Word processing is not an application

Word processing is not an application

Summary: What's really required is a simple utility for composing your words for any application that requires text as an input -- call it a 'text composer'.


The more I read about new word processing applications hitting the ether, the more convinced I become that everyone is barking up the wrong tree here. Word processing is not an application, it's a utility. The only reason it became viable as a commercial product for a period of time was feature bloat. Here are the essential ingredients that users need:

  • Text editing — the simple capability to write words on a page and edit them easily, using wordwrap, cut-and-paste, highlight-and-move,  plus autosave as an option.
  • Text formatting — a simple set of functions to mark words or blocks of text as bold, italic, bullet point, etc.
  • Structured formatting — in today's tag-friendly era, you may also want the option of marking certain words or blocks of text as structured data. And adding hyperlinks, of course.
  • Spellcheck — Personally, I don't use this, and there's an argument for having this as a separate service rather than tightly integrating it. But one way or another it needs to be available.
  • Import/export — Once you've done editing, you want to pass the finished item to some other environment, either as a saved file, or as an object for futher manipulation.

That's the basic requirement, and once I've finished composing and formatting my words, I then want to pass them over to an application in order to publish or transmit them in some way — an email program, a blog publisher, a wiki or discussion forum, or even some kind of document formatter, such as a desktop publishing program or a classic word processor with all its chapter outlining and advanced formatting capabilities.

The problem with word processors as classically defined is that they're weighed down by so many of those document formatting capabilities that it gets in the way of simply composing what you want to write. And their ability to interface to other applications is virtually nil. That may improve slightly when Microsoft brings out its XML-based Office 12 suite later this year, but from what I've seen of the XML it generates, I've got a feeling it's still going to be far too unwieldy for many of the most common use cases.

What's really required is a simple utility that you can use as a familiar environment for composing your words for any application that requires free-from or semi-structured text as an input — email, blogs, wikis, document processors, and the rest. In fact, that's the way a lot of people already use Windows Notepad, but its feature set is a little limited — it is just a text editor rather than what I'm looking for here, which I suppose you might call a 'text composer'. And of course my ideal is that you can just overlay your preferred (or perhaps universal) text composer over those textarea dialog boxes in any web-based application that requires you to enter composed text. That to me is the major limitation of Writely and similar Web-based word processors. I would much rather have a utility that can locate itself anywhere I need to work — either standalone on my desktop, or embedded in a web page in my browser, or within a desktop application like my local email inbox.

I'm sure that if this is technically possible, someone will eventually come out with something of this nature for free, but to be honest if it could do all those things, it would help my productivity so much I would probably pay $5 or $10 a month to license it. So come on then, a simple word composer that I can plug-and-play with all my favorite desktop and web-based applications. It sounds very Web 2.0 in concept. Is anyone out there planning to answer my prayers?

Topic: Apps

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • The real problem is that we are STILL formating documents for 8.5x11 paper.

    Paper is so yesterday. And, when we tip towards web publishing and forget paper, that is when MS will start to have problems maintaining it's grip on office suites. The amount of work that goes into formating all of our documents so that they print on 8.5x11, when in actuallity they rarely get printed, is somewhat ridiculous. This ammounts to BILLIONS wasted every year. It is also VERY limiting, since you can not put links to background info for those that need it, or detailed figures for those want to see more details, or sound, or videos, or . . . .
  • It is a utility and I think Google understands...

    that Word processing in a utility. Some people are very excited about Google potential using Writely to offer as part of an online suite. Google will not because I believe they are smarter than playing by yesterday's way of thinking. Utilities such as word processing are useful with a certain context such as an online blog.
  • Word processing is, put simply, a process

    I agree that word processing is not an application. Word processing (data input, formatting, etc) is just a simple productivity enhancing activity. And applications are programs that provide word processing capabilities that result in some sort of published, printed, or drafted content. These applications distinguish themselves from others by their depth in word processing capabilities.

    I also agree with your speculation on where word processing activities are heading. However, I think in an environment where so many online consumer services are ad supported, it'd be difficult to find a service that "communicates" with them and sufficiently pay up any lost ad revenue. It may be different for business-related online services as they are usually more open to customization and integration due to their ability to support themselves with monetization vehicles, such as subscriptions and licenses.
  • What's Old Is New Again

    Funny. I've been thinking about that too. In the early days of the Unix compositional approach to applications (typically via piping utilities together) it would have seemed ripe for a text composer as a way of sticking a text/data-creation and -formatting front-end to almost anything.

    These days, with markup used for almost everything, there would seem to be a great opportunity for that. Also, you need some way for applications to provide schemas so there's more feedback on what's acceptable in the creation tool. When schemas can inform human text creation in a friendly and easy way, it could be even more interesting.

    I'm agreeing and the only question seems to be how simple the plug, pipe, and play can be made to work, especially for user-cobbled compositions of utilities in support of useful applications.

    I think this sort of thing might be very important for accessibility too.

    Inspiring. Thanks.
  • Hush!

    I designed an architecture/platform/application that fills your needs back in 1999. I even started programming it. For a variety of reasons, it will be many years before it is available.

    A strategic position at Microsoft or IBM could help, but is very unlikely. Microsoft does not want the application because it would reduce demand for their cash cows. IBM has an application/platform that is 90% of what you want, and they are killing it because it makes computers too easy.

