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Google Docs Vs. Microsoft Word: an Even Matchup? 346

Nerval's Lobster writes "Software developer Jeff Cogswell writes: 'About a year ago, I decided to migrate my documents to Google Docs and start using it for all my professional writing. I quickly hit some problems; frankly, Google Docs wasn't as good an option as I'd initially hoped. Now I use LibreOffice on my desktop, and it works well, but I had to go through long odysseys with Google Docs and Zoho Docs to reach this point. Is Microsoft Word actually better than Google Docs and Zoho Docs? For my work, the answer is "yes," but this doesn't make me particularly happy. In the following essay, I present my problems with Google Docs and Zoho Docs (as well as some possible solutions) from my perspective as both a professional writer and a software developer.'"
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Google Docs Vs. Microsoft Word: an Even Matchup?

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  • by Hardhead_7 ( 987030 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:06AM (#42401235)
    I love Google Docs. But, in the end, Word has been around forever, it's very mature, and it has features that fit any conceivable needs. It also has the advantages (and disadvantages) that come with being local to your machine instead of living in the cloud. Google docs is great for a quick and dirty word processing or a collaborative project, but you shouldn't try to write a novel with it.
  • Is it just me? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geek ( 5680 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:21AM (#42401295)

    Or is Google software getting worse instead of better? I tried so hard to like Google Docs and Drive but it's been so buggy for me (in their browser no less) that I simply can not stand to use it. Worse still is the unfinished nature of EVERYTHING Google puts out these days. There is absolutely no polish to anything they have besides gmail. Gmail is fantastic but everything else from them is just terrible. The nail int he coffin for me on the Google side was the Google Drive sync client on OS X, it crashed constantly, failed to sync files all the time and used a crap ton of CPU time draining the battery of my MacBook Air. Not to mention the lack of a Linux client (still!)

    Add to the above the fact Google likes to just close shit down whenever they feel like it and I can never let myself get too deep into their ecosystem without worrying whether they'll just cut it off one day (Wave, iGoogle etc.) Google just can't seem to follow through on anything to completion.

    I'm neither a Google fan or an Apple fan, I own products from both (Nexus 7 and an MBA) so I don't think I'm biased. I have to say, the two companies have the opposite failings. Apple lacks features but has polish while Google lacks polish while has features. In the end I find myself more inclined to use Apple these days just because I have real work to do and can't dick around with all of Googles BS.

    That said, I don't see why anyone would use Google Docs. I guess for simple text files its ok and I hear the collaboration is good so maybe it has uses for a small subset of folks out there but I just don't find it useful. I combine Scrivener, LaTeX and Word for my writing and find my needs met quite well.

    Google is run by engineers, which is cool, I actually like that, but as a result, suffers from a lack of real world usability, polish and commitment. Google lacks focus in the right areas (they can sure focus on selling you to advertisers though). I just don't see Google as anything but a search + email provider. Everything else I've tried of theirs has been lackluster and easily met by other options out there at a decent price without the privacy issues.

  • by tftp ( 111690 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:25AM (#42401317) Homepage

    I deal with documents on professional basis. This, in my industry, means that none of my documents may ever hit the cloud. (Encryption is a possibility, but it creates more problems than it solves.)

    I tried OpenOffice of several versions, over the years, and all of them were buggy. The latest one, for example, corrupted the watermark in the document. This is unacceptable. I have MS Office now. It may have bugs (not that any bit me recently) but the overall quality of the software is certainly acceptable. OpenOffice does not pass that test - it is unusable in an environment where the wordprocessor will have to correctly handle all kinds of inputs, written by me or written by others.

    MS Office costs about $100 per license. This is a very acceptable cost of doing business. Perhaps this would be too steep if you are a grandmother with limited resources who only wants to create a single page note about a missing cat and print it for her nearest neighbors. As a business, you want to be as sure as it ever gets that the important proposal that you are writing will be correctly opened by the soliciting party. (In many cases editable Word documents are requested, not a PDF.)

