Electronic document distribution


Why I canít read Microsoft Word attachments


By Tim Bell (HOD, Computer Science)

23 July 1999

We are entering an exciting era when documents can conveniently be stored and exchanged electronically, with the promise of increased efficiency and reduced costs. However, if done incorrectly, electronic documents can cause frustration and inconvenience. In the last few months a number of people have taken the bold step into the electronic world only to receive a negative response from people including myself. This document presents arguments for why some methods of document exchange are appropriate and efficient, and others are not.

I am not arguing that Word should not be used; in fact this document was prepared in Microsoft Word by choice. I am discussing the method of distribution. This document can be read on any system that has normal access to the World Wide Web. It was prompted when today I received two emails that contained nothing but a Word attachment. The attachments took me about 5 minutes to decode, and turned out to be identical. Furthermore, the information in the documents could easily have been sent as a plain text email.


Whatís wrong with Microsoft Word attachments?

Microsoft Word is fine; it is its use in disseminating documents that is the problem. A number of university documents have been distributed using Microsoft Word, usually as attachments to email. Word's "Send To" command is beguiling (as one user described it), as it instantly emails the document to many people with very little effort. For many of the recipients, only one click is required to view the document instantly. However, it is not safe to assume this for everyone. To read a Word attachment, I must save it to a file, transfer it to my laptop computer (which may or may not be set up), and open the file. For others in my department, they must additionally leave their office, find a Windows computer, and start it up before they can view the file.

Here is a detailed look at MS Word from the user's perspective.


So how should documents be distributed?

The best way of distributing a particular document will depend on its size, content, audience, and the level of formality required. For a particular document, consider each of the following methods:

Word can still be used for preparing HTML and PDF documents. Instead of printing the document it is either exported as HTML, or "printed" to a postscript file which is then processed by Acrobat's "distill" program to produce PDF.



Am I a Luddite, out to destroy innovative systems? Or one of the anti-Microsoft crowd who feel that Bill Gatesí fortune is built on less than adequate products? Actually, Iím enthusiastic about using technology, but it has to be applied appropriately. In the Department of Computer Science we have an electronic document system running on a private intranet that works extremely well; I can view minutes and agenda of any meeting at any time, from almost any computer, even off campus. Every handout given to every class is available on-line for those who have lost theirs (or happened to have missed the class!) Departmental reports, terms of references for committees, and even paper documents received from the university are available to any member of the department who is authorised to access that particular document.

The system that I have just described has been developed over several years, and a number of lessons have been learned along the way. One of the keys to the success of the system has been the use of non-proprietary formats: HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and PDF (public domain format). Software for viewing both of these formats is available for almost any computer, and can be freely downloaded from the Internet. Documents are exchanged using a mixture of email and the Web.

If you think that Ned Lud was not as insane as he appeared, and if you find it difficult to cope with your document being reduced to a collection of bits, you may want to consider joining the Lead Pencil Club. See the bibliography below for information about this club, which contains numerous stories from people who have replaced their computer with a pencil, and never been happier. However, for those of us who wish to communicate efficiently, an electronic future beckons.



Minutes of the the [sic] Lead Pencil Club, Bill Henderson, Wainscott, N.Y., c1996.

The trouble with computers, Thomas Landauer, MIT Press, c1995.

Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll, Doubleday, 1995.