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Oi, Microsoft, where's my effin' toolbar gone?

How the browser buggered up application UIs

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Half-life Wife is angry. She has begun swearing loudly through gritted teeth and is shaking her fist in a threatening manner.

This, believe it or not, is a relief. Mrs D tends to not so much experience emotions as perform them, so the shaking fist is less a warning of intention, more the art of expression. And while I probably arouse a variety of emotions in HLW from time to time – I flatter myself that some may indeed be quite positive – anger tends not to be one of them.

Radioactive wives can be a domestic hazard

Half-life wife and deadlines: a dangerous combination

No, when she gets cross without prior warning, it invariably indicates there’s something wrong with her computer. Additionally, the swearing suggests that she is on deadline. And the demonstrable threat of physical violence can only mean one thing: the culprit is Microsoft.

Today, it is the ubiquitous Word. Even after years of specialising in a number of increasingly complex, buggy and over-ambitious graphics software products, I continue to be impressed how a humble word processor can throw up so many bizarre and unforeseeable issues so frequently.

Personally, I think it makes working life a little more thrilling, knowing that any moment, Word will do something completely unexpected. It’s as if the programmers wrote in hundreds of Easter Eggs, each triggered by a unique keyboard combination or mouse gesture that no user could possibly anticipate.

Spousy does not share my thrill. Indeed, on this occasion, she is so cross, she has begun swearing in English, spoonerised for the sake of the children. I am led to understand that Microsoft is a bunch of cucking funts.

Today’s Vaudeville act is Word’s famous Amazing Vanishing Toolbar. This is the one in which you open a document and all the toolbars vanish, leaving you with a window of text and nothing else. You may like this approach, and I too admire its minimalism, but it’s not what the user in question wanted nor asked for.

Together we go hunting for the runaway toolbar. According to the View menu, it’s ticked and ought to be visible. So we do as you do in computing, untick it and retick it, quit and relaunch, put on the kettle and have tea and cake, but to no avail. Eventually we agree that an interim solution, given the proximity of HLW’s deadline, would be to carry on but use program menus for everything and save even more frequently than usual to circumvent all software’s propensity to crash when you’re in a hurry. This means hitting Ctrl-S about every five seconds.

As she returns to work, we watch in awe as magically the toolbar restores itself. Not in a flash, mind, but a gradual re-appearance of clusters of buttons at a time, all by themselves. Hurrah. Oh, then it’s gone again, only to re-appear later in the day randomly above another document.

We now know how UFO spotters feel. I wish I’d thought of screen-capturing a video of all this happening, with the option of adding some film grain and camera shake in After Effects for extra unbelievability. Indeed, while we were not victims of any alien anal probing, Mrs D explicitly expressed a wish that something vaguely similar but eye-wateringly more vigorous could be inflicted upon Microsoft.

In my own field of inexpertise, the magic of vanishing software interfaces isn’t so strange. Rather, it’s just context-sensitivity. Until a smartarse can think of something better, it’s a practical and usually welcome method of keeping the screen clear of clutter in these days of increasing application complexity. Smartphone and tablet interfaces, for example, would be unmanageable if buttons and other screen furniture did not show, hide and change according to what the software thinks you want to do.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

We come in peace. Hand over your toolbars

There are disadvantages of course: I have to explain to at least two users a day how to un-hide toolbars and palettes that they accidentally hid by tapping a hotkey they were unaware of.

However, I’m darned if I can establish the context-sensitive principle of a word processing toolbar that goes AWOL apparently by itself before wandering back without any user intervention, gradually and reluctantly and not without changing its mind a few times.

Unfortunately, I suspect this is going to get worse, and it has nothing to do with minor bugs in Microsoft word processors. I am seeing a lot of new software whose interfaces seem to build on-screen bit-by-bit over a period of up to a quarter of a minute rather than simply appear in a fraction of a second. The true culprit is the web browser, which has convinced people that it is acceptable for software interfaces to draw themselves laboriously and pop up in front of you when they feel like it, in no great hurry or logical progression, rather than when or where you need them.

I weep for the next generation of users, who will be forced to wrestle with software interfaces that no longer react according to what you choose to do, but writhe about the screen like ghastly creatures with unnatural lives of their own, while the helpless user can do nothing but watch on in horror as their work gets dragged into the spectral shadows, their deadlines ripped to fleshy shreds and their very souls consumed in the vile and bestial depths of hell. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He apologises for opting for an easy target in taking another pop at Microsoft Word. However, he feels entitled to offer personalised critiques on products he purchased with his own cash. Call it ‘feedback’, you bodding sastards.

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