Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Legacy of Microsoft Office

I'm a little bit late to this particular dance, but I feel like I have to say something about it.

Last month, Microsoft released the specs for its old binary Microsoft Office file formats. Lots of people thought this would usher in a new age of competing office suites. It will not. Microsoft Office binary file formats are monumentally, hopelessly complex.

Joel (on Software) Spolsky is a veteran of the Excel team, and he wrote a wonderfully insightful post about why this is so. He writes:

A normal programmer would conclude that Office's binary file formats:

  • are deliberately obfuscated
  • are the product of a demented Borg mind
  • were created by insanely bad programmers
  • and are impossible to read or create correctly.
You'd be wrong on all four counts.

The crux of Joel's point is that the formats were: designed around hardware constraints two decades ago; grown to account for every new feature since; all while maintaining 100% backward compatibility.

Joel is absolutely right about how the file formats got that way, of course. That doesn't change the fact that they are absolutely terrible file formats today. The startling thing is that Microsoft's new XML-based file formats are really just as bad. Microsoft has gone through a lot of trouble to translate all the data structures into new XML equivalents, but they still have all of the cruft of the old formats. This is not a system that can continue indefinitely.

All software with a long enough life faces this demon eventually. Backwards compatibility is a feature. It is an asset to software users who have old data. As with any feature, it is a trade-off, and comes at a price. That price in Microsoft Office passed the "too high" mark for me a long time ago. Likewise with Windows. I am more willing than most users to move to different systems, but everyone has a limit.

The greater lesson is that the cost of backwards compatibility should be carefully considered. In the end, extremely backwards-compatible software is just... extremely backwards software.

1 comment:

allamericanboi said...

Which is exactly why SaaS and open source client applications are so appealing to those of us residing in the 21st century.

Unlike Microsoft, of course.