Thursday, December 17, 2009

Public Beta Doesn’t Mean “Finished”

I've still got the touch

I’m currently running the public beta of office 2010 and I found what appears to be a significant bug. In my experience, it’s pretty unusual to find a bug in a Microsoft product by the time it’s made it to the Public Beta stage. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any, more that generally they’re the sorts of issues that only a hardcore tester or a dedicated hacker is likely to find. I’m fairly proud of myself for finding one in Microsoft Word 2010. And it’s using a feature that I certainly don’t use all that often, and I suspect a lot of other people don’t either, but it’s a really useful one in certain circumstances.

First, a little background on the feature. Word (of all versions going back at least as far as Office 95) allows you to set up a blank document just the way you want it – with font style, font size, line spacing options, headers, footers, margins, and such all customized to your needs – then to save it as what’s called a “document template.” In the future, you would launch this template just like opening any other document, but you wouldn’t actually open the template by doing so. Instead, you’d get a new blank document all formatted to exactly match the template’s settings, but ready to be saved under its own, new file name. Taking it a step farther, you can even type as much text as you want into the template and it’ll all be there when you use it. For example, if you frequently sent out a form letter that was 85% identical each time, it might make sense to save one as a template, with marks for where to insert the 15% that changes every time.

I attempted to use this feature in Word 2010 and it didn’t really operate as designed. My intent was to create a pre-formatted document to use for the chapters of my book. Each page would have the chapter number, the page number, and the title of the book in the header and footer (so that eventually when I have printouts of multiple manuscripts I’ll be able to tell their chapters apart). There’s also room to put in some sort of version designator, which will help me keep track when I hand out draft chapters to readers and then go back and make changes before those copies come back to me with comments. Most importantly, I turned off the “add a blank line after each paragraph” feature to which Word defaults, as it drives me crazy. This all should have been a fairly simple procedure, but it wasn’t.

A Google search didn’t turn up anywhere to submit bug reports like the forums I used to use when I’d participate in closed Microsoft Beta tests. The app came with a “submit a smiley face/frowny face” utility, but I’m not sure that that’s given sufficient attention to trust that this issue gets to the right people. So I sent an email off to a friend at Microsoft in the hopes that it will find its way to the Office development team.

What I observed was that after creating and saving the template and closing Word, subsequent attempts to open it in a variety of different ways didn’t work. I should have gotten a new, blank, pre-formatted document, but while Word looked like it was trying to do something, no document ever appeared. I repeated my attempt multiple times to no avail.

I was eventually able to get the same result by opening Word manually and creating a new document based on the template file, but this was definitely a bug. Then came the real surprise, as I attempted to shut down my PC for the night.

At shutdown, I was presented with an array of “do you wish to save file xxxyyy?” dialogue boxes. None of these word documents I was being prompted to save appeared to be open anywhere, even after some fairly intensive poking around in the Task Manager. I could see that Word was running in the background, but these files were officially “not there,” even though clearly they were buried someplace in the back alleys of Windows 7.

I responded by clicking the “don’t save” buttons in the dozen or so dialogue boxes that were popping up, but it didn’t help. When I again attempted to shut down, I was again prompted to save those same files. Fortunately, Windows 7 has a very nice “Force shutdown” feature that simply terminates all open applications and turns the computer off. I’d never experienced it before, but it was perfect for this situation.

This morning, I got mixed results when I tried to open the template again – it worked once, but mostly didn’t work. Stranger still, all of those invisible documents I’d been prompted to save were now listed in the Word autosave task pane. And now, by trying to open the template multiple times, I’d created a bunch of new invisible documents. This is not just a bug, it’s a fairly major one. It’s also one I’d like to be sure that the Office 2010 team is aware of, because I definitely plan to buy a copy when it’s released. I’m still due to review it here at some point, but the short version is that I’m very happy with the improvements Microsoft has made and while they’re less revolutionary than the jump from Office 2003 to Office 2007, they’re useful and demonstrate that the Office team is finally taking their work seriously after so many versions that incorporated only minor improvements over the prior release.

Incidentally, if you'd like to try Office 2010 Beta yourself, you can find it here. It's fully-functional and doesn't expire until October 31st, 2010. Just don't try to make a template. :D

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