Are word processors becoming obsolete?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 14, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

The other day on a mailing list, a poll of journalists showed that only one in fifteen was using an office suite for their work. The poll made no pretense of scientific accuracy, and only included about fifteen replies. Still, it made me wonder whether the word processor has outlived its day.

Only one person said they used MS Word, and none mentioned LibreOffice. The others used Kate, Google Docs, or mobile apps like Evernote. I didn't reply, but I do most of my work in Bluefish, myself. I also used to know one journalist who used Vim, which seems a bit extreme to me, although it would be a good way to keep your hands on the keyboard and perhaps reduce repetitive stress injuries.

The reason for these choices is easy to guess. Many online editors prefer HTML with no more than paragraph, heading, and anchor tags, with the occasional emphasis thrown in, so they can drop copy directly into a page template. Other editors of both online and hard copy prefer plain text so they can reformat to their liking in a layout program. No journalist gets far by not giving editors what they want, and, since both MS Word and LibreOffice output notoriously over-formatted HTML, using them would mean extra work.

The circumstances are different for fiction writers, of course, whose copy generally has to be in MS Word format. However, in turning away from word processors, journalists are no different from other users. After all, the limited resources on tablets leave little space for full office apps, and if my experience is typical, the small screens are tolerable only when you have nothing better. Besides, most of what people are writing is ephemeral at best, written one day and forgotten by the next.

As a result, people need little more than a text editor with a few basic formatting options. Moreover, unlike the early days of personal computers, both journalists and average users now have the experience to know what they need, instead of accepting commercial vendors' advice uncritically.

Manual formatting vs. formatting with styles
And you know what? They are right. For the average person, MS Word or LibreOffice are serious overkill. They are not doing much more layout than choosing a font and setting a margin. Nor are they writing software manuals that will be maintained over several years, and need to be designed with every shortcut possible to make revision easier. They are writing one-offs, documents that are likely to be less than a dozen pages long, if not two or three. Many will never be printed, and the rest will probably be printed only once.

Realizing these use-case has made me change my mind about word processors. As someone who has worked as both a technical writer and a graphic designer, I used to argue fiercely in favor of people learning that, to paraphrase Robin Wlliams (no, not that one), a word processor is not a typewriter. I have pointed out repeatedly that manual formatting is inefficient, and urged people to learn about using styles with their format-once-apply-often orientation, and to organize themselves by developing templates for the types of documents that they write regularly.

I still believe this advice is useful -- but only for professionals of one kind or other, who want every available efficiency for their work. For other users, learning to use a word processor the way it is meant to be used is like hard word for minimal results.

What I have come to realize is that, all during my advocacy, I (and people like me) have been arguing one use-case, and average users another. That is why, every now and then on the LibreOffice users' mailing list, an argument breaks out about  the relative virtues of manual formatting and using styles.

Having never seriously tried styles, the advocates of manual formatting never have the chance to see how, by putting all your initial efforts into template design, you save time in the long run. They also have some odd ideas about styles, such as they are an infringement on users' freedom rather than time savers, or somehow limiting or too complicated. They become vehement opposing what used to seem to me simply common sense. But no wonder -- all along, I have urging them to make extra efforts that will do little to make them more efficient when writing the kinds and lengths of documents that they do. Under the circumstances, their position is only sensible.

End of an era
The word processor has had a thirty-five year long reign. But now, I suspect, it is being reduced the specialist tool it was always designed to be. LibreOffice, which is designed around styles may add features like the side bar to enhance manual formatting, but, from many users' perspective, such changes still leaves the editing window and menu cluttered with irrelevant features.

Probably, Calligra Suite is more in-tune with users in developing Author, a minimalist tool separate from its word processor Words. The developers describe Author as a tool for professional writers, but in many ways, Author looks more like is a tool for those who want only the minimal necessary tools, and prefer manual formatting. I wonder, though, why a new application is considered necessary when so many text editors already exist.

Word processors will continue to be a tool for certain users. However, when professionals are avoiding them and many average users are unwilling to learn how to use them, then clearly they have passed their heyday.

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