June 06, 2004

Improved technology: On envelopes and WordPerfect

I just mailed a paper to a friend of mine in Australia, using one of a new batch of very sturdy and light large white envelopes made out of some plasticky stuff that will never tear. It was a new and improved product, it said on the back by the flap. I should have been instantly alarmed, knowing that improved products are nearly always worse than the pre-improvement version in at least some ways. But like a credulous fool I turned it over and began writing out the address. Little did I know...

The main improved feature was that a very heavy and robust imitation thread pattern had been introduced into the plasticky fabric. Doubtless they assumed that everyone would be using self-adhesive labels, not writing on the envelope the way I do (either to save stationery costs or because I can't find my labels). But writing on the envelope was like writing on a plastic tablecloth under which someone had inadvertently left a piece of that wire netting gardeners use to protect plant roots from gophers. The simulated threads were so robust that my ballpoint pen jumped off each one in a direction that could not be predicted to a tolerance of less than about a millimeter. It did this about eight times per inch. The result was that my handwriting looked like that of a person with moderately severe dementia. Andrew will wonder what happened to age me so fast and make my hand so trembly. But I was not too amazed to discover this disastrous feature of the new product. As I believe I may have said before, every upgrade is a downgrade.

Well, nearly every upgrade, anyway. Listen, I'm a cruel man, but fair, and I have to admit something to you. My earlier post on technology grumbled that WordPerfect had been getting worse rather than better: each new version I had experience with since about version 5.1 had either lost some useful function or added new bugs or both. Nonetheless, I still have to use WordPerfect every day, whatever the problems with it, because of collaborations with colleagues who use it. So a few weeks ago, when I noticed a real bargain price on WordPerfect 11, I decided (against my inner promptings) to acquire it (there were hopes that it might have enhanced capabilities in such matters as writing in HTML format).

The bargain price goes along with a side story, which, being utterly undisciplined, I will digress to tell. It was from a company that at first appeared to be doing something quite illegal, because the CD-ROM that came out of the slim envelope they sent me said plainly on the label that if I had not purchased it "in conjunction with original equipment" there could be "civil and criminal penalties". I was about to call Corel (the owners of WordPerfect) and the Santa Cruz police, sign a power of attorney for Barbara's use while I was inside, and place myself under citizen's arrest to wait for the arrival of the software authorities who would come in a van and take me away, when I somehow happened to notice that the slim envelope was not quite empty. I shook it, and out slid a small hardware device. Two plastic sockets connected to each other by four colored wires. I think it is a connector for internal disk drives. Original equipment! I was safe from prosecution: my WordPerfect 11 had been purchased in conjunction with original computer equipment, and I was morally entitled to the price I got (a discount of about 80% — and why not, since version 11 was by this time so long in the tooth that version 12 has now been released).

So instead of turning myself in to the software police I installed WordPerfect 11. The install was rapid and efficient, and the program started right up and worked. (Believe me, with some Windows software it has taken an hour or two to get that far.) And since I did all that whining about previous versions in the earlier post, let me now tell you this: it's beautiful product. It's better than earlier versions in various ways, I'm pleased with it, I'm using it all the time, and the final hard copy of the book I'm writing with Rodney Huddleston will be produced with it.

Now, don't misunderstand, I'm not saying things are totally great. There are numerous little stupidnesses in the redesign of some of the editing menus that do illustrate my slogan (did I mention it already?) that every upgrade is a downgrade; for example, it used to be possible to put a word in superscript with six swift keystrokes, and now it isn't, you have to leave the keyboard at one point and reach for the mouse to click on a button and make a menu choice, which slows the operation down by about 300%. I have also had two or three WordPerfect files that arrived here from Australia, where they were created with version 6 for DOS, that it could not open at all (it repeatedly hogged the entire CPU load and then froze). And more seriously, if this program was an SUV rather than a word processor, I'd be dead from fatal multiple rollover crashes, because it has bombed many times, often badly enough to trigger Windows XP's sending a message to Microsoft about the error, and once badly enough that on recovery it automatically sent its own message direct to Corel about its state of ill health.

You may be puzzled to hear this litany of complaints about a program that I seemed actually to be praising in the paragraph before; I give with one hand and take away with the other. But you don't understand: what I have described is good behavior compared to the usual utter shit one takes from Windows programs! WordPerfect 11 often goes whole days with no crash (I seldom had such a day with WordPerfect 6.1 on Windows 95). I have several times been able to recover from a WordPerfect crash without having to reboot the entire machine (that was never possible with earlier versions of Windows).

I'm just trying to give credit where it's due. WordPerfect 11 is a vastly better product than Microsoft Word: faster, slicker, more convenient for the ordinary user, much better endowed with keyboard shortcuts, and above all, much more transparent and accessible for the expert user (there has been no change to that crucial Reveal Codes feature, which enables you to know exactly what invisible format-encoding control characters are in your document and exactly where they are). Living with Windows is still a purgatory of frustration and abuse, but such things are relative: compared to the alternative, i.e., compared to Word, I would recommend WordPerfect 11 for anyone who needs high-quality WYSIWYG word processing. I only wish it were available for Linux and Mac operating systems: it used to be, but not any more, so to use it you have to endure the nightmare of Windows and thus do business with the evil wizards of Redmond. But for the millions who have to live with Windows anyway, WordPerfect 11 (or 12) is a great choice for WYSIWYG word processing needs, and I wouldn't want anyone to think that my hostility to premature forward steps in technology that are really backward steps had blinded me to that fact.

[I own no stock in Corel, nor in any subsidiary or supersidiary of theirs, nor do I know anyone who works for them. This is not a sponsored announcement, it's a disinterested critical opinion from a customer.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 6, 2004 03:43 PM