Word processing is not an application

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'.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

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?

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