Complicated is sexy: Microsoft Office versus Google Docs in situations where tiny details matter a lot

When I’m visiting New York, I have a bit of a routine I like to perform on weekends. I crave books, and I crave pizza. As it happens, two of my favorite places for doing these two things are around the corner from each other in NoLita: Rubirosa Pizza on Mulberry St. and McNally Jackson Books on Prince St. So I go. I go to the point where the staff at Rubirosa really can’t tell if I live in New York or not.

(To my knowledge, Microsoft has no financial interest in either of these businesses. But if we do, I want some free pizza.)

One thing that’s cool about McNally Jackson which is becoming increasingly popular at high-end independent book stores (such as Washington DC’s Politics and Prose) is the store-as-publisher phenomenon. When you walk into McNally Jackson, you’ll see an entire section on the left between the magazine and the cafe consumed with an “Espresso Book Machine,” a few shelves of books published by authors through the local store, and a full-time staffer sitting on a cute little stool, busily typing away on a laptop.

You see, whether you want to publish 10 copies of your son or daughter’s first book for friends and family, or you’ve written a niche book about, say, the history of Greenwich Village street art, you can simply write McNally Jackson or a similar book store a check, and they’ll print copies of your book right there and sell them. Boom, you’re an author.

Well, it’s not quite that easy. You have to format your book first.

It turns out that McNally Jackson has themselves written and self-published a book called the McNally Jackson D.I.Y. Formatting Guide for the Espresso Book Machine. It’s 61 pages of glorious formatting guidelines about exciting topics like “trim size” and “embedded fonts” and even “colophons” — any of which sound like they could be terms a doctor would use to describe a horrible disease you’ve contracted.

But no, they’re standard things you need to know about if you’re going to format your own prized manuscript for publication.

For some reason, I felt compelled to purchase this handy $5.99 manual and read it while I ate two slices of classic and one slice of vodka sauce with some Italian red wine at Rubirosa. The McNally Jackson D.I.Y. Formatting Guide for the Espresso Book Machine may set the record for the top book I’ve read that mentioned Microsoft Word an ungodly number of times yet still isn’t actually that boring.

You see, over and over and over, instructions for formatting page size, margins, tabs, line space, fonts, book sections, page numbers, and so on are given for Microsoft Word. That’s the trusted platform for writing and editing and formatting your book and converting it into an accurate PDF document for printing and publication.

Not Google Docs. Microsoft Word.


Google Docs No Mas

In fact, “Google Docs” wasn’t mentioned in the McNally Jackson D.I.Y. Formatting Guide for the Espresso Book Machine a single time.

Why? Perhaps trust.

Early on, people noticed “document fidelity” issues with transferring Word files to Google Docs and back — problems with formatting, missing watermarks, and so forth. Perhaps that led to a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Here’s a throwback video:

To be sure, Google Docs has gotten better since its debut, and quite a number of businesses and other organizations are using it. And I don’t think Google Docs is all that bad — I even use it from time to time for something quick-and-dirty, or as part of a collaborative project for a fundraiser or other outside group where someone else has chosen the platform on which we’re working.

But no matter how much it improves, Google Docs always seems a few steps behind Microsoft’s suite of products. Here’s an updated video showing students using Office in combination with Microsoft’s Skydrive (cloud storage) working on a group report on Macs and PCs, from a dorm room, a cafe, and a library computer:

And just today, Microsoft announced its new generation of Office, which includes a bunch of new things, including integration with newly acquired social tools Skype and Yammer.

Consistently, good old-fashioned Microsoft Word continues to dominate amongst people who have complicated missions, who trust that things in their documents won’t change, and for whom niche but extremely useful features matter.

Look at professional and technical writers for example. Don’t just take McNally Jackson’s word for it, check out this great Slashdot post from software developer and technical book writer Jeff Cogswell who tried hard to switch to Google Docs and another cloud platform, Zoho Docs, but in the end acquiesced to Microsoft Word’s superiority for professional writers and editors. In part, Jeff writes,

It would be great if I could open Google Docs, write this article, fiddle with tracking and some advanced publishing features, and then click a button to notify the editor that it’s ready. After he edits the piece to his satisfaction, he could send it back to me (again, via a single click), and I could go through his tracked changes, either keeping or rejecting them on a sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word basis. It would be powerful and effective.

But Google Docs can’t do all that. And every day, as a result, thousands of writers and editors opt for Microsoft Word—which was difficult for many to learn in the first place. If they want to switch over to a cloud-based writing and editing platform, they’ll need to learn whole new systems—and they’ll also need a Word-style set of powerful features and tools.

Microsoft Word’s superior feature set isn’t just for professional writers, of course — it’s for anyone with a complicated and critical mission to perform. How many Fortune 500 companies write their quarterly financial reports using Google Docs? No, I think it’s far more likely they track their money in Excel and then write their press releases and other documents in Word; one decimal positioned in the wrong place could mean a stock tanking millions of dollars.



Fighter Jets vs. Google Docs

What about Lockheed Martin employees who design, build, and test fighter jets for the U.S. military? Or how about doctors and nurses tracking infectious disease spread around the world and correlating that information with large data sets about global weather or airplane routes?

Maybe simple is beautiful, but I’d argue that complicated is sexy. People with complicated jobs that require the reliability of and somewhat obscure but incredibly useful feature sets in Microsoft Office — Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and more — do a lot of the really important things that make the world run.

They track the money you deposit at your bank.

They edit the bestselling books you love reading.

They design the military gear that keeps you safe.

They conduct research on diseases that inflict people you love.

They create toys that make your kids laugh.

And no matter what you read elsewhere, they tend to do a lot of that creative and business work using their trusty Microsoft Office products.

Technology is always in flux. Google Docs continues to evolve. Microsoft Office continues to evolve, too (for example, check out this blog post about Office 365 University by a pharmacology Ph.D. student). And newer form factors like phones and tablets and everything from watches to wall-sized computer screens will affect what people want to do with their data and information and how they want to interact with it.

But no matter what changes, I believe Office in every version and form factor will remain what it has been for years: “stunning” (The Verge), “feature-rich” (TechMamas), and “game-changing” (Engadget).

So if you feel temped by another software platform, just remember: Complicated is sexy.

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