A once-great American company stumbles toward the elephant graveyard

Microsoft is doomed.

I say this not just because of what I learned in a recent Vanity Fair article about the idiotic way the company has been run for the last decade—under CEO Steve Ballmer, management institutionalized the most productivity- and morale-destroying system imaginable, a mandatory bell-curve performance-rating system for the employees within every unit. (No matter how well a unit does, most of the team must be mediocre, and someone must be rated failing.) Such an organism cannot live.

But I also know that Microsoft is dying because of the way its software, whose stench I breathe all day since I started a new job, reeks.

Of course I'm writing this using Word, a program I'm used to, so it doesn't seem so bad. But really? It is. (WordPerfect—remember?—was much better.) As the great Louis Menand once wrote in The New Yorker, "It is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program." Until you have to do something complicated in it, Word is adequate. Irritating, of course—did any user in history ever accept the "Special Delivery" suggestion that pops up when you type "Special"?—but OK enough.

However, as soon as you try to do something more complex than updating a résumé using a Microsoft product, you're dumped into a scratchy, itchy underworld of grotesque interface design and inexplicable glitches. Take it from me: Building emails and Web pages using Outlook and SharePoint is like playing a perverse, boring video game that's all traps and puzzles, and no rewards. After an hour of taking a table out of a SharePoint page (Ctrl Z, over and over again), adjusting it in Word or Outlook, pasting it back in and relinking the images, the very best I can expect is that the page won't look that bad.

In the meantime, I've had to contend with blurry little buttons that rearrange themselves on the toolbar between one environment and another; tools that are available over there, but missing where I need them (Surprise! No font size control for you here, Missy!); tables that resize themselves; images that have to be positioned using text-formatting buttons, because the image-positioning buttons only work now and then; and a process for creating an "Add to Outlook" link requiring 13 separate steps—during the course of which, if you hit the "Descending Order" option on the "Modified" button before counting to three, your sort goes wrong, and you have to back up two steps.

I am not making any of this up. Thirteen steps.

This endless scramble is only made more painful by the contrast with the other software I use. Moving over from Office to Photoshop or InDesign is like stumbling out of the bug-infested underbrush and slipping into a cool, clear pool of beautiful, intuitive design. Adobe products, made by designers for designers, help you do things. They're big programs that take a while to learn, but the people who make them work hard to make everything as easy as possible. And, oh my God! Adobe help actually answers your questions! (In the latest version of Outlook, the help button has been hidden away under File. I take this as a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that if you need help with a Microsoft product, you'd best go straight to Google.)

All that is keeping the company I work for from switching to something else is the expense and scale of the job of moving huge databases into a better platform. At some point, someone will add up the sheer time wasted across the company by employees having to dick around with Microsoft—the time wasted by the employees of companies all over the world, every hour of the day—and it will be over.

The Vanity Fair article ends with a fascinating observation made by Steve Jobs about Bill Gates, and, ultimately, about his company: "He's a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA."

Admittedly, Bill Gates has become a deeply admirable philanthropist, while I haven't heard that Jobs ever gave anyone a dime. Yet there's something profound in the difference that Jobs has pointed out here.

Where beauty is not appreciated, there will never be true usefulness. Without art, all you get is a kludge.

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