How Microsoft Word became useful again

Originally, Microsoft refused to put Word on the iPhone or iPad and trusted that its millions of users would go oh, okay then, we won’t buy an iPad. It didn’t work out quite like that and a fair short summary is that Microsoft shot itself in the foot many, many times.

For once people bought iPads and were therefore required to use alternatives to Word, they discovered there are alternatives to Word. Suddenly all of Word’s brilliance gets forgotten and all of its outrageously irritating problems get remembered as we go discover we can get more done without it. In truth we actually can’t: Word is the most powerful word processor there is but with great power comes stupid problems so something which technically does less is much more useful because we can use it more. If you can get your writing done without Word changing the formatting on you, without Word simply crashing just because you dragged in a picture like it said you could, then you get more writing done.

Shunning the iPad was Microsoft doing its once typical and once extremely successful technique of pitching its bulk against a competitor but this time the competitor won and the blowback damage to Microsoft was huge. Word ceased to be ubiquitous. People stopped buying Word just because it was Word. Not just people who were buying iPads but people who were buying word processors for any machines. Including Windows PCs.

Good. We are now back in a world where you have many choices for how you write your words and if choice can be overrated, it’s better than when we just had the one.

But last year Microsoft finally brought Word to iOS and I wrote about how surprisingly good it was, particularly on the iPhone. I’ve changed my mind a bit since then: I hardly touch it on my iPhone but I do keep Word on my iPad and I use it from time to time. It’s been steadily improved too, plus the original slightly messy business of how you could read but not write in it unless you paid some money is gone. You can now use Word without a subscription and it’s worth keeping.

I don’t find myself moving over to it for everything, even though I’d like to find one single application I could use everywhere. As it is, I’ll write on Drafts 4 for iOS, or Pages for iOS and OS X, on Evernote everywhere, Simplenote in many places and occasionally Word. I feel slightly schizophrenic which is fine, but I also find my writing is all over the place. I’ve a hundred or more pieces in TextEdit. A dozen in OmniOutliner. It can take me a spell to find what I’m sure I wrote the other day.

So I can appreciate what this fella Andrew Cunningham says in Ars Technica. The short summary is that he’s now turned. It took the new beta version of Word for Mac to tip him over, but having the one word processor on OS X, iOS, Windows and Android has snared him:

So yes, Microsoft didn’t make it to the iPad or to any of these other platforms as quickly as it could have or should have. There will be people, including some at Ars, who found other non-Microsoft solutions that worked for them in the meantime. But I find myself revising my initial “too little too late” stance to something closer to “better late than never.” A subtle distinction, maybe, but an important one.

You win, Microsoft: How I accidentally went back to Microsoft Word – Andrew Cunningham, Ars Technica (20 June 2015)

Read the full piece.

Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac Preview

Quick version: it looks good, mostly – no, wait, here’s how I summed it up for MacNN:

Testing this new beta is, actually, slightly weird: the Mac versions of Word and Excel now look like the iPad versions. That’s mostly true when you first start them up and they present a dialog box with New and Open options, plus templates. Choose one and go into it to edit the document, and the resemblance fades a little.

One thing that made the iOS version of Office a pleasure to use was that it was pared back, that some of Microsoft Office’s more esoteric features were removed. That even makes the Ribbon toolbar more useful, and this new Mac version also tries to balance features with a more minimalist look. We’ll have to see what it’s like after weeks and months of intense use, but at first blush it feels better than it was.

There are points where items seem a bit oversized: certain icons in the Ribbon feel excessive, and intro text as you set up the applications feels loud. That’s not a bad summary of the entire experience of using Microsoft Office 2016; it mostly looks better, Word feels good to write in, Excel feels powerful.

Hands On: Microsoft Office 2016 Preview (OS X) – William Gallagher, MacNN (6 March 2015)

If you’ve got a Mac and some time to kill, go get the Office 2016 preview here. It’s entirely free while it’s in beta and the best way to find out about anything is to use it. Do remember that it’s a beta, though: it’s not complete and it is always possible that you’ll lose work. So don’t do anything important in it.

