It took Microsoft until the autumn of personal computing to get its popular word processing software right for journalists.
That’s no co-incidence. Nor is it a co-incidence that Fairfax, Australia and New Zealand’s largest publisher, recently moved its journalists from Microsoft Word to Google Docs.
Challenges from a newer, simpler breed of computer hardware and the first serious software competitor in over a decade forced Microsoft to lift its game.
Today journalists have the tools we want. Not for the first time.
The bit where Bennett praises typewriters again
More than 30 years ago I learnt to type on a manual typewriter. At the time there was no such thing as a personal computer.
I owned a portable typewriter long before there were laptops. It made me feel like Ernest Hemingway.
Regular readers might wonder why I keep referring to typewriters. I see typewriters as the gold standard for simple, straightforward reporting.
Typewriters get out of the way of your writing. They don’t come between you and the words. They are efficient. They require discipline; you have to get the words right the first time because editing means hard work. This forces you to think better and to write better.
Computers do the opposite. They encourage mental laziness.
The ideal word processor is simple, essentially a typewriter that puts text on a screen instead of ink on a page. Nothing else. OK, maybe spell checking to catch typos.
Just about everything else is a distraction.
You mean a text editor?
Probably. I could just as easily use a text editor. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing this using the WordPress full screen text editor. There’s nothing on the page I’m writing but my words.
My favourite iPad writing tool works much the same way. It is almost invisible and feels just like using a typewriter.
The first word processors were much the same. WordStar was the first one I used professionally, a few years later I discovered WordPerfect. This was before WYSIWYG screens. Hell, it was even before computers had colour screens.
Both early word processors stayed out of the way. They’d let you cut and paste sections, make text bold, search documents and spell check, but they never came between me and my writing.
The move from MS-Dos to Windows killed the early word processors like a meteorite wiping out dinosaurs.
By the time the dust settled, Microsoft Word was the only plausible option. It was a slow, awkward beast. In those days few PCs were powerful enough to run complex programs like Word, so there was a lot of lag-time — what engineers call latency. Word was horrible to use.
Microsoft needed Word to be all things to all people. Which was a problem.
It meant Word contained far too many features and options that made no sense for a journalist. Mail-merge, page layout, proofing tools, collaboration stuff, indexes and long document features were all no use whatsoever when I had to get a story on an editor’s desk by 7pm.
Journalists don’t even care about changing typefaces. If we altered font sizes it was just to make text more readable on-screen in the days before zoom functions.
Word 2013 fixes all that
Over the years I’ve searched for Word alternatives that better replicate the typewriter’s feel and simplicity. I’ve found good tools including text editors. I particularly like a bare-bones word processor called Q10.
Meanwhile Microsoft did something interesting with Word. Since Word 2007, the company pared away at the cruft surrounding Word’s user interface. All the functionality and complexity is still there, but increasingly it is now hidden from sight unless you need to use it. The result is a remarkable less-is-more return to simplicity.
Word 2013 takes that further. The ribbon bar across the top of the screen now automatically hides leaving a bare clean screen. I use the draft view which is still less distracting and often hit alt-v then U to get the full screen view – like every Word user I’ve learnt a number of shortcut key codes. This one gives me a perfect white page, just like a sheet of paper in a typewriter.
Word is now close to my gold standard.
Word 2013 beta woes
We’re not quite there yet. I’m writing here about the beta version of Word 2013 and found a couple of flaws which mean the word processor falls short of perfect.
First the early betas would have spectacular crashes. They wouldn’t just temporarily stop the computer working, damage the application or lose documents. In one case I had to reinstall Windows. Since those early days I’ve only seen one or two minor gliches, so presumably Word is largely stable now.
A problem with disappearing cursors remains. Sometimes the cursor drops out of sight completely, it makes it almost impossible to navigate and edit documents. This can be fixed with a reboot – at times two reboots – but that’s clumsy. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this by the time the official software launches.
Word 2013 on a tablet
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Word 2013 for a journalist is that it will work on a Windows 8 tablet – in fact Microsoft promises versions next year for other tablets.
It looks as if the PC era is drawing to a close, tablet sales are rocketing while PC sales decline, in a year or so tablet sales will go past PC sales. I used to worry that the end of the PC era might mean the end of decent portable word processing, now I’m excited by the prospect of Word 2013, a Windows 8 tablet, a decent wireless keyboard and SkyDrive cloud storage.
Together they add up to the kind of mobile digital typewriter I could only have dreamed of when I started out as a journalist. It took a generation but Microsoft, and me, are just a step away from the destination.