Word processing has come a long way since helping to drive the adoption of personal computers in the early 1980s. For writers, even early word processors offered amazing gains in productivity. I started using AppleWriter II on an Apple II+ in the summer of 1982. The switch from an electric typewriter cut my newsletter production time from five days to less than a day.
My first word processor could not even display lower case letters on the screen. You had to use the control keys to move the cursor around the. To get bold or italic type on a printer you had to insert control characters in the text. In 1984, the Macintosh’s bit-mapped screen revolutionized word processing with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) displays. Then came PostScript and laser printers.
From WordStar, WordPerfect, and Word to MacWrite there have always been plenty of word processing choices.
Word Processing Has Changed
But a lot has changed since those days. Word processors are no longer as central to the computing experience. These days, many people rarely use dedicated word processing software. Some have decided that the text-processing capabilities of their email clients give them everything they need. Others have gone even further and rarely write anything longer than a text message or a tweet – much less anything that needs to be printed and formatted.
However, there are still good reasons to use word processing software. Email and texting are poor places to archive your thoughts. Sometimes you need to create polished, professional documents –in print or online, with complex formatting and fonts. Good word processing software lets you do that, but I wanted to see how well today’s word processors stack up to the new challenges of creating printed and online documents across multiple formats and platforms.
How We Tested Them: Step One
For many years computer users battled to be able to send a file from one computer platform to another and get something that could be read and used. The good news is that compatibility has gotten much better. Mostly you can make that happen today.
In preparing for this article, I sent by email an article containing that I wrote in OpenOffice Writer running on Windows 8 to my wife’s Windows 7 computer. With only the slightest hesitation, her Office 2007 Word opened the file – including a picture. I then saved and emailed that file to my Mac mini running OSX Moutain Lion. Office 2011 on the Mac opened the file without any problems. QuickWord running on my original Kindle Fire also opened the file without any challenges. To finish the quick test, I opened the same file using Google Docs on Firefox running on Xubuntu Linux.
Successfully moving that file moving through all those different platforms shows how well things can go, but it is not always that easy. Including some of the newer uses of word processors - such as creating Web pages and PDFs - things can get a little more complicated.
To look deeper, I decided to test 10 word processors’ ability to create Web pages and work with HTML.
My first test involved typing a ~250-word document using each software package. (I avoided copying and pasting to make sure that I did not introduce extraneous characters. Those extra characters can wreak havoc with how well a word processor converts a document into a simple Web page.) Next, I inserted a JPEG image with a width of 1600 pixels. Finally I created a numbered table with six items and printed each document on my HP6100 Photosmart printer (purchased in the Fall of 2006).
The first test was designed to see the results someone who is not an expert in the software could expect without trying to adjust image size. The results were not pretty.
I was disappointed but not surprised to see the wide spread of image sizes in the printed results. Despite 20 years of word processor progress, you can’t assume that your word processor will consistently print documents or create Web pages that look the way you want them to. Apparently, some modern word processors assume that they know more about what you want to create than you do.
(You may also have noticed that the table lists only nine software packages. Draft, a cloud-based tool described as “version control for writing” is not designed to print directly. It uses Jon Gruber’s Markdown language. I was able to print my Draft document by using a neat $3.99 Mac utility called Marked. For the record the image in the Draft document printed out at 4 inches by 7 inches.)
And that’s just the image size. Trying to use a word processor to create a complete Web page led to even more inconsistent results – with image size and placement all over the map.
Three tries with Word 2013 and I could only create a website with no image. It also took three tries before OpenOffice created a website. Word 365 could only create an iFrame, which is certainly not what I wanted. Pages on the Mac no longer even has an option for HTML.
Perhaps just as bad, even the ones that were able to create Web pages came up with ones that look wildly different, as you can see in the four screenshots below.
This one was created with Draft:
This one was built using Google Docs:
The third was produced using Microsoft Office 365:
The final one was developed using Libre Office:
If nothing else, these results should make it clear that while word processors have indeed come a long way, we are still far from being able to expect consistent, repeatable, compatible performance from the various choices on the market. I plan to look at more aspects of the modern word processor in upcoming articles.
In the meantime, it’s almost enough to restrict all your writing to Twitter.