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19 August 2009

Where word processors went wrong


NikonF4_100TMX_Tmax_009, originally uploaded by Ian Tindale.

A long time ago, there were programs for the early computers which were known as ‘text editors’. These allowed a person to create a text file, and perhaps later edit it. The text file might be for consumption by another person, or it might contain a sequence of instructions or settings, even constituting an entire computer program, which a (not necessarily the same) computer would run.

Ignoring the ‘consumption by machine’ cases, the early text editors were in effect an extension of the more sophisticated typewriters of the day. By then, typewriters were not just dumb appliances that if you struck a key, the corresponding letter would appear on the paper. They could do far more. They attained a feature set that allowed a degree of automation in the office, and productivity for writers. And yet, the final output of those typewriters was nevertheless in terms of sheets of paper.

As text editors on computers mutated into more fully featured word processors, the advantages of working with screens and mass storage were utilised. Mail-merge programs, using a boilerplate template and a database or tabulated list of names or data were now easier to manage than the same task ever was on a sophisticated office typewriter (however - it certainly was possible on the higher-end models of typewriter). Hundreds of tailor-made individually addressed letters could be printed out with ease, and edited with ease, and the files could be managed and the output could be adjusted.

The transition from dot-matrix or daisywheel to the first generation of laser printers such as the Apple Laserwriter, and the corresponding transition from character-based screens to WIMP GUIs such as the Apple Lisa or Apple Macintosh meant that more flexibility or time could be applied to the specific styling of the output. Typographic presentation was now a very flexible capability of the system, and the people producing such output would spend considerable time in that part of the process.

Where it went wrong was not, as I often thought, at the point where word processors effectively couldn’t decide whether they should become fully-fledged typesetting systems and hence, desktop publishing applications, or whether they should still claim to be word processors, yet all the time adding this feature, that feature and bolting on other capabilities that are outside the strict realm of word processing. For example, the typewriter can tabulate, but the word processor can also range copy to the left, to the right, centred, or even justified (with appropriate algorithms) in a similar way to the more sophisticated phototypesetting systems of the day.

Soon, to add to tabulation, justification, a range of typefaces and fonts in various sizes, demand for actual tables was catered for (in perhaps a not very interoperable manner). Tables could be drawn up using a different action than simply setting tabs and drawing rules. Tables required a whole new interface built into the program, and as this was the wysiwyg age, the table construction had to happen right there in the middle of your page, as you worked.

After tables, the addition of graphics. This was perhaps an odd decision - a word processor program that can actually embed graphics into the page - and show you them as it does it! Is this now a DTP program? If you took this word processor document and used it as the copy for an article that were being set in a DTP application, you might find that the tabs didn’t match what the author saw on their screen (as authors rarely understand tabbing), the table was interpreted in a variety of ways by the DTP program, and perhaps even that the graphics and other non textual content were stripped out by the time you saw the copy flow into the galleys on the DTP program.

If you were lucky, the WP program and the DTP program understood each other in terms of fonts and typography, and if you were even luckier you could set up matching style names on each and they would be respected throughout the workflow. Soon, the perceived demand for not only tables, but tables that behaved (or in fact were) just like a small chunk of spreadsheet was satisfied. You could set up a small table in the document which linked some of its cells to live data or external data, and some of the other cells might contain formulae that operated on the content other cells, producing results. Is this what word processors should be doing?

So, word processors have always had the temptation to bloat in various unmanageable and uninteroperable ways, continually striving to be a more accessible or immediately usable alternative to a DTP program, and increasingly adding features the relevance of which to the act of processing words is mystifyingly remote.

No, none of this is where it went wrong for the word processor (and by extension, the ‘office suite’). Where it went wrong was more subtle and less obvious. Where it went wrong was when we slipped unknowing and unaware into the age where the intended surface for consumption was not a sheet of paper any more, but the actual data file! The word processor file is now vital, whereas previously in history it would and should be of no interest outside the office or organisation that produced it. Now, everybody thinks they have to be able to read other people’s word processor files, which is a frankly ridiculous situation, and one that nobody has clearly spotted that we’ve got ourselves into.

There is not a tangible or appreciated boundary between creation and consumption. By sending or accepting a word processor file, where are you? Still producing - or worse, finishing the unfinished production initiated by someone else; or are convincing yourself that you are in the act of consuming? There needs to be a clear boundary between production and rendering, and there needs to be education that the intended consumer only having access to the rendered output is a good situation. After all, in the days of the electronic typewriter, there wasn’t a ‘typewriter file’ that you gave to someone else to somehow read as the default finished output. No, the paper output was the final rendered product. It involved decision making at the editing phase, and a clear demarcation between that production stage and the finished output stage ready for others to see. This isn’t there any more, and it is this precise problem that word processors have led us into.

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