    A good wordprocessor is not a good target for an F/OSS project. It's a lot of boring, thankless work. Nobody has an itch that has to be scratched in such a masochistic way. That's why F/OSS wordprocessors are all not very good. Same goes for accounting systems, CAD systems, and many more. Often a F/OSS project just can't muster enough resources to complete the project. A for-profit company has no such problem; they just pay money, and developers show up for work.

  • by Kwyj1b0 ( 2757125 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:42AM (#42401391)

    I think he is using the wrong tool for the job, and then blaming the tool. I don't know about the collaboration features, having never used them. But Google docs was never (IMO) intended to be a replacement for a professional editing tool.

    He talks about style sheet feature in the professional writers world. I don't know what that is, because I use Google docs for simple things. Sharing a to-do list with colleagues. Sharing a grocery list with my family. Short story writing in my spare time. Yes, a lot of professional writers need particular features - but MOST people don't. If you try to include features that everyone and their dog would want, you'd get a mess that is unusable, especially in a browser (I can configure MS Word to some extent. Change the layout, add shortcuts to the ribbon, etc).

    The closest I have come to a specialized writing software is Scrivener - and I love it. It has features MS Word doesn't have. And I don't expect Word to have them. But that isn't Word's fault - not everyone wants a pinboard and notes section while writing technical papers. They want to send a letter to Grandma thanking her for the check.

    And while Word might have some of the features he wants, that comes at a cost - I think MS realized it when they made Microsoft Works. A simple Word editor, a simple spreadsheet etc. It was much easier to use. But it tanked for reasons I don't know. Maybe (pure guesswork) because the mentality while buying software is - "I don't know what this feature is. But hey, I might want it some day!".

    Do you expect Paint to have all the features of Photoshop? Frankly, I couldn't use photoshop because I found it too complex, and I use Paintshop Pro. But that isn't Paint/Paintshop's flaw - if I need the features, I'll find the tool that fits the job.

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:07AM (#42401517) Homepage Journal

    Notepad is good enough for most people. (I'm using it right now.) But some people need certain features in their work, and if a program doesn't have those features, they can't use it.

    He's a professional writer who writes books, and he's talking about whether Google Docs and Zoho Docs can do that. They can't.

    A big book needs a style sheet. Otherwise you're taping lists of codes to the monitor, like we used to do in 1985.

    A writer who works with an editor needs Track Changes. Otherwise, the writer doesn't know what changes the editor made. They'd be better off faxing hand-written corrections to each other, like we used to do in 1985.

    When Microsoft started marketing Word, they were competing with WordPerfect, which dominated the word processing market and did a pretty good job. So Word had to do an even better job. MS worked with people who used Word in every major industry, like law firms, to find out how they wrote and what they needed in their word processor. They worked with an American Bar Association word processing committee to write free manuals. Lawyers sometimes write documents with line numbers. You got it. Law firms use all kinds of strikeouts and underlinings. You got it. Law firms use elaborate outlines. You got it. If you're a lawyer, and the judge wants a submission a certain way, there's no excuses.

    When I have a problem with Office, I do a Google search and I find people who have left the answers. Microsoft's web site, much as I hate to admit it, is an excellent manual in every version of Office. They paid a lot of very good technical writers what they were worth to explain it. (In fairness, they haven't been up to the same quality lately.) When I have a problem with Google, I do a Google search and sometimes find a bunch of guys trying to give helpful suggestions. I wonder what Google's paid tech support is like. If my job depended on it, it would certainly be worth $50 a year.

    I too would love to use OpenOffice/LibreOffice etc., just for the principle of open software, but I've tried them and they had little incompatibilities. If you're working on a big project with other people, you can't take a chance on an incompatibility that will take an hour or two to figure out, or that you just have to work around.

    Some day they'll get there. Not yet.

  • by supersat ( 639745 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:22AM (#42401579)

    If you're using Google Docs to dispatch taxis, you're doing something very wrong.

    Google Docs is a great band-aid to quickly hack something together, but it's no substitute for real tools.

