At Large: A long time ago

At Large: A long time ago

Faced with the onslaught of a mega phenomenon, Matthew JC. Powell wishes for the elegant tools of a more civilised age . . .

The most anticipated sequel in the known universe is about to become reality. It's been speculated about for years. "Fans" have posted wish lists on the Web. The maker has even offered occasional tantalising glimpses of what's in store. But soon it will be here, and the excitement level is high. Don't try to tell me you haven't felt it.

I'm referring, of course, to Microsoft Office 2000. The first proper upgrade in several years to the most widely used office productivity suite in the world was always going to be the subject of considerable anticipation, and this has reached fever pitch in these last few weeks before its imminent release. Articles about the product, which began as a mere trickle a year or two back, are now everywhere to be seen, filling front pages and feature sections of any publication vaguely related to IT that doesn't already have a cover story about Star Wars.

But I have a bad feeling about this. What if it doesn't deliver? What if, instead of offering freedom from bloatware, it is as grossly overblown as its predecessors, or even more so? What if it requires more memory, a bigger hard drive, and faster processors, just to get minimal functionality? What if, in order to integrate much-vaunted Web features, it sacrifices any semblance of an approachable and intuitive interface?

Somewhere in the backs of your minds, some of you might be thinking "great, we'll sell more hard drives, faster processors, and memory, and make a motza on tech support". Clear your mind of these thoughts - the dark side are they. Once you travel down that path, forever will it dominate your destiny.

Expectations of this product are high, for obvious reasons, and it's my experience that such expectations are seldom met. How can they possibly be, when every customer and every channel partner expects something different? How can poor little Microsoft, with the limited means at its disposal, hope to satisfy every one of its millions of eager customers?

The solution is obvious: Microsoft should get out of the sequel business. The next version of Office (after 2000, which I'm presuming will be a disappointment) should be a prequel. Think about it: Microsoft Office 1979 would run on an 8-bit CPU at 2MHz, in 64K of RAM (let's be generous), and fit entirely on a single 8 inch floppy (capacity about 80K, if I recall correctly). On the kind of machines you can get these days, it ought to really fly. Web integration should be easy, since any Web publishing features would have to operate efficiently over a 300-baud modem connection - again, run that through your ISDN and you're a demon.

People expect less of a prequel than they do of a sequel, it's simple arithmetic. Think about it this way: a sequel has to offer exactly what the previous version had, but a little bit more. If the previous version offered all that the maker had to offer, it's going to be awfully hard to find that little bit more. A prequel, on the other hand, has an automatic excuse for offering less. Doesn't work as well as the last one? That's because it's a prequel. Doesn't have that feature you liked? That's because it's a prequel.

You may be aware that I travelled recently to a far off land, with a view to seeing a fairly highly anticipated prequel. Along with several million Americans, I did indeed see that said prequel. Like many of those millions of Americans, I found that my expectations didn't quite tally with what the product had to offer.

I have been fairly circumspect about the whole thing, though, and I have to say that the problem lies not with the movie but with me and my fellow cinemagoers. All of us, I believe, had expectations in line with those of a sequel, not a prequel. A prequel does not have to offer what the original did, and a little bit more. A prequel has a clean slate from which to start. It carries little or none of the baggage of its predecessors.

One criticism I read and heard repeatedly about the prequel I saw was that it "would have been better if it had Han Solo in it". That, as I have said, is because it is a prequel. The man isn't born yet, folks. Live with it. Incidentally, I liked the movie much better the second time.

In the coming weeks and months, as you read and hear criticisms of Office 2000 from pundits and punters alike, remember that Microsoft, too, is a prisoner of the sequel treadmill.

The sooner it breaks free, the better.

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