Friday, November 02, 2007

My wife’s next OS won’t be Mac OS X…

… and I cannot help but think I am partially to blame, because this is no fault of Apple’s, but rather due to deficiencies of Mac Word.

Here I am, a guy who hasn’t been without a personal Mac since ‘90 (and had regular access to them as early as ‘87), a proponent of Mac software at Microsoft since joining in ‘95, and through my own development efforts, making the Microsoft Office experience better on the Mac, and my wife is choosing Windows because of limitations of our Mac software1.

Admittedly, Miller’s particular requirement is one that is not shared by a large percentage of the users or potential users of Mac Office2–she needs to collaborate with her students, fellow TAs, and professors on electronic documents written in Arabic. This is by no means a new requirement for her. She began her Arabic study four years back as a requirement for her masters degree in Comparative Religion, and decided to parlay her studies into a doctoral program in Arabic Studies.

The problem? Most all work is done in Microsoft Word documents, and Microsoft Word for the Macintosh does not support any right-to-left languages (aka, “bi-di”). If she works in Mac Word in Arabic, she gets completely disconnected characters3. She has unseated me many, many times at my Windows box in our office so that she can use Windows Word and actually get work done.

Having worked in the MacBU as a fellow developer, I had a great “in” to try and get this addressed. Unfortunately, every time I would bring it up, we’d do the back-of-the-envelope calculation of development cost4 versus the number of users who would use it (upgrade incentive for current users, and new users buying in due the feature). The internal statistics for Mac adoption in Arabic-using (and, to a lesser extent, Hebrew-using) nations did not make for a pretty picture for the “leverage” this feature would provide–our development dollars would probably be better spent on other features that had a impact * user-base value.

Of course, I’ve made alternate suggestions based on the software she does have on her Mac. In 10.4, at least, Pages had issues loading/working on Word documents with Arabic. (I know not whether creating documents from scratch work better; I suspect so, since even SimpleText, er, TextEdit does a fair job, AFAICT.)

The next question is, of course, why use Word documents then if another doc format has better Mac OS X (and theoretically cross-platform) support for Arabic? Answer: Other document types don’t don’t have ubiquitous, well-known editors. In Miller’s specific case, all U.W. students have access to Word for both platforms, and the labs have more than enough Windows boxes. Most Arabic students/professors don’t have this problem because they don’t use Macs. (Nor is this really an incentive to do so.) They do not have any reason to switch document formats for the (apparently-)minority class of Mac users.

I suppose, though, the issue isn’t completely closed. It’s possible someone will comment that we need to try some specific software to solve the problem. OTOH, it still may be that Miller may end up with a Macintosh computer for her next machine, but if so, it’ll probably be BootCamped to some form of Windows.

Updated: I wanted to show some examples, but not knowing Arabic, I needed some assistance. So, the Arabic word romanized as “mumkin” (meaning “possible”), looks like in TextEdit, but like in Word. Thanks to Miller for helping me out with these.

1Arguing protectionism here would be a little silly. Windows Word gets a fair amount of this functionality from Windows, so if Microsoft Office was a 3rd party, the Word team would have been in a similar pickle on Mac OS X, at least until relatively recently.
2And if you have hard data otherwise, please, please, please let me know so I can convince the Powers-That-Be that there’s a business case to addressing the problem.
3Arabic writing is like cursive in that characters look different if they begin a word, are in the middle of a word, or are at the end of the word. However, unlike cursive, they are seriously different, and the word becomes very hard to recognize, not to mention the layout problems that are caused (because they no longer are the same width).
4The cost has changed significantly over the course of years. Seven years ago, our best bet would have been to port the entire Windows support for ligatures (which Windows Word uses without having to implement itself), and bi-di support from Word. That would have been quite expensive. Nowadays, despite not being able to just replace the Word layout engine with ATSUI (so that we could continue to guarantee identical layout across versions/OSes), we could theoretically offload some of the work to ATSUI and then ask it what work it did and translate that into our own layout world. This is obviously less expensive, but still involved and prone to being a bug farm.


John said...

With regards to 2, well, it's a death spiral isn't it. Why would anyone who needs to write in arabic, hebrew, or any RTL language even consider a Mac when Office won't work. So when you ask, the answer is automatically "no". The question is, do you like having a very large portion of the world automatically closed to you until the Mac BU gets over this "everything must have a short ROI" mentality. It's killing Mac Word's usability in the workplace.

WRT the layout thing...dude, that's been some fantasy that MS has been spinning forever. The layout's never been the same, even when both versions were built from the same codebase, and considering how Word lays out text, I highly doubt it ever will be the same. You want 'the same', go with PDF, or start becoming a page layout app.

Daiya said...

Mellel and Nisus Writer Pro both offer right-to-left support. The Mellel forums show that many people, including lots of academics, are using it to exchange/collaborate with Word users, although it doesn't have all features of Word. Might be worth your wife checking out.

This question does come up on the MacWord newsgroups every so often, so she's not alone. Mellel is developed in Israel (I think), and I think I've heard Word's lack of right-to-left support was a big impetus to create it.

kimnkal said...

Nathan, I think that the back-of-the-envelope calculations are leaving out two important parts of the equation: the populations in North America who need to be able to use Arabic (and Hebrew) writing (ethnic communities who maintain a lively cultural life here in their mother tongues); and people like me, who need to publish documents multi-lingually. I am for example, currently working on a project where we're publishing versions of a book in: English, French, Spanish, Arabic and possibly Russian. I have had to locate a Middle Eastern version of Adobe InDesign (the normal version can handle just about any left-to-right language, but that leaves some biggies out!).

It is important to note that the word processing files provided to me by the UN translators were provided in Word format, so I thought I could just open them in Word, and see what I was supposed to see. Wrong! It's taken me quite a while to figure out what was going on, I can tell you. Because when I copy and paste into InDesign ME, it doesn't look the same, and since I don't read a word of Arabic, that makes me feel a little paranoid.

Anyway, all that said, I think that Microsoft is leaving out what might be a more important part of their potential market in those "calculations". People living here would for the most part be used to working in Word in English at their offices and schools, so I'm sure they'd love to keep working with it when they switch languages!

It's a global world. There's a reason Apple built in capability for just about every language we could possibly need, so it's time Microsoft did too: it's the new paradigm.