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:23AM (#42401583)
    Honestly, Wordpad is good enough for so many users' individual needs that it's almost foolish for the vast majority of users to purchase extra word processing software in Microsoft environments. Hell, even the netbook I'm using to type this with Windows 7 Starter Edition has Wordpad built in.

    Throw in free word processors that are more feature-rich than Wordpad or are meant for other platforms and the actual number of users that needs Microsoft Office is very, very small. It's dumb for school districts to buy Office for most of their computers. It's dumb for home users to buy it. I would argue that it's even possibly dumb for many professionals to buy it. They simply do not need it unless there's some true need to protect proprietary content.
  • To be fair, it's not that the OpenOffice and LibreOffice are crap, it's just that the format you're feeding them is. Get us an actual free and open source document standard, and have folks follow it, and things will be much better. Here's an interesting anecdote: My moderately computer literate mother now uses Linux at home and Win7 at work, and prefers Linux. She takes her Linux laptop with LibreOffice on it to work because there are MS Word documents that MS Word won't open that LibreOffice does. There. That should counter your "it's buggy" anecdote.

    Have you had many corruption problems with the FLOSS office tools saving and loading their own format? Or is it just them failing to comply with MS's flawed published document standards that not even MS complies with? How can a FLOSS word processor work with MS Office if they publish one thing and do another? Oooooh, so now you see do you? Perhaps your fingers have been pointing in the wrong direction all along. Look, I know you don't give a damn why the competing free alternatives are buggy, but let's not go pretending they can't do the work. There is a deficit of CAD, but then again, look at CAD users as a percentage of market share vs total users... Then again, I actually prefer Blender and YafaRay for 3D modeling and animation and even just adding special effects to videos.

    (Un)Fortunately this doesn't work both ways. Here, I'll show you: MS has no Emacs or Vim replacement at all! Who can even write code for their system? VS doesn't even work with my Emacs macros or have block select! Ah, but you see? Emacs and Vim, and essentially every FLOSS program can run on Windows as well as any other OS -- They're not hindered by vendor lock-in strategies...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:30AM (#42401631)

    "Honestly, Wordpad is good enough for so many users' individual needs that it's almost foolish for the vast majority of users to purchase extra word processing software in Microsoft environments. Hell, even the netbook I'm using to type this with Windows 7 Starter Edition has Wordpad built in."

    We are talking about word processors, not text editors. Programmers are probably the only profession where they would tell you to use Wordpad and claim it covered 99% of your needs.

  • by DFurno2003 ( 739807 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:36AM (#42401667)
    Why the hell would you use Google Docs for Taxi Dispatch?
  • by pwizard2 ( 920421 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:41AM (#42401685)
    Wordpad is a very stripped-down word processor, not a text editor (as unix/linux veterans understand the term). Have you ever opened a source file in Wordpad? It treats code like a regular document and the results are absolutely dreadful. Meanwhile, Notepad is god-awful as far as plain text editors go--it doesn't even understand Unix-style line breaks. If you want a decent text editor for Windows, I recommend Notepad++.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 27, 2012 @01:45AM (#42401717)

    I think the main difference is that Google markets Docs as a full-on replacement for Office, not just as "good enough for a lot of things" (source: I'm a Google engineer, but that claim means a helluva lot here). Microsoft never made any claim that Paint was any more than it is.

  • Re:Is it just me? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lord Maud'Dib ( 611577 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @02:20AM (#42401833)
    I've been using OpenOffice (and then LibreOffice, since around when it forked) for writing scientific papers for a few years now. For referencing I use Zotero which works really well ( I can't stand Endnote!!!). Recently I had to switch to Word for a collaborative project and I absolutely hated the way it tried to take control of everything. The way LibreOffice handles captioning and just everything in general is much better than MS Word. The formula input and formatting is much more like Tex than MS Word too, which is really handy for all sorts of scientific and math input. Anyway, I've been considering switching to Google Docs on an Asus Transformer for writing on-the-go (commuting) and will give it another go soon, but for now LibreOffice is the best I've come across. For basic writing needs on a tablet I think I can make Goog work.
  • by terjeber ( 856226 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @04:17AM (#42402181)

    But the handful of people who don't fit in that category set the standards, and they need features like tracking changes, comments, and stylesheets

    That's not a handful, that describes basically the entire enterprise world.

