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Why wait?

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What’s Microsoft waiting for?

Somehow or other, as, over the past four decades, its Office suite of applications has evolved into a powerhouse force for individual productivity and group collaboration …

Somehow or other Microsoft never bothered to fix an annoying and easily fixed Excel “feature” (as in, it isn’t a bug; it’s a feature). Namely, just how many versions of blankness do users need (maybe 2 but I doubt it) and why are they so hard to find?

There are, so far as I can tell:

  • String nulls: Cells that have never been touched but are formatted as character strings.
  • Numeric nulls: Likewise, but as numbers.
  • The other numeric null: What you get after unchecking File/Options/Advanced Show a zero in cells that have zero value.
  • “”: Empty character strings.
  • “ “: The blank character.
  • Zeroes formatted to not display anything in the cell.

By themselves a few of these might actually be useful. What makes the bad outweigh the good is that there’s no one test that reveals them all.

Surely Microsoft could provide (for example) a modified ISBLANK() function that returns a TRUE value for any sort of blank cell; likewise it could add a FILE/OPTIONS/ADVANCED parameter that unifies the behavior of all blanks; or add a parameter to any function that handles blanks telling it to either ignores blanks of all types, or treats them all as zeroes. That would save legions of Excel jockeys from having to rely on =OR(ISBLANK(A1), A1=””,A1=” “,A1=0,LEN(A1)<1) or some such formulaic nonsense.

Why do we have this mess? I can only speculate. I imagine it’s rooted in one of the laws of organizational dynamics: When the problem is diffuse and merely annoying there’s always something more important to work on instead.

While I’m beating Microsoft up over this admittedly less-than-world-shaking grievance I have to admit: I’m guilty too. In my case the problem I’ve let fester is (was) failing to update WordPress to a supported version of PHP. I’ve known for a couple of years that the platform needed updating. But as I’m no longer a good enough programmer to troubleshoot any problems that might emerge from the process I decided to leave well enough alone.

Until this week (and let me know if you spot any glitches that need fixing – thanks!)

So I’m as guilty in my own way as Microsoft is in its way, but on a small enough scale and with such a small number of victims if it goes wrong (one, namely, me) that I can handle the remorse. But at the other end of the scale I know of Fortune 500 companies running applications on out-of-support server hardware and operating systems … thousands of them … with no path to safety because procrastination has saved them money every year for the past decades or more.

Not to mention all the other large but not enormous enterprises for which infrastructure maintenance is never quite important enough, right up until an attack takes their core applications down for a week or more.

Manufacturing mavens figured out a long time ago that preventive maintenance is less expensive than break/fix maintenance. That the IT infrastructure is harder to understand than the motors, gears, pulleys, and belts that constitute a modern factory doesn’t change the principle.

Bob’s last word: In IT, maintaining healthy platforms and infrastructure isn’t best practice.

It’s the minimum standard of basic professionalism.

Bob’s sales pitch: There’s a reason I named this blog “Keep the Joint Running.” It’s because of Principle #7 of the KJR Manifesto, which says: Before you can be strategic you have to be competent.

It isn’t the only principle worth adopting, either. Be a person. Buy yourself a copy. If you already have a copy, write an Amazon review. KJR needs your support. This is one way of providing it.

Comments (1)

  • I could go on and on about the various ‘improvements’ in Microsoft Office, but it would be pointless. Their fiddling with the UI makes for troubles; their auto-fixing often creates strangeness. On a huge document we discovered that merging from multiple people with different style sheets made the merge nearly impossible until formatting was removed via rtf and redo. So Office has made live easier but harder.

    Now I did support some situations – a factory running on way obsolete VMS. HP continued hardware support for an awfully long time, but the application could not be adapted to later versions of VMS. The client insisted on using the gear until the hardware was impossible to repair. The client had been preparing by hiring a team to collect input-output function data for the proprietary application where the source had disappeared when the designer disappeared (bankrupt, whatever, not to be found).

    And there are those who ran IBM banking applications for a really long time because they simply were bulletproof. Even now AS/400 stuff is still running – but after many, many changes and derivatives. At least the OS does have fewer update needs and version upgrades are supported for a long period.

    I hesitate about the military because they finally did change out the 8″ floppies. I’m sure it was expensive given the various certification tasks needed. I doubt that it’s easy to change the missile computing stuff and the military has forced vendors to recreate obsolete production lines to produce long ago, highly certified components built be an exacting process. And it’s remarkable how they keep in 1960’s B-52 in service but with electronic refreshes over time.

    But we ordinary humans are faced with the race between hardware and software which between improvements in both bring increased and new functionality. As you observe trying to keep up is a necessary task because we can’t afford the kind of bulletproof systems for ordinary offices. At least the refresh cycles have slowed just a bit.

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