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Why Is Software So Obtuse?

Updated on September 29, 2008

I've had my face stuck in a computer screen since my first Toshiba 8088 in 1982, so I know a thing or two about computers. Unfortunately, I was recently presented with a conundrum that I couldn't solve and it spoke volumes for the inherent inadequacy and fundamental nerdiness of current computer software, even as advanced as most of it claims to be.

For the purposes of doing a promotional mailing for one of my literary projects, I obtained a very good list of several hundred addresses. The list arrived in .txt format which is very handy as it makes it easy to import it into darn near any program. The list was in one long column set up like this:

  • %
  • Mr. Joe Smith
  • 123 Crescent Street
  • Anytown, CA 90024
  • %
  • Ms. Jane Brown
  • 987 Avenue Road
  • Whereton, NY 10010
  • %
  • Mr. John Jones
  • 100 Boulevard Drive
  • Some City, FL 32800
  • %

I appreciated the % signs as I figured it would be very easy to import that information into Excel. Just set it up so that each % symbol tells Excel that it's a new listing and then I could quickly end up with the long column in a grid with the names of the people in Row 1, the address in Row 2, the city in Row 3, etc. That way I could do a mail merge very simply and get this mailing out of my hair and to the post office in short order.

You would figure that would be easy, indeed, that there would be some command in Excel that would just do it with a click, right? Well, you'd be surprised as I was to realize that you'd be wrong. Not only is there no easy way to do this in Excel, it's actually mind-boggingly complex and well nigh impossible for mere mortals! You'd figure I was the very first person in history who wanted to take a column of addresses and turn them into a grid for a mail merge!

Your choices basically are:

  1. Copy and paste each one manually
  2. Download some shareware for $29.95
  3. Write your own script
  4. Record a macro and do it over and over

Not willing to hit Control-C, Control-V for half the day, too cheap to give some programmer $30 for an application that might contain an entire cavalry of Trojan Horses, and having far more interest in armadillo umbilical cords than in writing scripts, I plugged in my macro program and recorded one that did the copy and pasting for me. I was unable to set it up so that it would accurately repeat automatically and do it all while I enjoyed my lunch, so I spent a couple of hours clicking on the Play button, watching the cursor move around the screen by itself and hitting the Play button again.

Can someone, anyone, please explain to my why my Excel which has nested menu functions that will easily calculate the statistical distribution of the hair on my butt doesn't have this incredibly basic function? $650 for Microsoft Office Everything 2007 and I can't turn a column of addresses into a table for a very basic mail merge?

The fundamental flaw in today's software is that it is designed and programmed by nerds. Have a problem? Write a script! They fail to understand that the vast majority of computer users not only don't want to learn how to write complex scripts as (unlike nerds) they have things called “lives”, but they don't even know what the heck a script is!

Instead of piling on more and more gimcracks that no one in their right mind would ever use or want, the major software publishers like Microsoft and Adobe should concentrate on the core features that the average person needs on a day to day basis. Mainstream software is getting more complex and more expensive, so there is no imaginable justification for catering to the radical fringe of geekizoids while ignoring the average user!

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