The first point I want to make in discussing this question is that there are two different things, both called "PowerPoint". One is a lump of shrink-wrapped software, which I call technology-as-built. The other is the PowerPoint that people actually use, which I call technology-in-use. (Fans of Chris Argyris will recognize the parallels with espoused theory versus theory-in-use). If different groups or communities use PowerPoint differently, there may be many different PowerPoints-in-use corresponding to a single PowerPoint-as-built.
The distinction between technology-as-built and technology-in-use is extremely important for technology adoption and management. (My favourite example of this remains Lotus Notes, which for some time after its initial release was mostly used in pretty boring and unimaginative ways, merely as a jumped-up file management system. I guess it took at least two years before the technology-in-use started to catch up with and then exceed the intentions of the Lotus design team.) My notion of technology maturity is based on a stable relationship between technology-as-built and technology-in-use.
However, this distinction is largely ignored by IT analysts, who try to rank the "vision" of the software producers but entirely overlook the "vision" of software consumers. This is related to my point about Venturesome Consumption (Oct 2009).
By the way, the distinction is implicit in my post yesterday, Blame Excel, where I distinguished between blaming things on Excel itself (technology-as-built) and blaming things on people using Excel stupidly (technology-in-use). Is Microsoft responsible for how Excel or PowerPoint are used? Clearly software providers cannot be blamed for the stupidity of their customers, but Microsoft clearly has a strong interest in promoting good use of its products, and providing some protection against bad use.
Now here's how this distinction applies to the question of software complication and complexity. Let's acknowledge that each successive version of PowerPoint-as-built has loads more features, new menu options, design styles and so on. But let's also acknowledge that many PowerPoint users are still using
- the same limited subset of features
- the same font (Ariel)
- the same style (bullet points, like this)
- the same clip art (those horrible cartoon men).
When people talk about Death-By-PowerPoint, they are generally talking about PowerPoint-in-Use. It is clearly possible to produce lively and informative PowerPoint presentations, but many people (including Bill Gates) don't seem to find this very easy.
So there is a growing gulf between the technology-as-built and the technology-in-use. This is where the unnecessary complexity gets in. The more complicated the technology-as-built, the greater the risk of poor results from the technology-in-use.
Update: I just found a presentation by Professor Yannis Gabriel called Against the tyranny of PowerPoint: Technology-in-use and technology abuse (2008).
Related Posts: The PowerPoint Collection