resources for different tools and versions, as well as the fact that the vast majority of schools currently use MS Office were also considered.”

There’s some merit to the argument, but before you nod sagely and agree with their choice, read this. It’s a breathtakingly technical description by British sci-fi author Charlie Stross about why Microsoft Word is flawed, and was flawed from the start due to a design decision to follow two different coding paradigms and try to make them work together.

If you ever wanted to argue that Word – and Office by extension – are exactly the wrong pieces of software to have obtained ubiquity, this is a must-read. It takes into account Microsoft’s habit of simply buying competitors up to kill off creative ecosystems to the fact that people are so brainwashed they insist on Word file formats, even when they are entirely the wrong thing to use.

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The .doc file format was also obfuscated, deliberately or intentionally: rather than a parseable document containing formatting and macro metadata, it was effectively a dump of the in-memory data structures used by word, with pointers to the subroutines that provided formatting or macro support. And “fast save” made the picture worse, by appending a journal of changes to the application’s in-memory state. To parse a .doc file you virtually have to write a mini-implementation of Microsoft Word. This isn’t a data file format: it’s a nightmare!

Oh, and if you haven’t read any Stross before, I strongly recommend you start with his near-future stuff. Halting State is simply brilliant for a vision of how police will behave in a few years time as they interact with new tech, and if you’re feeling more ambitious, Accelerando is an epic space opera that starts now and finishes up in the far and distant future.

(Via Slashdot, Image cc Xanathon, Wikimedia Commons)

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