It's so pervasive that we take it for granted. It's hard to imagine an office computer without Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) PowerPoint presentation software on it. Indeed, it's hard to imagine many important meetings proceeding without some kind of PowerPoint presentation on the agenda. One estimate, from a few years ago, had PowerPoint installed on 250 million computers and used in 30 million presentations per day. Yowza.

Yet all is not entirely hunky-dory in the PowerPoint world. Critics abound, asserting that:

  • The software forces users to boil everything down into bullet points.

  • The bullet format can make it hard to convey complex information and guide people through a critical thinking process to solid conclusions.

  • The limited space on each slide/page means only a few sentences can appear on each one. And charts can only convey a fraction of the detail in PowerPoint that they can in print.

  • PowerPoint turns most presentations into sales pitches, when that's not always appropriate.

A seminal treatise against PowerPoint is Ian Parker's 2001 New Yorker magazine article, "Absolute PowerPoint," in which he opines that PowerPoint overly influences how we think and how we organize information.

It's hard to argue against the fact that most of us do use the same software for presentations, and it must, inevitably, have us doing things a certain way. Maybe the problem isn't so much with the software as with the apparent lack of alternatives. If there were other options, we might find that certain presentations are best suited to certain software. Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL) is answering that call, with its introduction of a new presentation package called "Keynote." (Here's a review of it.)

If you think that criticisms of PowerPoint are silly, consider this: a recent New York Timesarticle (free registration required) points out that NASA's Columbia Accident Investigation Board, in its report on why the space shuttle crashed, blamed not only foam insulation but also PowerPoint! It said, "NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports."

The article also cited design expert Edward Tufte, who in a "screed" notes that, "Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis."

Microsoft has been accused of a lot of things in the past, such as creating an operating system monopoly. But changing (and worsening) the way we think is likely a new one to many.

What do you think? Chime in on our Microsoft or Apple discussion boards (free 30-day trial available).

Selena Maranjian owns shares of Microsoft.