Microsoft Word and the fate of the word processor

There’s a fascinating discussion at Slashdot regarding the life (and death?) of Microsoft Word, the much used and much despised word processor. Jeremy Reimer of Ars Technica posits that Word is going to lose out to wiki-style online editing tools. Maybe he’s right, but I’m skeptical because I suspect that most documents are only read by a single person, and when they’re edited by multiple people, they still tend to revolve around a single person. Writing tends to work best in serial, not parallel, mode; this might be the subject of a future Grant Writing Confidential post. (Edit: See One Person, One Proposal: Don’t Split Grant Writing Tasks.)

Some of the Slashdot comments show the worst of Slashdot’s solipsism and narrow-mindedness, however. This one in particular is galling because its author obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about. For example, he says that “If, by “professional writer,” you mean someone actually producing text, the main needs are a good text editor, which can be found many places.”

With all due respect, I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. A good text editor, even one that’ll give diffs, is nowhere near as fast and as easy as Word’s track changes system. As Philip Greenspun, well-known Microsoft shill, says regarding his book writing project:

At least at Macmillan, everyone collaborates using Microsoft Word. I’d wanted to write my book in HTML using Emacs, the text editor I’ve been using since 1978. That way I wouldn’t have to do any extra work to produce the on-line edition and I wouldn’t be slowed down by leaving Emacs (the world’s most productive text editor, though a bit daunting for first-time users and useless for the kind of fancy formatting that one can do with Frame, Pagemaker, or Word). Macmillan said that the contract provision to use Word was non-negotiable and now I understand why.

Microsoft Word incorporates a fairly impressive revision control system. With revision control turned on, you can see what you originally wrote with a big line through it. If you put the mouse over the crossed-out text, Word tells you that “Angela Allen at Ziff Davis Press crossed this out on March 1, 1997 at 2:30 pm.” Similarly, new text shows up in a different color and Word remembers who added it. Finally, it is possible to define special styles for, say, Tech Reviewer Comments. These show up in a different color and won’t print in the final manuscript.

The original commenter says that free software can replace Word. I’d observe that a) everyone I have to collaborate with has Word and b) only one other person I know has Open Office.org, which also looks hideously ugly on OS X and, when I’ve tried to use it, crashes frequently. Most professional writers appear to use Word. That they don’t migrate en masse to text editors, which have been around since at least the 1970s, shows that there must be some advantage, even if it’s merely network effects, to using it.

Another commenter said that Word “has too large an installed base and there is too much inertia for people to change,” inspiring a third person to chime in, “You know, I’m sure they used to say the same thing about Wordperfect, remember them?”

And in those days, the total number of computers bought every year exceeded the entire previous install base, year after year. Since the neighborhood of the late ’90s, however, that hasn’t been true. Today, if you want to get people to switch operating systems/word processors/e-mail clients/whatever, you have to get people who already have computers to consciously change their behavior. This is really, really hard to do. That’s the difference between WordPerfect’s dominance in the ’80s and Word’s dominance today.

As Joel Spolsky says:

Microsoft grew up during the 1980s and 1990s, when the growth in personal computers was so dramatic that every year there were more new computers sold than the entire installed base. That meant that if you made a product that only worked on new computers, within a year or two it could take over the world even if nobody switched to your product. That was one of the reasons Word and Excel displaced WordPerfect and Lotus so thoroughly: Microsoft just waited for the next big wave of hardware upgrades and sold Windows, Word and Excel to corporations buying their next round of desktop computers (in some cases their first round).

According to the research firm Gardner, “For the year [2008], worldwide PC shipments totaled 302.2 million units…” But Forrester estimates that there are about a billion computers in use. Many of those are probably first-time buyers in developing countries, second computers, computers for children, used by the same person at home and at work, and so forth; nonetheless, even if every one of those new computers replaced a single old computer, it would still take more than three years for the market to churn. That’s a major difference, and the installed based issue is why Word (and office) aren’t going anywhere fast.

I don’t love Word and used Lotus Word Pro for years after it had been effectively abandoned because its styles functionality was (and still is) vastly superior to Word’s. But the program isn’t available for OS X and has died in IBM’s bowels. In the current computing world, it’s hard to imagine Word being superseded on the desktop; at some point in the future, a browser-based word processor might overtake it, but that day is still further off than many Internet prognosticators believe.

5 responses

  1. Regarding Joel Spolsky’s comment: “if you made a product that only worked on new computers, within a year or two it could take over the world even if nobody switched to your product. That was one of the reasons Word and Excel displaced WordPerfect and Lotus so thoroughly […].” Was it true that the early versions of Word and Excel only worked on new computers? Even if it was true then, it’s certainly not true now. One of Microsoft’s biggest technical challenges is its marriage to backward compatibility at all costs. I’ve read that as much as 75% of the codebase for its flagship products is legacy code to support older hardware and operating systems.

    Also, you don’t mention it here, and I haven’t followed your link to Slashdot to see whether they mention it, but have you read that Microsoft Word is coming to a Web browser near you? Here is Microsoft’s announcement and Q&A on Office Web Applications.

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  2. I’m reasonably certain that most of the publishing industry actually works on handing paper back and forth, particularly for manuscript proofs and the like, because that’s seen as being more stable, and the lowest common denominator. There’s been a lot of hubbub in the science fiction world about electronic submissions, and there are a lot of very respected publications that simply *don’t* accept them even today.

    I think, however, a lot depends on writers and their editors. Manuscript formats tend to be very plain-text friendly, (monospaced fonts, markup rather than text styles), so that while “emacs will supplant MS word” sounds absurd, and is, there isn’t a lot of functional reason why most people who are writing texts need word.

    I think the truth of the matter is that as content is more and more destined for publication digitally rather than on 8.5 x 11, software like Word will probably be used less, becasue Word is really built around the 8.5×11 metaphor, and it’s sort of awkward and gawky in other contexts.

    As for revision control, that’s always worked better with plain text files… git, even svn and cvs. Diff and merging isn’t that hard technologically, and while I don’t suggest that the general public become familiar with the command line (exactly), I do think that we’ll begin to see collaboration tools built around these lower level programs in the future.

    I write for a living, pretty much never do anything that isn’t in plain text. *Shrug*

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  3. Jake,

    Have you tried Mellel? It is an Israeli-designed word processor, which is native to OS X. I like it because it embeds right-to-left Hebrew and Arabic without going into convulsions. But its functionality, especially for scholars (a lot of scientists use it), is superb. You can compose in Mellel and then export to .rtf or .txt or even Word.

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  4. My publishers (both US and UK) have both moved to electronic editing for line editing, copy editing, and review of galleys (in PDF format). I’m hearing from my other writer friends (mostly msytery/crime/suspense authors) that this is happening with their publishers as well. Writers should use whatever tools work best for their drafts, but when the book has to be submitted, Word has become the de facto choice.

    I thought at first I wouldn’t like it, but there are decided advantages to it.

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  5. I used to hate MS Word (and use Open Office).

    now I do all my writing in a simple text editor (Notetab Pro) and at the last minute paste the text into MS Word. Then I run their awesome grammar/spelling checker. Sure it has lots of false positives, but it catches subtle errors too. I use MS Word for only one minute for each document, but for that, I’d be willing to buy the program.

    More and more though, I find I use google docs for online collaboration. I do use Windows Live Writer for blog posting though. it is one of the few reasons I haven’t switched to Linux for example.

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