  • by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @04:30AM (#42402231)

    Google docs is great for a quick and dirty word processing or a collaborative project, but you shouldn't try to write a novel with it.

    I'd say the exact opposite. I edit a lot of novels, and every single author now uses MS Word. Not one of them has a clue how to use any of its features. And really, to write a novel, you only need the simplest features. Business documents, with lists, bullets, tables, headings, etc, etc need more elaborate formatting. A novel is a stream of paragraphs. Maybe one or two heading styles, and block text (for things like quoted letters, poems), and a spellcheck. That's all you need and you can do that in any wordprocessor made in the last 25 years. It was a lot simpler back in the days of Wordstar 5 and WordPerfect 5.1.

    Writers using Word have gotten less and less able to use it, compared to 20 years ago when people actually consulted a manual before trying. Now they just point and click and type, and so the vast majority just use it like a typewriter, and select text and style it from a button. That's it. They are clueless of and intimidated by the vast number of features and just give up and don't try to work out how to use any any of them. Then they somehow activate one of Word's wacky, "helpful" automated formatting tools and find all their text is in 24 pt red italic. Or they've somehow styled the entire MS as "Heading 1" and have to override its style every time. Writers start new pages not by inserting a pagebreak, but by pressing "enter" a few dozen times, or even worse, hundreds of spaces. I spend an hour or two cleaning up all that crap with every file I get. If I was working with them over a long period I might try to educate them, but few want to learn anything. People now want every program to "just work" without them having to learn anything.

    Writers need a simpler wordprocessor. Word has been getting worse and worse as a tool for authors since about version 2 for Windows 3. Its development us pushed by claiming more and more features. Features that just get in the way of 95% of users. To disable all the crap you have to read up and tick off lots of little options. But it seems that also is just impossible for most users.

    So, not having used GoogleDocs, I can't say if it really is better, but if it has fewer features it probably is. Can hardly be worse.

  • by bemymonkey ( 1244086 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @04:31AM (#42402235)

    " It's dumb for school districts to buy Office for most of their computers."

    I respectfully disagree. Learning to use a computer in the way that you'll very likely be using it later in college and at work is one of the few sane things about school. In "IT class" (7th grade, I think it was), we learned basic HTML, Excel (formulas, charts, little tiny intro to macro) and basic Word (headings, automatic generation of dynamic content, how to use headers and footers and all that junk) and to this day I find that stuff useful. Every time I write internal documentation of any sort, or papers, or anything else more extensive than a one-page letter, it's great to simply be "fluent" in Office instead of having to Google the more advanced stuff (something I see my coworkers doing a lot)...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 27, 2012 @04:38AM (#42402265)

    It sounds like your situation with internet connectivity is reason enough to make LibreOffice the obvious choice.

    My situation is a bit different, in that everything I own is connected, and I need to be able to get at things from multiple locations. Carrying around a drive is a pretty cumbersome option for what I'm doing day-to-day, so online storage works really well.

    I'm the first to concede that desktop word processing is better than the web versions, but I've found that most of what I need to bang out can be done with the web ones well enough. Or at least, for seeing what I've already done. And most of the fringe features that people make hay over in Word are things I never see anyone using anyway... because there's usually a better way.

    But as with most of these things we try to argue about, it makes sense to do what your situation dictates. I can't bring myself to get all religious about it one way or the other.

  • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @04:41AM (#42402277)

    This is a reviewing / collaboration tool, not version control. At any time someone in word can hit "accept all changes" and whoosh it's all gone.

    These markups are fantastic, however where I work we use it with a separate document management system that does version control for us. We basically check out the most recent document, and the first thing we do is hit "Accept All Changes" this provides us with a very clean slate. The final edited document is checked in and that way only the most recently changes are visible when you go and open the approved document. It also makes it very easy for the document reviewer / approver to see what has changed.

