The figures looked familiar, but out of place. Things made no sense. Yes, I had moved from Windows 2000 and Office 2000 to XP Professional and Office 2003.This was unexpectedly difficult. Office 2003 was on my desktop machine at home. But still the laptop version of the Microsoft operating system for work looked and felt different. It was as if I had had a minor stroke and needed to relearn some cognitive and verbal skills.

The fact that a change so small could be so jarring says a lot about the problems with switching applications in the office, and how changes take bit out of productivity.

It took time to locate familiar features -- the icon for quick formatting that I use a lot didn’t seem to appear at all on a tool bar. The next day it was there. And the day after that, there were copies on each of two tool bars.

Maybe I touched something, but the point is that this kind of “I’m not that stupid” feeling is all too common in dealing with a new application, even if it’s just a matter of a cosmetic change.

Obviously, vendors want to promote new features -- they do have to make a living by selling stuff. But the problem becomes whether the features are worth the effort, or just a way of wringing more dollars out of a captive audience.

Is Office 2003 or 2007 going to substantially improve my ability to write, either in terms of quality, quantity, or speed? There’s always the argument that new software enables us to do more. But I don’t need 500 fonts. I don’t need a program that both spell checks and enables me to fix my own plumbing and furnace.

Small businesses, it might be argued, need to be able to handle other tasks. But what most of them need is the ability to decide which tasks to concentrate on, and how to find an affordable plumber of furnace repairman.

We’ve often heard that only 90 percent of the features (whatever the number) are actually used. What that means is that we probably don’t need all the features. Or maybe, we need a way to setup applications --a roles-based approach -- in which a wizard lets users establish a hierarchy of features. And don’t show rarely used features to the user. Invoke them only if a query is made to help.

And perhaps maybe, for once, keep things looking the same.

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