Give Us A Simpler "Office"

But Microsoft is far from ready to produce such a product, despite the demand

Do people want a simplified version of Microsoft Office? I put that question to readers a couple of weeks ago, and their response was a resounding "yes." They complained that Office is too complicated, too big, too crash-prone, too expensive, and needs too much computer power. People offered suggestions on how to fix it.

Patrick McKeon of Chicago has a typical reaction. "You bet I would buy a simplified version of Microsoft Office if it was available," he says. "I have longed for this for years. I don't use 80% of the programs' features."

FRUSTRATION. Despite the outpouring of sentiment, in which about 99% of correspondents favored a simplified Office for home, school, or small business, Microsoft shows little interest in rising to the challenge. And as long as Microsoft controls the proprietary file formats that Office applications use, it is unlikely that anyone else could produce a truly compatible product, a fundamental requirement of Office Lite fans.

The sources of frustration were many, but a few dominated the complaints. "Instead of a lot of new stuff, I would prefer that the old stuff would work properly," says Herbert Francl of

Banyoles, Spain. He's bothered by dates that change when moving from one version of Excel to another. Many complained that features designed to promote ease of use, such as wizards and automatic formatting, actually made their work harder. And Brock B. Bernstein of Ojai, Calif., speaks for many when he says: "The overall complexity of Office and Windows creates compatibility problems that lead to lockups and crashes."

To some extent, readers' responses support Microsoft's contention that while few people use more than a tiny percentage of the programs' features, everyone wants a different 10%. For example, Janet Galvez of the University of Florida in Gainesville wants to go back to a simpler edition of Word--but needs the ability to display data from Excel spreadsheets in Word documents. M. Al-Rawahi of Muscat, Oman, uses only limited features but needs multi-language support. And there were many calls for one feature to be added to Word: a command, long present in the WordPerfect word processor of Corel WordPerfect Office, that makes all formatting codes visible.

Interestingly, readers also came up with a way to create customized simplified applications. They would have Microsoft--or a competitor--sell a bare-bones version of Office. Customers could add additional features by either buying or renting components as needed, perhaps by downloading them off the Internet.

Office 2000 takes a step in this direction by allowing some features to be added only when needed. Unfortunately, "install on demand" is difficult to use and relatively inflexible. Furthermore, a minimal installation of just Word runs 89 megabytes and lacks such basic functions as spell-checking. But a senior Microsoft executive, who declined to be quoted, said a highly modular Office posed daunting engineering challenges, could suffer from poor integration of its components, and might also make it difficult for users to discover extended features.

An alternative path to a simpler Office might already be in Microsoft's stable in the form of the "pocket" Office applications built into Windows CE handheld computers, which have the advantage of working with existing Office file formats.

Writes Perry Glasser of Haverhill, Mass.: "It occurs to me now that the trimmed-down version of an office suite that works for me is Microsoft's CE. The only truly dumb component is Pocket PowerPoint, a read-only application and therefore worthless for work. But for the trimmed versions of Excel and Word, it's terrific." The Microsoft exec says the company's experience has been that CE users want the Pocket applications to be made more and more like their desktop big brothers.

LOST FEATURES. One suggestion offered by several readers is that software publishers move toward open, industry-standard file formats. This would make it easy for other companies to offer Office-compatible software. Office 2000 moves in the right direction by letting users choose hypertext markup language (HTML), the lingua franca of the Web, as an alternative to standard file formats. But many formatting features are lost when the file is saved as HTML.

Judging by the volume and tone of the mail I received, there is a market for a simpler alternative to Office. But Microsoft's lack of interest and the realities of the marketplace mean it will likely be a long time in coming.