PowerPoint: A pig through the python

Scott McNealy, who liked to style himself "chairman, president, founder, chief cook and bottlewasher" of Sun Microsystems, is not known for his affection for Microsoft. Quite the opposite. Speaking to the National Press Club of Australia way back in October 1996, he pronounced that "when the anthropologists look back on the 1980s and 1990s and do the archaeological digs, and get their callipers and brooms and microscopes out, they will blame the massive reduction in productivity during the 1980s and 1990s entirely on Microsoft Office."

He had a point. The PC is ubiquitous, and every desktop in every office, of every programmer, secretary, manager or filing clerk has a full-blown office 'productivity' suite. The word processor is used to write temporary missives to the boss where a quick word would probably do, and to train our thoughts into bullet points where broadband thinking might be more rewarding. Cathleen Belleville, who worked at PowerPoint as a product planner from 1989 to 1995, has observed: "In the past, I think we had an inefficient system, where executives passed all of their work to secretaries. But now we've got highly paid people spending hours formatting slides because it's more fun to do that than concentrate on what you're going to say. It would be much more efficient to offload that work onto someone who could do it in a tenth of the time, and be paid less. Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, 'Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?'" (The New Yorker, 28 May 2001).

Go to work

McNealy famously declared to the San Jose Mercury, 3 August 1997: "We had 12.9 gigabytes of PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, 'What a huge waste of corporate productivity'. So we banned it. And we've had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since. Now I would argue that every company in the world, if it would just ban PowerPoint, would see its earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going: 'What do I do? Guess I've got to go to work'."

The claim may be extravagant, but is not without merit. The computer on our desktop was sold to us as a productivity enhancer that would change our working lives, give us power at our fingertips, improve communication, and rid us of the stiff embrace of bureaucratic control. Some of the promise has come true. Word processors, spell checkers, and the other gizmos associated with the typical office suite have certainly brought massive productivity gains to particular sectors of business, to marketing managers and salespeople, to secretaries and clerical workers, and in doing so, have coincidentally saved the world from the dubious smudge of Tippex (invented back in the 1950s by Bette Claire Nesmith, who also happened to be the mother of Michael Nesmith, the one in the Monkees with the bobble hat).

The Bill Joy font

But the long-term effects of the word processor revolution have not always been beneficial or profitable for the organisation. The office suite, brilliantly rebranded as the 'productivity' suite, long ago spread from its original preserve on the secretarial desk to the computer of every worker in the organisation, sometimes (as many computer professionals would argue) with detrimental effects.

Office suites have their virtues, but their overuse as a means of intradepartmental communications, and the working practices and culture that they promote, can get in the way of productive work, and paradoxically, increase the bureaucratic overload. We now routinely expect an elaborately prepared document where once a quick word and rapid action would have done, or a proliferation of PowerPoint presentations that "have 14 pieces of clipart, 13 fonts, right-hand justified, spell-checked, 13 colours", after which, as McNealy suggests, "you know your employee is exhausted by the time it finally comes off the printer."

McNealy's much cheaper, and more productive solution, was to remove PowerPoint and to "give everybody plastic Mylar sheets and all the pens they need to scribble on them", and to use what he describes as "the Bill Joy font. You can see where he licked his thumb and erases. It's so much faster," and leaves you time to get on with the job. (Bill Joy, of course, was the original designer of the BSD and Solaris flavours of Unix and was a co-founder, with McNealy, of Sun Microsystems.)

In the bin

Is this a Luddite position? Well, maybe so. But anyone who has worked inside a large corporation knows the routine - masses of man hours are wasted producing documents which exist only to impress managers, and go straight from the desktop to the manager's in-tray to the wastepaper basket, and largely remain unread and unconsidered. A full office suite on every desktop encourages such a culture, where every line manager expects to receive a good-looking document to pass onwards up the line, until it finds its level and hits the appropriate bin. The bloated office systems of the major distributors even more so. Each office suite on each desktop comes at a premium, with a word processor, a spreadsheet and a visual presentation tool, crammed with features that are never used, and demands an upgrade every other year to conform with the current data formats. The content hasn't changed. The functionality hasn't changed. But the upgrade is essential to keep the cycle going.

Microsoft's own estimate (back in 2000) was that PowerPoint was used to create 30 million presentations a day. It takes little imagination to calculate the number of man hours expended in creating these presentations, and the distraction from productive work that such an effort necessitates.

McNealy, always quotable on the topic, takes issue with other aspects of the software: "Why did we ban it? Let me put it this way: If I want to tell my 40,000 employees to attack, the word 'attack' in ASCII is 48 bits. As a Microsoft Word document, it's 90,112 bits. Put that same word in a PowerPoint slide and it becomes 458,048 bits. That's a pig through the py_thon when you try to send it over the Net."

Such a conclusion would apparently meet the approval of the Pentagon, where there are over 25,000 computers with PowerPoint, and General Henry "Hugh" Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an edict that while "you can still do a chart, don't lard it up with special effects, bells and whistles, because they are clogging up the military networks." (Wall Street Journal, 26 April 2000).

Many would argue that PowerPoint makes for better presentations. Bullet points have their own compelling force. Even before PowerPoint reached every desktop, there were marketing men who would design their documents by first deciding the number of bullet points, and afterwards defining the content to fit the number of bullet points available, the argument being that such arbitrary rules serve to concentrate the mind, and simplify the content.

In the same New Yorker article quoted above it is claimed that an unnamed leading US computer manufacturer distributed guidelines to its employees that take this principle to an extreme. Every PowerPoint presentation should follow a "Rule of Seven", and contain "Seven (7) bullets or lines per page, and seven (7) words per line."

While it is true that the compelling force of bullet points may bring clarity to some subjects, and raise the level of the poorest presentations, it is equally arguable that the ubiquity of PowerPoint presentations from the lecture hall to the business meeting lowers the overall level of discourse. The US Navy Secretary Richard Danzig has announced that he is no longer willing to sit through slide shows, saying that they were necessary only if the audience was "functionally illiterate". Too much time and effort is spent messing with PowerPoint, and not enough is spent on the message. In 2001, perhaps mischievously, Scott McNealy confirmed that his PowerPoint ban was still in place. "Look at our stock chart in the last four years since we've banned PowerPoint. Our productivity has skyrocketed!"

A bullet point

Ironically, the man credited with the original concept and inspiration for PowerPoint is one of the better known employees of Sun Microsystems, Whitfield Diffie, who is more famous for his adventures in the world of public key cryptography than for his role in devising a program to facilitate slide presentations while working at Bell-Northern Research (BNR).

PowerPoint was further developed by Bob Gaskins, BNR's head of computer-science research, who took the idea to Forethought, who released the first version in black and white for the Macintosh only in 1987. Not long afterwards, the company was purchased by Microsoft for $14 million, and PowerPoint for Windows was released in 1990. PowerPoint spread like the plague, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely" - Vint Cerf

Richard Hillesley

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