Trials of an upgrade

I decided, recently, to upgrade MS Office on my computers: a desktop and laptop Mac. There were a handful of reasons. First, I’d hit a limitation on my desktop machine which resulted because I was still running an old copy (Mac 2004) designed for the previous non-Intel architecture and running, therefore, under emulation. Second, the versions on the two machines were out of step: I upgraded the laptop to 2008 but not the desktop. And third, I’ve been getting a lot of mail database crashes and hoped an upgrade would cure this.

For the base Office software, no problems except the one I’d anticipated. Microsoft’s Visual Basic for Applications isn’t supported on the Mac within the new formats. What I’d not realised is that, so long as I continue to save in the older format, it does work. So I get an annoying prompt every time I save the spreadsheets that use it, but that’s all. Better than I anticipated.

And a few aggravations. The new window header takes up much more vertical space than the old one; it would be nice to be able to turn off the function tab ribbon. Sort in Excel has been changed; the new version is more capable than the old one, but it would be nice to have a “revert to classic” for the specifier. And Conditional Formatting, which I use a lot, has been substantially changed; I have to use formulas for everything (no wizard) and the defaults are dreadful: again, “revert to classic” would be nice. How did they decide on the new formats to offer as built-in? It’s a tedious way round to get to what I normally use.

But I daresay I’ll get used to these. The killer, though, was the replacement of a mail client called Entourage with one called Outlook. As one commentator pointed out: the name shift is highly significant because, instead of a client designed to integrate with the Mac platform the focus is now Exchange Server. Which of course I don’t have! And the things that have gone missing include: proper replication with the Apple Address Book which is my primary contacts directory (so that I can replicate out to my mobile phone) – I ticked the box, but it just didn’t do it (but see below …); the ability to duplicate messages (copy-and-paste), which I use for a handful of template messages that I keep in my Drafts folder; and a very useful facility which lets an Entourage user drag a mailbox to the desktop, thereby creating an archive copy which, in my case, I use to move the mailboxes I need onto my laptop when working away from home. In Outlook, this doesn’t work and I’d have to use categories and a selective Export.

Well, you’ve guessed it. I’ll use the 2011 versions of Word, Excel and Powerpoint. But for mail I’ve gone back to Entourage. Luckily, I did very little mail work in Outlook and I reset the system to “Leave messages on server” before I started. But the cycle cost me a day’s work because trying to get my contacts into the Outlook client created enormous numbers of replication conflicts which had to be sorted out (eventually, Outlook had decided it would replicate after all). That’s the sort of problem which reverting Address Book to the backup doesn’t solve.

Is this just a rant? Not really. I remember, very many years ago, a story of a meeting of heads of University computing services with their supplier, ICL, to talk about compatibility for the Fortran compiler for the new 2900-series computers about to be installed by most of them. And in the end, one of the customers ran out of patience. He took from his bag the Fortran manual for the old computer, banged it on the desk, and defined the problem in four words: “That’s your compatibility standard”.

My Office problems are just the latest version of this issue. Microsoft aren’t especially bad at it; the big things, like changes to document formats, are well handled with filters and converters. Sure, there are things it makes sense to drop or change. But it’s the little features that mess up the users. Why is upgrade compatibility such a hard issue to understand?

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