From Mac Users, Fury at Microsoft
By John Markoff
The New York Times
San Francisco -- January 19, 1995 -- Can great big software companies write truly great computer programs?
The question is being raised by users of Apple Macintosh computers, who are widely reviling and rejecting the newest version by the Microsoft Corporation of its word processing program, Word, for use on the Macintosh. Microsoft, the world's largest software publisher, dominates the market for Macintosh software, including a 65 percent share of Macintosh word processing programs.
But the Word controversy is threatening Microsoft's control of that niche, as a growing number of Macintosh customers have begun switching to word processing programs from several smaller companies. Macintosh users complain that the new version of the Microsoft program, Word 6.0, is too slow and unwieldy and has too many bugs.
They also contend that the program, released last fall, has not been adequately fine-tuned to the requirements of the Apple Macintosh, and that it is merely a rough translation of the version of Word 6.0 that Microsoft sells for the world's far larger number of I.B.M.-compatible personal computers.
Like many other software companies, Microsoft has at times rankled users by introducing a version of a product that failed to meet their expectations or contained a seemingly unreasonable number of bugs. Microsoft officials say that there is nothing unusual or alarming about the Word 6.0 uproar, and that the company is rushing to address the concerns.
But many Macintosh users see the problem as an early sign that Microsoft may be growing so big and diverse that it cannot focus on important details of a specific product -- or so powerful that it doesn't care to sweat the small stuff.
"Pass the Cranberry Sauce, This One's a Turkey," read the headline of a review of Word 6.0 in the current issue of the quarterly journal of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group.
"Word is Microsoft's flagship product," said Bob Thyken, executive director of the Berkeley group, one of the country's largest organizations of corporate and individual Macintosh users. "It makes people think twice about the company."
Another review, in Macweek magazine, said that the task of counting words took almost 11 times longer with Word 6.0, compared with the previous version of the software.
Seeking to quell the complaints, Microsoft has announced a free maintenance version of the program, due by the end of March, to fix bugs. And the company, based in Redmond, Wash., has scheduled a meeting to discuss the problem with analysts and reporters on Jan. 30 in Cupertino, Calif., the city where Apple is based.
"We think we understand the issues and are addressing them," said Pete Higgins, Microsoft's senior vice president of desktop applications.
To be sure, Microsoft still rules the software world and remains enormously profitable. Two days ago, the company reported an earnings increase of 29 percent for its second quarter -- to $373 million -- on the strength of better-than-expected sales of its products, which cover a range of business, home-office and consumer software. Such profits can help finance the company's ambitious expansion plans into fields like home banking and on-line services, and providing access to the Internet global computer network.
But some analysts see signs that Microsoft may be spreading itself too thin. They see symptoms of a company where the nimbleness necessary for top-flight computer programming is in danger of being overwhelmed by a bureaucratic software development organization.
The uproar over the new Macintosh Word program, which was six months late when it reached the market, comes as the company is encountering continued delays in introducing the next version of its Windows operating system. And a new program called Bob, scheduled to be released in March and intended to be consumer friendly, has been criticized as condescending and inefficient by some industry reviewers.
In recent years, Microsoft has assumed the industry role formerly occupied by the International Business Machines Corporation, influencing the direction of the computer business by defining standards and controlling markets for software. But in the late 1980's, I.B.M. lost contact with new technology trends and with customers, and saw its influence wane. Now a favorite topic of industry conversation is whether Microsoft will be able to avoid that fate.
"They feel they're in control of the marketplace," said Stewart Alsop, editor of Infoworld, a weekly computer industry newspaper, "But things may be getting out of control."
Apple Computer Inc. produces the operating system software that controls the basic workings of a Macintosh computer. But Microsoft is the leading provider of application software for the Macintosh, with programs like Word and the Excel spreadsheet.
Over all, Macintosh programs are a $400 million business for Microsoft, but that constitutes less than 8 percent of the company's revenue. And many Macintosh users contend that Word 6.0 is evidence that Microsoft is paying too little attention to their needs.
"It's simple," said Steven Levy, a columnist for Macworld magazine. "Microsoft's message to Macintosh users is, 'Drop dead!' "
Reviewers in Macworld and other trade magazines have found that the program takes about three times as long to start up, and runs at about half the speed, as Microsoft's previous version, Word 5.1.
The Macworld review, for example, reported that on a Macintosh Centris 610 model, the Word program took more than 7 minutes to start. And counting the words in a long document took 5 minutes and 48 seconds, compared with 33 seconds in Word 5.1, according to a review in Macweek.
The performance decline, computer experts said, is a result of Microsoft's using common underlying software for both the Intel-compatible PC and Macintosh versions of Word 6.0, but refining it first and more successfully for the PC program. The PC version, released in the second half of 1993, has generated no performance-related complaints.
Some critics say Word 6.0 also suffers from "feature creep" -- the tendency to add dozens of new features to each new version of a program, creating a slower program that requires many times as much memory and disk storage space. Fully installed, Word 6.0 requires 25 million bytes of disk space. Word 5.1 needed only 6 million.
Such weaknesses have opened a large hole for smaller competitors like Novell Inc.'s Wordperfect unit and tiny Nisus Software Inc.'s Nisus Writer. Both have recently enjoyed significant increases in word processing sales for the Macintosh market.
Because Microsoft's Windows operating system competes directly with Apple's Macintosh software, some Macintosh users are always looking for signs of sabotage by Microsoft. But even some of the company's harshest critics see maladroitness, rather than malevolence, in Microsoft's handling of Word 6.0.
"The conspiracy theories are saying that this is Microsoft's attempt to undermine the Mac," said Jim Heid, an author who wrote the negative review in Macworld. "But I'm in the camp that believes that even big companies can blow it."
Microsoft executives said the disappointing performance of Word 6.0 for the Macintosh was a one-time foul-up. Using common underlying software code for its Macintosh and Windows-based applications is a new approach for Microsoft, the executives said, and the Word 6.0 problems are a result of a rough transition that is now behind the company.
That explanation has done little to mollify some of Microsoft's largest corporate Macintosh users, who have told the software publisher that they are not willing to install Word 6.0 because they find it unusable.
One California-based company whose work force uses more than 2,000 Macintoshes agreed in late 1993 to buy rights to use Word 6.0, based on demonstrations of a prototype version. The attractive new features included an electronic-bookmark feature that lets users quickly navigate through a long document.
But 15 months later, the company has still not begun to use the program. "As soon as we got it, we installed it on our server, but two weeks later the president of our company ordered us to take it off," said one of the company's computer managers, who spoke on the condition that neither he nor his company be identified. The software was simply too slow, he said.
Customer dissatisfaction is evident at the retail level, as well. Computerware, the largest Macintosh dealer in Northern California, said it sold an equal number of copies of Wordperfect 3.0 and Macintosh Word 6.0 in December. With the earlier version, Word 5.1, Microsoft typically had a substantially larger share of the chain's sales.
"The problem you have when you get really big and really dominant is you lose touch a little bit," said Ken Krich, president of Computerware. "It's a challenge to keep listening to your customers."
GRAPHIC: Photo: Bob Thyken, center, executive director of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, and Hans Hansen, editor in chief of the group's newsletter, are among those critical of Microsoft's new Word program. The headline on a review in the newsletter said, "Pass the Cranberry Sauce, This One's a Turkey." (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
Graphs: "The Mac Market Leader" shows Microsoft's share of some parts of the Macintosh software market as a percent of total 1994 sales through retail stores and mail-order companies. (Source: G. Meier Inc.'s Software newsletter)
Copyright 1995 The New York Times Company