    I've seen people try to use this feature for version control before. It quickly becomes a clusterfuck of uncontrolled rainbow colours and strikethroughs.

  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @05:00AM (#42402337)

    In a way, the choice of word processor is more or less irrelevant by comparison with the level of trust involved in putting my files in the hands of someone I don't personally know. If anything should happen to files on my own hard drives, I at least only have myself to blame for not having secured or backed them up. But there is always the risk that Google might be compromised, either from the outside or by some rogue sysadmin, and I don't want to even think about trying to claim any redress against Google if they fuck up.

    Absolutely right. But a cloud provider has a team of pros exactly to avoid that. And I'd bet that for every file lost or compromised by a "cloud accident" there are 100 of files lost in a drive crash or "oops I didn't want to delete THAT folder" accident. (Or lost USB Stick or "reply all" or what else for the "compromised" variety)

    So basically, you need to choose your solution based on your personal risk profile, like , is your company big enough to hire someone to take care of backups and storing them offsite? Is that guy reliable?

  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @05:16AM (#42402367)

    But the handful of people who don't fit in that category set the standards, and they need features like tracking changes, comments, and stylesheets.

    The why on earth use Word? Have you ever seen someone actually use the Word Version tracking? 95% of business, version tracking for word files is to use "Save As" Document_new.doc, Document_newer.doc, or even Document_today.doc, cluttering a shared network drive. Documents get mailed around, either to people not able to access the office network share (or even to people who are), local copies are created by the dozen and so on.

    I have to admit that MS office is really easy to use, but that often leads to the mess described above. There is nothing to prevent that but user education and discipline. We all know what happens when we have to rely on that.

    The proper solution to those requirements would be LaTeX (or any other text based document source format, FormattingObjects, whatever) and SVN. Perhaps combined with a pdf-based archive to documeht incomming/outgoing stuff.

    The Unix philosophy doesn't sell to non-technically-minded people, especially not when it conflicts with a superior workflow.

    You can set up a superior workflow with *ix-tools, but you have to do it yourself, it's nothing that comes out of a box.

  • by jkrise ( 535370 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @05:16AM (#42402371) Journal

    Why the hell would you use Google Docs for Taxi Dispatch?

    Er... not me; but a prospective client of ours was using Google Docs, Gmail and Google Talk to co-ordinate the entire taxi dispatch system. We replaced his entire infrastructure with an open source based front-end, talking to a GPS-based location-tracker service provider. Now he has been able to reduce his workforce by 60% while increasing the number of taxis managed.

    But my point is; it is possible to do excellent real-time collaboration with free Google tools, at high reliability. Which is simply not possible with Microsoft solutions, inspite of paying hefty sums of money.

  • We learned wordperfect for dos in school because "thats what people use at work"...
    When i left school, wordperfect for dos had disappeared.

    You need to teach concepts not specific applications, because those specific applications either won't be around or will be significantly different by the time you leave school.

  • by clickclickdrone ( 964164 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @05:58AM (#42402513)
    I find it quite depressing how little firms use macros etc. Many years ago we had a Lotus 123 system that read in a text file of account transactions from a mainframe then scanned each one, pulling in custom pricing for each client via additional sheets, formatting and printing a bill for each one with breakdown before issuing a charging schedule. Worked great for 2000 plus clients a month. With Excel and Word plus macros we built some very sophisticated and functional pricing tools and even a tool that optimized cash collection routes for a security firm. These days, people don't even know macros exist.
  • by Velex ( 120469 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @06:08AM (#42402545) Journal
    That's funny. I find myself going \LaTeX{} when nothing else will do and arguing with it is easier than arguing with Word.
  • by mr.hawk ( 222616 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @06:17AM (#42402575) Homepage

    Spot on. I see this all the time. The company buys application X to do task A. X does A well but can also do B, C & D well with proper configuration and some glue in place. Now company realizes they need to do B. In comes application Y which does task B well but also can do A, C & maybe even D if properly configured, yadayada...

