Meet the Microsoft Office Luddites: Why power users won't live in the cloud

A loyal band of Office power users insists they have no intention of ditching traditional software and joining the cloud

By Christopher Null, PC World |  Software, Microsoft Office

The future is in the cloud. Every traditional software company is pushing cloud services over programs you actually install, and even Microsoft, which formally completed its new, cloud-based Office 365 package in February, has included cloud features in Office 2013, its new desktop suite.

For starters, Office 2013 saves your work to SkyDrive cloud storage by default. The new desktop suite also ties in deeply with the browser-based Office Web Apps. These are notable steps in a cloud-based direction, but given the overwhelming adoption of Google Drive in the workplace--it's the platform of choice at PCWorld--it's a bit curious that Microsoft updated its desktop suite at all. 

Indeed, isn't shuttling Word documents over file servers and email a bit passé? 

The bottom line is that Microsoft knows its customers still need (or at least want)  traditional, "hit-a-button-and-install-this-to-my-programs-folder" software. But who, exactly, are the holdouts who refuse to make the switch to Google Drive, Office 365, or even Microsoft's Office Web Apps? Who's still using a local copy of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint exclusively, and why? 

They are the Office Luddites, and here they explain why they'll give up their Office DVDs only when you pry them from their cold, dead hands.

Performance

Anyone who uses a Web-based document editor knows that overall performance can sometimes be incredibly slow. Paste text into a Google Drive spreadsheet cell and you may wait a second or two for it to appear. Complaining about a one-second delay may sound petty, but these seconds add up, particularly if you're accustomed to seeing changes instantaneously on screen.

The bigger issue, though, is the need for a fast Internet connection.

"In theory, the idea of Web-based software is very appealing," says Angela Nino, training director at Versitas, which offers courses for using Office software. "In practice, there are many problems that can arise when using them on a daily basis. A couple of years ago, I tried using Google Docs. I ran into a problem on day two: a slow Internet connection at a location where I was doing training for the day. I had used Google Docs to create a training handout, and just needed a couple of extra copies. I ended up having to wait until our break to be able to print the extra handouts because it took so long to access Google Docs through their wireless Internet connection."

Of course, without a live Web connection, standard Web apps won't work at all. Cloud providers are aware of this and are taking steps to enable offline access to files. Google Drive has an offline mode, but that mode works only with Google's Chrome browser. Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium ($10/month) and Small Business Premium ($12.50/month) include full, offline copies of the Office 2013 suite. Of course, companies pay $6.50/month less for the online-only Office 365 Small Business.

Features

Microsoft Office is so stuffed with options that just 20% of its features meet 80% of the needs of its users. But that still leaves 20% who need those power features. That's the stuff buried under the menus on the far right of the screen--features such as Word's Track Changes, Mail Merge, the Citations and Bibliography system, and the ever-mysterious Add-Ins menu.

Then there's Microsoft Excel, a rallying point of Luddite fervor. The key features that everyone talks about are macros, which let you automate frequently used tasks.

Michael Freeman, a manager of search and analytics with VoIP service provider ShoreTel Sky, says, "Macros are much more powerful and quicker to prepare than writing in AppScript for Google Docs." He complains that complex calculations are very slow compared to desktop apps, and that even keyboard navigation is a miss on online spreadsheet equivalents.

Leslie Handmaker, an SEO consultant, also complains that numerous Excel formulas are missing from online spreadsheets. She praises Excel's copious number of charting options, and the enhanced customizability available offline that just isn't available from Web-based competition. Even Microsoft's Excel Web App lacks the Pivot Table feature.

Just as Word's Track Changes feature gets tons of love, there's an outpouring of support for PowerPoint. Says Freeman, "PowerPoint lets me easily copy and paste images, screenshots, and data in general to include in slides. I have finer control over formatting, and slide animation is more intelligent and flexible. I will need 100% feature parity, and the same speed and ease of navigation online as I have on the desktop, in order to switch."

Next page: Compatibility and security...

Compatibility

Ensuring that Office documents are compatible from one version of Office to the next is tough enough. Now try making sure everything looks identical to offline users running multiple versions of software programs, and add in Web-based users who may rely on a half-dozen different editing platforms. Web apps are supposed to make compatibility issues easier, but in many cases users find that they're getting worse.

"Our small consultancy firm is staffed entirely with Microsoft Office power users," says Nicholas Hamner, of Source One Management Services. "As the business development manager who coordinates all the marketing efforts, I rely on consistency and the ability to work with the old .doc format that will still open on a Windows 95 machine using Office 97."

"While Google Drive offers the ability to technically run on any machine, I have never found its document formatting to remain consistent over any given period of time," Hamner says. "What appears to be a full one-page document in Google Drive may print as one page-plus, or it may print as slightly less than a full page. Google Drive's conversion to and from Word is always a gamble. Additionally, I have found that the same font in both programs may appear as slightly compressed in one."

Until everyone is using the same Web app (and probably the same browser, too), compatibility issues like these are likely to continue.

Security and reliability

A document stored on your desktop or your corporate server may present security risks, but those risks are under your control. Once data is sent to the cloud, however, there's a certain leap of faith required when it comes to security. Every cloud vendor touts its security bona fides, but breaches remain commonplace. Evernote was hacked earlier this month, Dropbox got hit in 2012, and Amazon EC2 was attacked in 2011. Apple's iCloud service was a central player in the infamous 2012 hack on writer Mat Honan. In today's password-reliant world, highly visible attacks are likely to continue.

Hacks are an even bigger problem if you store sensitive documents online. Says Hamner: "We maintain numerous confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements with our clients, which require us to keep our working files very segmented and locally hosted, where they are locked into permission sets available only to those working on specific projects. For various privacy reasons related to this, our IT guys--and our customers--are wary of remote, third-party storage."

Plain old downtime is also a problem. Microsoft's Azure cloud service went down last month, and Salesforce.com was offline twice in two weeks in July 2012. If a PC in your office abruptly dies, chances are you can use another one. However, if the cloud service that hosts all of your data goes down, you're stuck.

Joshua Weiss, CEO of mobile app maker TeliApp, has another issue. He's unsettled by Gmail-style ads, which target users based on the content of their emails, and worries such marketing may eventually come to Google's apps. "I'm one of those super paranoid people who doesn't like using Web-based applications that my company is not controlling," Weiss says. "When I use my Gmail account and I receive an email from my sister about a cute puppy she just saw, I notice that the ads on the side of my email account have ads for pet products. It's no coincidence."

Tim Lynch of boutique gaming computer maker PsychsoftPC sums up the concerns shared by many Office holdouts: "I prefer a traditional software package because it's not subject to Internet speed or availability, it's as fast as my PC can make it, big corporations like Google can't see what I'm writing or use it for advertising or sell my info to other advertisers, and my stuff is stored on my PC under my control, not in some unnamed server in some ambiguous cloud in some unnamed country."

So there.

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