This article was originally written for the November 2022 edition of Hemispheric News, delivered as part of the Hemispheric Views podcast member bonus program, One Prime Plus.

Martin has set me a challenge as to what to write about this month. He told me I have to write something about old office technology; maybe an office app feature that I used to use, or something similar.

Because I’m so old, I have many topics to potentially write about; but also because I’m old I have forgotten so many of them.

Ideas that I considered and discarded: fax machines, binding machines, shredders, Lotus Notes, Windows NT Workstation… All great things that I had to deal with that Martin did not.

Today, however, I wish to write about Object Linking and Embedding.

In our current era we take embedding items as a given, notably in web pages, where elements are easily embedded, be they Flickr images, Twitter tweets, or podcast episodes. Adding multiple content forms in a single page is not innovative in 2022.

There was a time, however, where embedding items from one place into another was indeed innovative. It was Microsoft leading the innovation as they pushed the concept of OLE - Object Linking and Embedding. How amazing would it be to embed a live spreadsheet chart into your Word document. Make a change in the spreadsheet, and suddenly the chart data in your report is updated! Incredible! Excel not cool enough for you? No problem, create a view in Access and include that in your Word file. This was a time when the combined power of the MS Office Suite with its stylised puzzle art design on the box, actually made sense. You weren’t using a single application one at a time; you were working within a connected ecosystem.


At least… that was the dream.

Now it’s time to hit you with a dose of the reality from those times I tried to use OLE in a meaningful way within a work context. There were a number of drawbacks that I can recall — and I’m sure there were others that I do not. Let’s work through the shortlist of those I do:

  1. PC Speed. The 166 MHz Pentium I was probably using, that would also have had limited RAM, didn’t love running multiple applications at one time. Having to run an instance of one program inside another one; well that made everything that much worse.
  2. Hard Drives. Have you forgotten how slow spinning hard drives are? Try to think how slow a 5400RPM drive, running in an old PC with limited throughput, might handle swap files, which once OLE was enabled, was an automatic outcome.
  3. File Servers & Sharing. This was an era of local files and a bit of network sharing via Novell Netware, or maybe the first instance of Microsoft’s network stack. I recall for a long time we had to use a terrible Document Management System called Hummingbird, which added version control and check-in/check-out features. Now imagine how well a system like that worked when one file was calling the contents of another file embedded within it. More often than not, if it was somebody else opening the file, they wouldn’t have access to the embedded data.
  4. Printing. We used to print a lot. It was surprisingly difficult to get the window into the data displayed on screen in such a way that it would also print that way. And heaven help you if somebody clicked inside the OLE to activate it. There went your careful print-aligned view.

To be fair to Microsoft, they weren’t the only company going down this path. Apple tried something similar with the OpenDoc standard. It too, didn’t deliver.

In hindsight, all these years on, it is evident that this technology didn’t work. The ideas, however, of embedded content and live data, made sense. With web applications backed by database systems we’ve now arrived at a similar destination, albeit via a different route. However, I’m still not sure we have hit upon a complete standard, that OLE tried to deliver.

Maybe one day. For now, though, I do not miss OLE.