    Buying tools is easy and FUN. Using them requires skill. Skill is hard to to acquire and takes time away from shopping around for tools.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 27, 2012 @06:30AM (#42402601)

    The office ribbon drives me crazy because I can't find many of the features that I'm looking for, or they work just slightly differently enough to be annoying...

  • by inflex ( 123318 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @06:56AM (#42402685) Homepage Journal

    The fact that "professionals" are using Word ( or similar ) for their work for quality output betrays the lack of their sanity in the first place. 20 years ago Microsoft-Word was a joke of a tool for legitimately professional publishing tasks, a Fisher-Price mallet in a world of steel hammers. Back then it was LaTeX, Quark or some other probably-insanely-obscure DTP system, even WP5.1, but over the years people have forgotten how it was (probably with good reason though, none of them were all that fun and easy to use and never came with cheesy clipart). As a publisher, I still find ms-doc files to be inconsistent a lot of the time (especially from some writers) and almost always needs to be fixed up by selecting the text, copying in to a fresh file with a very strict style and manually reworking it; as opposed to LaTeX (hand generated or via LyX) where you can generate print-ready novels consistently without all the screwing around.

    It would seem we've traded the steeper learning curve for substandard results and since it's been happening long enough now, it has become the 'professional way'.

    Now get off my lawn!

  • by bickerdyke ( 670000 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @07:08AM (#42402711)

    The 95% of business that you had experience with must have been from some bottom of the barrel places, intelectually-wise.

    Not neccessarily. A combination of small shop, grown infrastructure and a field of expertise not related to file management and word processing can do that trick too.

    In the three companies I've worked for in the last 12 years (the last two counting > 10k employees),

    it's only natural that it gets less of in issue in bigger companies. At some point you're crossing the line where buying and maintaining something expensive as sharepoint is worth its money and you tend to use specialized software for more and more tasks. There is nothing wrong with abusing excel as a database as long as e.g. your inventory consists of a few hunderd items. (assuming you're keeping some kind of document hygiene like making sure the guy responsible for updating it knows which one is the master copy and backups are kept) But you should know when to stop doing that and get some real enterprise tools for the tasks at hand. And at 10k employees, you're WAY past that point.

    What you should be aware of at that size is a backlash-effect when people turn to Excel-macros again to bypass enterprise software, because setting up that urgent report would be a 3 weeks paperwork-heavy process instead of 3 hours of Excel magic.

    (During my last 12 years, I worked in companys ranging from 50 to 250 employees. Usually owner managed and specialized enough to be global market leader in their field. I guess that's a difference between US and Europe.)

  • by DaveGod ( 703167 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @07:53AM (#42402817)

    No it's not a marketable skill; Word and Excel proficiency are a basic requirement.

  • by blind biker ( 1066130 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @08:03AM (#42402843) Journal

    It's quite trivial for this to happen. Suppose someone writes a Word document (with the latest version of Word), then sends it to another person who has Word 97, who maybe opens and edits it, then passes it along to someone with another version of Word again. Somewhere along the line the document will get corrupted,

    It was corrupted right at the start, when the first person saved it as .docx - the colleague with Word 97 won't be able to open it.

    Oh, I hear you say "Word 97 is old, they should buy the new one." Yes, and pay MS their extortion money only because they made the new format incompatible with the previous version for reasons that 99.9999999% of users won't appreciate.

    Contrast with OpenOffice, that is backwards compatible since forever.

  • by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Thursday December 27, 2012 @08:48AM (#42402961) Homepage

    Will MS Office disappear soon? No.

    Will some grads suddenly find themselves in jobs where it isn't used? You bet. There are cloud-loving Google Docs shops, penny-pinching OpenOffice businesses, and even some kool-aid-drinking Pages studios out there already.

  • by emarkp ( 67813 ) <slashdot AT roadq DOT com> on Thursday December 27, 2012 @12:32PM (#42404319) Journal

    Because if you update to the next version of Word or Excel, half of your macros break. The simplest-yet-complete rant on this I've seen is here: []

    And by design, Word & Excel will ratchet themselves forward in versions (especially if you're working with clients). So why invest significant time in an infrastructure that is designed to break?

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly