Yesterday in My Month with Microsoft I wrote about my frustrations with Microsoft software. Legal project management expert Steven Levy of Lexician, who spent about 20 years working at MS, wrote a great and thoughtful comment on MS software, which I re-publish here. 

Steve reminds me that

  • The bug versus feature discussion persists. Reasonable people can and do dis-agree about how software should work. As Steve points out, for example, with how text boxes work in PowerPoint, what I consider a bug is a valuable feature for others. And be careful what you ask for…. being able to configure how features work is not a good solution generally.
  • Microsoft applications operate in a complex environment. Even though MS provides the operating system for the vast majority of PCs, it does not entirely control the environment. I I like to forget this when I am frustrated.
  • The company continues to invest to make its software better.

Here is Steve’s comment:

Ron, as someone who worked at Microsoft from the early 90s until a couple of years ago, I’d like to respond. (Of course, I do not speak for Microsoft!)

First, “do we think MS cares about… bugs?” I know MS cares about bugs. There are committed, passionate people on all of the product teams I know who care deeply about creating the best possible user experience.

Indeed, OneNote has been one of the most committed such teams. For what it’s worth, I’ve never seen this particular bug… which reflects the nature of bugs. Software is incredibly complex, and its interactions with millions of different computer setups and whatever else is also running are mind-boggling. These interactions are rarely reproducible in the lab; who knows what anti-virus software and other apps and Flash version and iTunes updater and viruses and so on are running at the same time. (Open the Task Manager and look at the number of processes your computer is running that aren’t from Microsoft.)

The teams are under great pressure to deliver useful value now, on one hand, and near-perfect software on the other. It’s a compromise, and it’s a compromise that every software company makes. Few systems have similar complexity, and those that do, such as airplanes, have huge restrictions on what you can add. Delta can’t simply add its own app to a 747’s system… let alone some individual flight attendant doing so!

Let me comment on some of the specific items:
– Win7 restart: Probably Windows Update, as you note. Each app has its own way of dealing with shutdown/restart. Some, such as Google Chrome, are better than others at handling this.
– PPT text box: This is by design so that you can click on visible elements underneath without worrying about where the invisible text box is. As someone who creates graphics-intensive decks, I am very grateful it works this way.
– Word table text: Paragraph menu is right on the Home tab even in a table.
– Word Insert key: I noticed this too and thought it was weird.
– Word Find and Autonumber: I agree. I know technically why it works this way, but I think it’s counter-intuitive.

I get frustrated with Microsoft software a lot — now and back when I worked there. Most MS employees do… and they use a lot of MS software all the time. Everybody wants it to work better, and everybody has an opinion on exactly how it should work. (E.g., I suspect the one-cell table copy is by design, and there’s probably a reason for it, but I don’t know what it is.) However, whenever I was feeling truly frustrated, I’d go run something by Adobe or Apple or numerous other vendors. Most of what’s out there is considerably worse — flukier, more crash-prone, slower to load (Adobe, are you listening?), slower to run, more processor-intensive (Adobe again…).

That said, keep letting MS know what you find deficient. They are listening. They’re not very good at letting people know they’re listening, but listen they do.

There are 100K people there. I don’t know all of them (when I started, there were less than 10% of that number, and I sometimes felt I did know them all). I know some who aren’t committed, who are just doing a job, who are in it only for the salary, and I know them at all levels of the company. But I know many, many more who are deeply committed to creating the best possible software for a broad spectrum of users, who are truly trying to change the world through software.

And if they’re not perfect, they’ve made a pretty good start. It’s a very different (software) world than that of, say, 1981, the year the IBM PC was introduced. They shouldn’t skate on what they’ve gotten wrong, but they should get credit for the amazing amount they’ve done well to get us users as far as we have in 30 years.