Word processors still geared to print

Word processors need to get out of the 1990s.

It’s a long time since I used a word processor to create a printed document. Yet word processors are still made as if the goal is a sheet of paper.

Take Microsoft Word:Mac 2011. It offers six ‘views. All of them pay homage to print. At least three of the views go out of their way to reproduce what looks like a printed page on-screen along with cheesy skeuomorphic designs. You can’t use Word for long before coming up against page breaks.

What an antiquated idea that is.

Apple’s Pages 5.0 feels more modern, yet it still offers a line across the screen to tell me where a page break might fall. And depending on the settings paragraphs move around to accommodate those page breaks.

It gets worse. The default setting of the standard Pages 5.0 template assumes you’ll want to have page headers and footers. I haven’t used headers or footers since WordPerfect 5.1 — kids ask your grandparents.

Google Docs has its faults, but at least there is an option to not show pages. The web-based company can’t quite bring itself into the 21st century though. Google’s default setting is what it calls the ‘paginated view’.

I would like to see Apple and Microsoft offer non-paginated views. Perhaps they do. I can’t find them in any documentation or support forums.

On one level this is just a grumble. I prefer minimal writing interfaces, the less distraction the better. A page line might not be much distraction, but I’d still rather not see it.

There’s a deeper complaint. The fact that word processor developers are so conservative that they feel the need to include paper-like views and make those views the default, tells me they are too conservative full stop.

iPad can’t embed links? Now you tell me

How I feel about iPad URL embedding

How I feel about iPad URL embedding

For 18 months or so I’ve used my iPad to write news stories, blog posts and other articles while on the move. Coupled with a wireless keyboard the iPad is better than a standard laptop with longer battery life, less distraction and increased portability.

It turns out none of the writing apps can add or embed URLs into a document. That usually doesn’t matter, I don’t need to add them or if I do there will be just one which I can list at the end of the story. And it doesn’t matter if I writing a blog post because the WordPress app CAN insert URLs.

Soon I’ll be back on the road. I was planning to travel light with just my iPad and keyboard for writing.That plan is scuppered because I write a daily column that includes as many as 30 URLs embedded in the text.

This is a problem. I sold my old laptop. Luckily Mrs B has an old one stashed away, so I’ll get to relive the pleasures of Windows XP for a few days. Happy, happy, joy, joy.

Microsoft’s useful Word Web App make-over

While the rest of the world was watching the Windows 8 launch, Microsoft quietly updated its Office Web Apps. The apps are now closely tied to the company’s SkyDrive personal cloud service and to Outlook.com.

Microsoft has new web versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. You can read the company’s official propaganda about its new apps in the Office blog.

Looking good

The first thing you’ll notice about the web apps is they all sport a beautiful clean, minimalist look.

This isn’t just a cosmetic update. Over the last year just about every Microsoft product and website has been through a major design refresh. Everything has been dramatically simplified, with all the complexity hidden from sight.

In the case of the Word Web App, it now has a user interface that stays out of your way. Fonts render beautifully and are easy to read. This is especially noticeable if you use Internet Explorer 10 or an Apple iOS6 devices – more about that in a moment.

You’ll get much the same visual experience on a desktop, a tablet or a phone.

Simpler design means it is easier to find your way around and there are fewer distractions. There’s also a consistency to everything Microsoft – no matter what device or application, everything feels familiar. These all add up to fewer errors and better productivity.

Familiarity breeds content

Word Web App’s main advantage is compatibility with desktop versions of Microsoft Word. Most of us know Word intimately – there’s no need to learn new keyboard commands. Many of the most used desktop functions are included. You can view documents, add comments and alter the format directly from a browser.

The web app will keep all the formatting in Word documents – something that’s never been easy when moving between different classes of device.

Interoperability with traditional versions of Microsoft Word is comforting for the editors I work with, most expect to see my stories, features and other work land on their desk in the familiar Word format. They’ll never know what I used to create the documents.

I particularly love the way Word Web Apps works with Skydrive and the way I can switch documents between the web app and the preview desktop version of Word 2013. There’s something surreal about having the same document open in two places and having the web app tell me “2 PEOPLE EDITING”.

Surprisingly good on the iPad

It should come as no surprise to learn the Word Web App works well on both versions of Internet Explorer 10 that come as part of WIndows 8. And of course you can open and work with documents when using a Windows tablet.

I was pleasantly surprised when, away from my desk and equipped with just an iPad, I opened a Word Web App document using the iPad SkyDrive app and found it easy to edit. It works better than I expected.

This opens up new territory for Microsoft, the app makes a first-rate, although basic, iPad word processor. I still prefer iA Writer for that job, but I’d be happy to use Word Web App as an on-th-go writing tool.

Rumour has it Microsoft is readying a full version of Office for the iPad, I can’t comment on that, what I can say is the Office Web Apps deliver everything I need.

Likewise, when I left the house one day thinking I had sent a document to a client well before deadline, (but in fact forgetting to hit the send key), I saved the day and my payment by hopping on to SkyDrive using my smartphone and resending the document.

Word 2013: A journalist’s personal journey

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.