USA Today 12 May, 1999

PowerPoint obsession takes off


Next time the Pope gives one of his Easter Sunday addresses off the Vatican balcony, odds are he’ll use PowerPoint.

Well, why not? PowerPoint users are inheriting the earth. The software’s computer-generated, graphic-artsy presentation slides are everywhere - meetings, speeches, sales pitches, Web sites. They’ve become as essential to getting through the business day as coffee and Post-it Notes.

Mike Campbell is experiencing this first-hand. His Chicago company, Campbell Software, recently was bought by German giant SAP, which is notoriously PowerPoint-happy. Since the deal, Campbell has been e-mailed a PowerPoint presentation in advance of a phone call - so Campbell could look at the slides as the person at the other end talked. At one meeting, a fed-up facilitator told attendees they had to leave their PowerPoints at the door, "like guns in a saloon in the wild West," Campbell says.

"It does help lay out thoughts in a coherent manner," he adds, "but it breeds a dependency the likes of which I’ve only seen in heroin users and Starbucks coffee drinkers. Has anyone seen Microsoft sales people hanging around school yards yet?"

Funny he should bring that up. Microsoft proudly notes that PowerPoint is increasingly being found in K-12 schools. "Students are using PowerPoint for show-and-tell," says a public relations document.

PowerPoint is officially known as presentation software. People usually get it packaged with Microsoft Office on business PCs or laptops. It allows users to put text, graphs, photos and animated critters on so-called slides that can either be shown on a computer screen or projected overhead during a talk.

Actually, PowerPoint has been around for a while, creeping up on us. It only seems like we just woke up screaming, surrounded by cheesy slides.

The software began life in 1985, created by a company called Forethought for Apple’s Macintosh. Apple invested in Forethought in early 1987; in August 1987, Microsoft bought the company for $14 million. By 1994, PowerPoint snagged the lead in presentation software. Today, it’s hard to find anyone using presentation software that’s not PowerPoint.

The software’s plague-like spread is based on a conundrum: At a time when experts proclaim that computers are too hard to use, PowerPoint has become too easy to use.

"Making color slides used to be the domain of graphics departments," says Roz Ho, a customer researcher for Microsoft. "If an executive wanted them, he could get them made. With PowerPoint, everybody started making their own."

Hence a reason for all those bad slides: Too much PowerPoint is falling into the hands of amateurs. And they’re cranking out slides with a vengeance. In 1995, the average PowerPoint user created 4.5 presentations a month, Microsoft says. In 1998, the number doubled to 9 a month.

That’s the supply side. There’s a demand side to this equation, too. Speakers at conferences are expected to use PowerPoint or risk appearing incomplete. Instructors for Dale Carnegie training classes are told to get PowerPoint proficient because trainees want it.

And the demand is only going to grow. "Perceptions of the GenX crowd are if you still use overhead slides for your presentation, you just don’t get it and you will be tuned out," says Paul Doherty, an architect with The Digit Group and frequent PowerPoint user.

All this has led to a bit of a backlash on a couple of fronts. First, while the slides might help overall communication, some say dependence on them has hurt the art of speaking.

"The religion is to express oneself concisely in bullet points with analytical precision," says venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. "I’ve seen people who get in a mental rut and are unable to write anything other than bullet-point lists."

Put another way, imagine if Abe Lincoln had PowerPoint for the Gettysburg Address. "OK, this slide shows our nation four score and seven years ago..."

The other rap is that people spend too much time messing with PowerPoint and not enough messing with the message. Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously banned PowerPoint four years ago. (Remember, too, that Sun and Microsoft are arch-rivals.) "I have not lifted the ban," McNealy now says mischievously. "Look at our stock chart in the last four years since we’ve banned PowerPoint. Our productivity has skyrocketed!"

Although, by that same logic, the widespread adoption of PowerPoint coincides with the ongoing economic and stock market boom. And you thought it was driven by the Internet.