    While all computer companies say computers should be easy, the money is in the complications. As long as special knowledge is required to create applications, they can charge for that knowledge. The Web made many applications very easy to implement, and look at all the complications added by computer companies/standards organizations. SOA is the latest, and even the most knowledgeable have little idea how it should be implemented.

    No company will give you what you want because it would hurt their revenues for products and consulting services.
  • Wordprocessing on the way out

    Yes, it is also the case that wordprocessing is on the way out. Thats why services like learno.com allow you to create books by filling in templates and require no wordprocessor online or offline at all.
  • Using Word to attach images to an email

    What I noticed lately, is that people actually put an image into a Word document, just to attach it to an email. In this case the word processing features of Word are not even used.

    By the not-se-well-informed, word processors seem to be used for everything.
  • Pretty bold statement

    about you personally not using Spell Check! Even the best spellers should use it. And because you did not use spell check, you spelled the following words incorrectly:

    wordwrap = word-wrap
    autosave = auto save
    Spellcheck = Spell check or Spell-check
    futher = further
    textarea = text area

    Those are 5 words or phrases a spell checker would have corrected for you.
    • heh . . .

      "word-wrap" - hyphenated? Honestly, I'd disagree with the spell checker here. It should probably be two words, not hyphenated.

      Also, I *am* seing a lot more common usage of two words being written as one to describe stuff like this. Perhaps they are becoming considered acceptable compound words?
    • OK, I concede 'futher' ...

      ... but the others are all a matter of debate, and textarea was correct in the context I was using it (I was referring to the HTML term).

      That's the thing I don't like about spellcheckers (sorry, spell checkers). They make me spend far more time correcting their misinterpretations than I gain from finding my mistakes.
      phil wainewright
  • When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

    Unfortunately, too many people have the "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" problem. People using Word to attach images to email, people using Word to create webpages with, etc. It's sickening. And it's one of the primary reasons for most of the bloat - people want to use Word for stuff it wasn't designed for, and Microsoft puts it in Word instead of creating a separate app or tool.
    • Soon, a jackhammer.

      I believe the next version of Word is a data miner and database administration program. It will also consult with you over proper phrasing, given the personality of the intended recipient.

      The major delay is that too often the program comes to despise the user so severely that it begins to act without user input. This is apparently a problem from the legacy code.

      Well, at least you get what you pay for, if not more than you bargained for.
      Anton Philidor
      • About time

        Open office has done this for a long time. It's the primary reason I use Open Office. Personally I'd prefer MS Office but it's data mining ability was lacking to say the least. 16 field limits and such.
  • But we need more than just word processing

    It seems whenever I read a column about word processing, the assumption is all that anyone needs to do is write a letter to grandma.

    Sure, there are a lot of letters that need to be written, but for that, why not just use WordPad?

    My loyalty to the large word processing *applications* comes from their wide array of features. I work in an office with varied and ever changing workflows. If I discover that I need to save my docs to html format, lo and behold, my word processor can do that. If I discover that I need to compare multiple documents, lo and behold, my word processor can do that. If I discover that I now have xml docs that need to be parsed against my schema, lo and behold, my word processor can do that (a little clunky right now, but I can't wait for the next product version).

    Why would I want to scramble for new (and separate) software every time my workflow changes? Feature bloat? Keep it coming.
  • You might look at how Ink Support for the tablet works

    From how you describe what you're looking for, you may look at how ink support for the tablet works. At its essence, it's a way to take something that becomes a block of text, and paste it into just about anything that will accept text input (obviously, you can do more with ink input than just text). There's a global panel that you can pull up anytime to send characters, and a "plug-in" type that will appear automatically on most text input areas - from your browser toolbar to Microsoft Word. While you may argue about it's elegance, it seems to use the kind of hooks your proposed text tool may be able to use.
  • We already have such a thing...

    They are called text editors and produce clean copy that can be mixed with html, javascript, etc, all color coded and exportable etc. I use EditPlus 2, very nice, very small, very quick. I gave up Word and OpenOffice two years ago, tooo fat.
    • Programmers' tools

      That's fine if you're happy messing with angle brackets, but I was wanting something a bit more user-friendly ...
      phil wainewright
    • Text editors are not what's meant

      Foremski, I think you may be missing the point. What the columnist is suggesting is a toolset that inserts itself into every application where text can be typed. In much the same way, Thunder was a Macintosh program--applet?--that inserted a common spellchecker into every application in which you could type text.

      I like how Outlook lets me edit my replies--or compose my messages--in Word, while sending my message in the body of my message. When results count, I want to be able to use features like paragraph styles, character styles, tables with straddles cells, row shading, highlighting, and other formatting features that WYSIWYG Web editors can't deliver. It's great that I can do so in Outlook, and I'd probably pay if someone could deliver these features in any application, including my browsers.
  • Um... What exactly is "free-from" text?

    Maybe the word processor needs a little more than a spell checker ;-)
  • What's the difference?

    App, Util, basically the same thing.

    Sometimes language is a problem. This is the case with this article. The author is trying to seperate to alike terms into something to prove a point. First, the point really doesn't need to be proven. Second, software is software is software. No matter what category you recklessly attempt to put it in, it's still software. It has value, and purpose and should be used to such end.