Also, you could read the rest of my MacNN piece.

This is better: try Microsoft’s vision of Office for Mac now

It’s fair to say that Microsoft Office is no longer the beast it was. It used to be that if there were a new version of Office, you bought it. Now we’re in 2015 and enough people still use an old version of Word that you’re wise sending documents around in that older format, the .doc one.

But the new format, .docx, was introduced in 2007. It would once have been unimaginable that people skipped eight years of updates but now it’s normal.

So any new version of Office that comes along had better pack some compelling reasons to upgrade. I have no idea whether the next edition has anything that good – but I’m about to find out and you can too.

For Microsoft has today released a free preview of Microsoft Office 2016 for Mac. You can get it here. It’s a fairly big download that is currently struggling on my slow internet connection but yours is faster, off you go.

Microsoft would hope you do. It would also hope that you love it so much that when the preview is over and the real product is released that you’ll pony up and buy it. If you do that, it will be because this is really good and really useful – so let’s hope so too.

This is what I like. Sod the fantasy vision of the future, I like it when a company puts its money where its mouth is and lets us actually use something. I like it even better when they do an Apple and reveal something flashy and end with the line “available today”.

Microsoft’s vision of the future (again)

Microsoft does make a very pretty video. Here’s it’s first completely accurate movie predicting a world in which we rely on Microsoft products and services:


Okay, no, this is what they have just released as a genuine vision of the future. That’s genuine as in they really made the film, not that they really will do any of this.


The password is dead – ish

There’s a new move to get rid of the password. I think I’d rather miss them but it is a bit 11th Century, isn’t it? Halt! Who goes there? Are you fr1n3d or f03?

We have already reduced them a lot with apps like 1Password – you just remember one password, it remembers all the rest securely and also creates very strong new ones when you want – and then there are tools like Touch ID on iPhones. I don’t have an iPhone with this but I’ve used them and it is nothing short of spookily handy to be able to pick a phone up and have it already know it’s you.

Still, back to the news. Passwords are under threat and it’s about time too:

Passwords are a pain. They’re incredibly important for the security of our data, and yet they’re hard to remember and keep track of. Plus, it seems like we constantly have to change them as the result of some new hack or security breach. But the password’s days may be numbered: the FIDO Alliance—a non-profit composed of heavyweights like Microsoft, Google, VISA, MasterCard, PayPal, and more—has published its final specification for a system to kill the password, hopefully for good.
The specification is a bit technical, but what it boils down to is fewer passwords, hopefully. FIDO offers two options: a password-less login method, and a two-factor login method. In the former case, when you register with a new service, app, or site that uses FIDO’s technology, you choose how you want to authenticate that account (just as you would currently specify a username and password). But instead of a password, that method can be a PIN or a biometric factor—such as a fingerprint, a spoken passphrase, or facial recognition.

The Death Of The Password Starts Today (Maybe) – Dan Moran, Popular Science (10 December 2014)

Read the full piece. And while we wait for all this to happen, get yourself secure with 1Password. I’ve used 1Password 17 times this morning.

Evernote claims people are ditching PowerPoint in favour of the note software

Well, actually, the headline writers at Evernote claim that: the article they head stays a little away from the topic. It’s also even more of an advert than this sounds but Evernote gets some wriggle room here because PowerPoint is rubbish. Treat this less as an ad campaign aimed at PowerPoint users and more at telling you how Evernote has this Presentation Mode.

Hand on heart, I’ve ignored it because I do all my talks with Keynote and like it a lot. But this could be handy.

Meetings are a major part of our daily routine. At their best, meetings foster collaboration and openness. At their worst, they leave us feeling drained and directionless. The frequent culprit: slide decks. The problem can be summed up with one word: preparedness.

