Journal: News & Comment

Friday, February 27, 2004
# 6:58:00 PM:

Is there hope for word processors?

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Microsoft's Rick Schaut reveals why Word 6 for Mac was a crappy piece of software back in 1995—one he helped put together.

Ever since Word became the worldwide de facto standard for word processors in the 1990s, everybody has tried to do everything with it, including memos, letters, manuals, books, layout, collaboration, outlining, even e-mail.

And that's the problem with what Word has become, for both Windows and Mac. It tries to be everything to everybody. It has to. Sure, others (and even Microsoft) have tried simplified or more specialized word processors, whether with MS Works, AppleWorks, Nisus Writer, Mariner Write, or any number of other long-gone alternatives. But people buy (or pirate) Word, because that's what everyone else uses.

I'm an editor and technical writer, and I use Word's updateable fields, bookmarks, tables, auto-generation of tables of contents, styles, spell checking, track changes (grudgingly, but it does work), and even HTML import all the time. I never use the grammar checker, Word Art, outliner, indexer, hyperlinks, HTML export (ugh), VBA, or the Office Assistant. I turn off nearly every automatic feature there is, from conversion of hyphens to appropriate dashes, to AutoCorrect and AutoFormat. But I let Word automatically make curly quotes.

There are some bugs and design problems that have long annoyed me, but which have not changed since version 6.0 or before because other features have taken precedence. Different people—and even different editors and technical writers—would have a different matrix of features they use or don't use, and bugs or design issues they'd highlight. I'd gladly give up translucent charts in Excel if I could save files with more than 31 characters in their names in Word. Others would not.

Word 5.1a, from 1992, with the addition of inline spell checking (the squiggly red underlines) would cover almost everything I really need to do. Yet I could never expect anyone to produce a program like that, because too many other people need different things. Word 6 was one of the earliest, and the most drastic, results of trying to keep up with the endless demands of feature creep.

Word v. X is a nice program. It does lots of stuff. But for all its improvements over version 6, it lacks much of the elegance of Word 5. And you know what? Mac OS X, for all its lovely lickability and stability, lacks some of the elegance (oh-so-especially in the Finder) of Mac System 7. Maybe those sorts of tradeoffs aren't necessary in theory, but they seem to be the pragmatic reality for Microsoft and Apple.

Oh, and if anyone wants to see what happens when someone plays an April Fool's joke that Microsoft is porting Word 5 to Mac OS X, check out TidBITS's Word 5.1 for Mac OS X from April 1 last year. (The beginning of the same issue touted "VisiCalc for Mac OS X" as one of its sponsors.) The Word joke started a good discussion.

It says something—about Word, about word processors in general, and about the rise of the Internet—that I do most of my writing in BBEdit or Microsoft's own Entourage e-mail client today.

That's not stopping me from taking money to give a seminar about Word's editing features on May 15, though. (Yes, that's a shameless plug.) And the demand is there: the class is already half full, and it's more than two months away.


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