Following up to my last post on outlining, Marc Hedlund, one of the co-authors of Peer-to-Peer (O’Reilly), wrote about Word being too smart. Marc’s thesis is summed up in the last paragraph, where he says, “What the Word team lacks, in my view, is an awareness that, when a user is trying to get his or her own work done, the user is always smarter than the technology. Assuming that smart people aren't their market is the surest way to produce a bad word processor, which is exactly what I think they've done.”

There are really two parts to that thesis. The first is the opinion that Word has gotten too smart for its own good. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but I’d like to first address the factual notion that developing smart technology carries the inherent assumption that the users of that technology aren’t smart—that, in some way, we’ve tried to target Word toward some mythical “average” user who wants a lot of hand-holding.

The distinction I’d made, and the distinction Marc picked out, was the distinction between professional and non-professional writers. The problem, I think, is that Marc saw this in terms of “smart,” “dumb” and “average” users as opposed to just different kinds of users with just plain different needs. Ironically, Marc echoes this very point when he says, “While I think many of the ideas in Adam Engst's WriteRight proposal are fantastic, for the most part I have no need for them.” [emphasis added]

Making smart software isn’t about handholding allegedly stupid users. Frankly, that kind of thinking is just plain foreign to me. Aunt Tillie is a figment of Eric Raymond’s imagination, and there she should forever remain. I don’t make software for Aunt Tillie. I make software for real people who need to get real work done. These people want powerful tools, and I have no doubt that people like John McGhie would be more than happy to board a plane from Sydney to Seattle to hunt me down and thrash me to within inches of my life if we ever decided to “dumb-down” Word. Now, there are quite a few adjectives I could think of to describe folks like John McGhie, but “average” isn’t on the list.

Which brings me to the opinion that we’ve made Word too smart for its own good, and, while that’s an opinion that quite a few people share with Marc, it is, by no means, a universal opinion. Those of us who’ve spent a great deal of time reading the microsoft.public newsgroups and who’ve spent time talking to people like the MVPs and members of our Customer Council have come to see a pattern that has no correlation to a user’s intelligence or the extent to which she is technologically savvy. People who tend to curse Word have had significant prior experience with some other word processing and/or document producing software. People who don’t have that kind of prior experience tend to find Word’s power and features very helpful.

Now, Marc’s point had to do with intelligent default settings, and I’m sure that his retort would be that there must be some way to come up with default settings for Word’s automatic features that will satisfy some mythical “average” user. But there is a problem with that notion. I’ve read quite a few rants about Word, and a vast majority of the rants end with something like, “Why can’t Word be like [fill in the blank]?” The problem is that the filled-in blank spans the gamut from WordPerfect to nroff and vi.

In that context, it makes no sense, whatsoever, to think in terms of some mythical “average” user. What does make sense is to think in terms of the defaults that will satisfy most users. Removing the feature entirely isn’t a viable option (John, put that bat away!). For the remaining users, you try to find other ways to satisfy their needs, like the auto-recovery work we added to Word XP for Windows and Word 2004 on the Mac. No matter what we do, however, there is no way to satisfy everybody. There will always be people who curse Word, and, unfortunately, the people doing the cursing will always be louder than the people who are busy using Word to get their work done.

So, has Word become a “bad” word processor? Frankly, I have no clue, or, rather, I have no objective basis upon which to make a definitive statement one way or the other. “Good” and “bad” are value judgments that only individual users can make about a product with respect to their particular needs. Word is a powerful word processor, and, like any powerful tool, you can hurt yourself with it. This is neither “good” nor “bad”. It just is.