In the world of slides, being prepared for a meeting refers not to productive time spent getting your thoughts together, but rather the hours devoted to fiddling with design templates, and turning good ideas into bullets. The result of this preparedness is a presentation that’s more pitch than discussion. It’s locked. Your team’s feedback will have to wait.

There’s a better way, and it overcomes all these shortcomings. It’s Presentation Mode. We use it everyday and it’s had a significant impact on the quality of our meetings. They’re faster, more focused, and more collaborative than they’ve ever been.

The New Presentation Mode will Change Your Meetings – Andrew Sinkov, Evernote Blog (3 December 2014)

Read the full piece.

How file formats matter

This is an article about many of the file formats we are familiar, from HTML to Photoshop, but what interests me is this about word processors:

WordPerfect was always the best word processor. Because it allowed for insight into its very structure. You could hit a certain key combination and suddenly the screen would split and you’d reveal the codes, the bolds and italics and so forth, that would define your text when it was printed. It was beloved of legal secretaries and journalists alike. Because when you work with words, at the practical, everyday level, the ability to look under the hood is essential. Words are not simple. And WordPerfect acknowledged that. Microsoft Word did not. Microsoft kept insisting that what you saw on your screen was the way things were, and if your fonts just kept sort of randomly changing, well, you must have wanted it that way.

On File Formats, Very Briefly, by Paul Ford · The Manual

I could be wrong, of course, but it always seemed to me that WordPerfect was developed by writers and Microsoft Word by engineers. For all that I admire engineers, in this case I think they did a poor job. In WordPerfect, a document is stored in sequence, paragraph by paragraph, fine. In Word, every single paragraph is like a separate document with lots of pointers back and forth to others. It’s like the paragraphs in a Word document are all free-flowing, free-standing and only happen to line up the way you want.

Maybe I’m just too into this stuff, but if you are too, then do read the full piece.

In praise of Microsoft Word for iPhone

Honestly, I used it on my iPad and I liked but there I couldn’t be bothered to switch to it as my regular writing tool. When it comes to my iPhone, I started the app and even having to schlep through a quite short login process made me close the app again. Doubtlessly the next time someone sends me a Word document to read, I’ll do the deed. But it is strange how I can recognise the benefits of Word, especially in its new iPad version, and appreciate how well done it all is, yet still can’t be arsed to use it.

A very long time ago now, I used to write for a company that used WordStar. You don’t remember WordStar. One morning we all came in and found that WordStar was gone. Completely. Through some deal or other, the company now exclusively used WordPerfect. And WordPerfect was so good, I don’t think it held up our writing in the slightest. It was just obvious how to use it and we did. Until one morning when another deal meant WordPerfect was gone and Microsoft Word was in.

That was a different matter. That was tough work. That was deadline-affecting work, that one was. So I did come to Word with a lot of annoyance and over the years I’ve gone through many stages. I can’t remember how long I used Word as my exclusive word processor but it was a long time and ultimately it was by choice: Word was doing things I needed. I even got to the point where I would read How to Bend Word to Your Will and enjoy it. Until I realised I’d rather be writing books than studying an Open University-level course on how to use this software.

Right now I’m in the mood where if Word is what opens when I click on a document, I’ll write it or edit it or continue it in Word. Otherwise, I’m all over the place. Pages. Drafts. Evernote. I haven’t got a home, so to speak, I haven’t got a default word processor I feel comfortable in.

Whereas this fella has Word and he loves it on the iPhone. More than I could think feasible, yet also very persuasively, too:

Longtime iPhone users have been waiting a long time for this moment, but now we finally have an excellent way to work with Word files on an iPhone. If a client or colleague emails a Word document to you while you are out of the office, you can now easily read and edit the document on your iPhone. And if you have your iPad with you, you can take advantage of the larger screen to work with the document. Either way, the Word app lets you do many of the same things that you could do with a document using the full version of Word on a PC or Mac, and perhaps more importantly, the powerful Word app lets you do just about everything that you are ever likely to want to do on a mobile device.

Review: Microsoft Word for iPhone and iPad — view and edit Word documents on any iOS device – Jeff Richardson, iPhone J.D. (7 November 2014)

Read the full piece for specific features that make Richardson happy – and happy enough that he even thinks the iPhone version scores over the iPad one in some respects.

What you wish for may turn out a bit meh: Word is free on iPad

I’m not a fan of Microsoft. It’s been years since the problems and the failings of Microsoft Word outweighed all its benefits for me but it did and it does have those benefits. Microsoft Excel is and always has been very good. PowerPoint – well, let’s not do that. No need to be rude.

So for years my only interest in whether Microsoft would bring its Office software to the iPad was a kind of business fascination. It used to be that Word was so big, nothing else breathed at all. You can be certain that there were people in Microsoft who believed that keeping Word and Excel off the iPad would kill Apple’s tablet. Be certain of that. Because they were.

And, demonstrably, they were wrong. I think they were wrong enough that it has damaged them. Not because selling Microsoft Word for iPad on day one of the iPad would’ve brought in a lot of cash and kept on doing so for all these years. But because refusing to do it meant people had to find other word processors and other spreadsheets.

Once millions of people found they really, really did not need Word, they recognised that they really, really did not need it. Microsoft may have believed people would avoid the iPad because it wouldn’t run Word and being wrong there would’ve been bad enough. But being freed of Word on iPad means free of Word anywhere.

There are other factors that have made Word stumble and I don’t know what they are. But it’s now getting on for eight years since Microsoft switched Word over to the .docx format and still people send you the old .doc ones. Nearly a decade and people have not upgraded.

In The Blank Screen book I mention discovering after a month that I hadn’t got Word on my MacBook. And a little while ago I thought I was going to write you a news story about how Microsoft Word, Excel and the other one are now available for free on iPad. But instead, I’m thinking about how tedious it would be to switch to Word again.

Let me explain one thing. You have been able to download Word and Excel and the other one for some months now and you could read documents, you just couldn’t create or edit any – unless you paid a subscription.

As of today, not so much. You still can and you still get benefits from having that but you can use Word without it. All you have to do is sign for a free Microsoft account and off you go.

I signed up and off I went. And I also linked my Dropbox account so I could get to a lot of my current and recent documents here on the iPad. It was a chore looking through them all for documents I could open and in the end I just wrote a new one.


Microsoft Word for iPad is good. It feels better than the PC and Mac ones. But it’s too late for Word to be anything other than a curiosity to me now. I wondering whether that’s the case for most people.

Go take a look for yourself: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft The Other One are all on the iOS app store now.

Pardon? Microsoft embracing Dropbox storage

This removes another block to my using Microsoft Word for iPad. Up to now – and remember that isn’t very long, it’s not a huge time since Word and Office first came to iPad – you have had to use OneDrive for storage. That’s Microsoft’s equivalent of Dropbox and iCloud and it’s convenient if you’re an Office 365 subscriber. If you’re not, it isn’t. Not so much. Certainly not as handy as being able to save and open documents directly with Dropbox.

I’d have said Dropbox was an obvious route to go. But I’d also have said Microsoft would never do it. And the result was I never even thought about it enough to write it. So this was a surprise:

Microsoft and Dropbox are teaming up today to more closely integrate Dropbox into Office. The surprise partnership will benefit Dropbox users who use Office across desktop, mobile, and the web as Microsoft’s productivity suite will soon become the standard way to edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files stored on Dropbox storage. Office for iPad will benefit the most, with an update coming in the following weeks that will allow Dropbox users to link their account directly to the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint iPad apps.

Dropbox and Microsoft form surprise partnership for Office integration – Tom Warren, The Verge (4 November 2014)

This isn’t just that you can fiddle your way into sometimes using Dropbox, it is that you can seemingly even choose to skip OneDrive completely.

Now, if only Microsoft would sell a version without an annual subscription. Read the full piece.