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Published in TidBITS 126.
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Word Style Flaws

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A few weeks ago I received a call from Prudence Holliger of Seattle's Mac Downtown Business Users' Group. Prudence was not happy and it was definitely Word 5.0's fault. Prudence has been working on a 300 page manual, and this manual has been in existence for several years, back as far as the late Word 3.0 days. Like any good Word user, Prudence used custom styles heavily, and other people have added their own styles on occasion, sometimes duplicating existing ones, sometimes not. The result is a seriously complex document, in part due to sheer size, and in part due to numerous styles, some of which may not even go with any text any more.

So why was Prudence unhappy? Well, there's this bug, you see... (Don't you hate sentences like that?). This bug under certain conditions sets the font information in user-defined styles back to the font of the Normal style. You are left with all of your text and your text still has your styles attached, but those styles do not contain the proper font information. With a small document with only one or two styles, this isn't a serious problem, since all you have to do is edit your style and add the font information again. But when you are working on a 300 page manual with a ton of styles, you probably have better things to do than spend a day fixing up the document one last time.

There appear to be several actions that may activate the bug. If you create a document in Word 5.0 with styles in it, and then copy that document to another Mac, you might lose the font information. Lest you feel too much relief since you seldom copy files to other Macs, the other condition that can sometimes destroy the styles is adding or removing fonts from your System file. It's not clear if using Suitcase, Master Juggler, or the useful but stripped-down Carpetbag 1.2 ($5 shareware, and I highly recommend it for those who don't need the power of the commercial applications), will also cause the bug to show its ugly face.

Luckily, there is a workaround and a method that will probably prevent the bug from occurring, although you're unlikely to think of either on your own. To work around the problem once it has occurred, do NOT save the document when you see it with the incorrect font information. Return to the original machine and open the document (or simply work with the original if it is still available). It should have the correct fonts. Save in Interchange format, perhaps better known as RTF (Rich Text Format), and then transfer the file again. Everything will work fine because RTF is a straight text format that is terribly hard to read because it describes every layout or typographic change with a textual marker. However, as straight text, there's little that can go wrong with RTF documents, and in fact, saving in RTF and reinterpreting is a good way to clear up other strange problems that may occur with Word files.

If you are want to prevent this from happening, Microsoft recommends that you make sure that your machines have the same fonts available, so it sounds like there is some quirk with that old bugaboo, font IDs and font names. I ran into this several years ago with some older programs when I had Suitcase II renumber my fonts so there weren't any ID conflicts. Suddenly a bunch of my documents appeared in the wrong font, because the program stored the font by ID, which had just changed, rather than name, which is unlikely to change.

Microsoft Tech Support told Prudence that it was a known, though rare, bug, and the Microsoft PR people offered this statement. "Microsoft is committed to quality products. We are aware of this problem and have suggested methods for working around it. We understand the severity of this problem and are planning to fix it and make it available free of charge to customers experiencing the problem." From the horse's carefully-worded mouth...

I'm pleased that Microsoft realizes that the severity of this bug outweighs its rarity and will be fixing it for free. Sure, you can argue that there is a workaround and a method of prevention, but if someone doesn't know about the workaround, or a less sophisticated user encounters the bug, that person will have to recreate work, probably assuming that the computer is just acting up again. This is not to mention that saving in RTF all the time is a pain - in this day and age we shouldn't have to muck with such arcane tricks. And if you want to argue that because the bug is rare, it's not a big deal, you can tell the same thing to the very few people who lost a lot of work to the recent viruses. The fact of being in a small minority doesn't make reconstructing work any more fun.

To tell the truth, this bug concerns me more than most. I'm less concerned about bugs that can cause the Mac to crash. You can always protect yourself from crashes by saving more frequently. This bug can secretly modify your work, which I feel is more serious than a simple crash. Consider this situation. If you are a student who works on your Mac at home in Word 5.0 but prints on the public LaserWriters on campus, you will have to copy the file to a disk and take it to the printer. If you're anything like most students at Cornell University, where I watched this behavior for several years, you'll work on any given paper until the last possible minute, at which point you'll print it out and hand it in, just on time. Being bitten by this bug as you trudge to the computer center, disk in hand, could make for some serious frustration. On the other side of the coin, if you work in a public computer room at a college, tell your coworkers about the workaround. If nothing else you're guaranteed to impress someone if you miraculously save some poor student's work.

Perhaps far more dangerous is the instance of the graphic design firm that swaps files around a network with System 7 FileSharing. Design firms are more likely than students to rely heavily on styles because page layout programs can import and use those styles. In addition, such businesses are more likely to be mucking about with loading and unloading fonts frequently, thus increasing the possibility of the bug surfacing. Obviously, this bug does not affect the original file if copying the file is the cause, but the font trigger would indeed affect the original, and while a student can hand in a completely unformatted paper, a design firm will lose its collective shirt on such a practice, and it will be nice to see Microsoft release the fix. In any event, I encourage everyone to pass this article on to anyone you know who uses styles in Word - you could save them gobs of unnecessary effort.

Style Manager -- In the process of commiserating with Prudence about the massive amount of work she had to do because of this bug, we talked about the concept of a plug-in module for Word 5.0 that would help manage all those styles. I won't say it's easy, since I talked to a programmer for Alki Software about it and he thought it might be tough to get that information from Word. Alki created the MasterWord floating palettes for Word that have limited GREP functionality, among other neat things like a cool table-making tool, so they should know. We'll have a review when MasterWord ships later this summer.

What I'm throwing out for any budding programmers to consider then, is a Style Manager for Word 5.0. It should to list all the styles in any given document (the frontmost one), show a detailed list of what the styles contain, and show a character count of how much text is in that style. It should be able to link to Word's Find command so that you can browse the text that is in any given style, and once you've determined which styles are useful, you should be able to have one style take over from another (in the case of the fictional "Body Text" and "normal stuff" which are actually identical styles), and be able to delete unused styles. I'm sure there's other useful stuff it could do as well, and I'll bet people would pay $30 to $50 for such a utility.

In many ways, Word is the best word processor for long, complex documents that are destined for a page layout program, but it also seems that Microsoft often aims it at the one page business memo crowd by not adding features that could turn it into a seriously useful document processing program. Such a Style Manager would help a great deal, and I'm sure there are plenty of other useful suggestions in this arena, such as cross-references and the ability to start page numbers at any arbitrary number. Apparently people also want the ability to combine landscape and portrait printing within the same document too. Better get your votes in for Word 6.0 soon, although it may already be too late.

Microsoft Tech Support -- 206/635-7200
Microsoft Customer Service -- 800/426-9400

Information from:
Prudence Holliger
Laurel Lammers, Microsoft Corporation

 

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