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Speaking of Office Productivity Software…

Do any of you particularly like your word processing / authoring / editing software? As may have been made obvious from the question, I do not. I use a variety of tools to produce documents these days: OO.o Writer to produce proposals and other formal documentation, GEdit to write blog posts (yes, it’s 2006 and I do all my markup by hand), Writely (now Google Docs) for anything that I’m likely to collaborate on. I’ve also spent more than my fair share of time over the years in Microsoft Word. They’re all functional, and more or less adequate from an ease of use perspective within the context of the specific use case, but I can’t say that I enjoy any of them.

The obvious response to that is that writing is not a terribly enjoyable task on most days, so it’s natural that the client reflects that. But I personally don’t buy that. Coding can be a similar chore, but talk to any developer about their editor or IDE of choice, and you’re likely to hear quite a lot about the tool, whether that’s Eclipse, emacs, or Visual Studio. And if you’re pressed for time, under no circumstances should you ask a TextMate user about their editor. The affection for the tool in most cases is functionally based, but I’d argue includes a distinct emotional component as well.

The basis for that emotion varies from user to user, undoubtedly, but I suspect is strongly rooted in both the visual appeal and the ability to customize the tool. In other words, does the visual design resonate on a deeper level with the user, and can you remake the tool – a la Firefox – into a custom environment that fits you perfectly?

To date, there have been precious few non-code oriented authoring environments that satisfy both of those needs. None of the tools in my arsenal today resonate on any significant level, nor am I wedded to them. I don’t know about all of you, but I’d very much like to see one – and would be only happy to pay for one.

Categories: Emerging Technologies.

  • http://kaboodle.wordpress.com/ Andrew Sidwell

    I hate to say it, but I do enjoy using Office 2007 Beta. Useful things include: decent natural paragraph spacing, more attractive on-screen look, simple adding shadows to images. The killer thing really is how easy it is to make a document look attractive.

    I’ll be disappointed when the beta runs out, perhaps enough to upgrade at least Word to the 2007 release. It’s by far the nicest word processor I’ve used.

  • http://www.joncollins.net Jon Collins

    Why do you hate to say it? I think Microsoft does actually have some good software in its Arsenal. I remember back to the bloatware wars between Lotus, Microsoft and WordPerfect/Corel, it wasn’t just good marketing that won that battle, which led to, and was not caused by the idea of a Microsoft-only strategy. IIRC the Microsoft tools were the only ones that allowed two-way import/export, and Word was a darn sight more intuitive than WordPerfect. The only real shame was the demise of Quattro Pro, by far the best spreadsheet at the time.

    Back to the present day, I was only recently reading a post about the sluggishness of OpenOffice.org compared to Word. There’s still a lot to be learned, methinks.

  • http://dandaviesbrackett.blogspot.com Dan Davies Brackett

    To my mind the issue is that there’s a fundamental mismatch between what we’re trying to do and the tool we have. an IDE is an IDE; it’s an integrated environment for developing software. But when was the last time you put something on your todo list in terms of processing words? we write letters (or fill out RFPs, or collaborate on marketing copy), we don’t process words. So any tool that is designed as a Word Processor rather than a letter-writing environment (or a marketing-copy collaboration environment, or an RFP-answering environment) is not going to be as focused, and hence isn’t going to be as effective.

    I think the correct way to solve this problem is to change the notion of ‘word processor’, to think more in terms of user tasks than system actions. Blah blah deeper operating system integration blah lessconfig blah user experience blah blah. You’ve heard it all before. =)

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    I’ll second Dan, basically. The most pleasant document processing experience I’ve ever had was when I was using LyX to write a large (70-80 page) HOWTO- I designated ‘this is a chapter heading’, ‘this is a list’, etc., and LyX took care of all the formatting, TOC-ing, etc., for me. And all the UI of the tool was tuned for that. I understand that Apple’s Pages works fairly similarly.

    I think this maps much better to how people really think; no one except graphics designers think about documents in terms of layout, text formatting, etc.- they think about it primarily in terms of the nature of the content, and then they puzzle out formatting afterwards, with often inconsistent and/or ugly results, or lots of pain during the process.

  • http://www.joncollins.net Jon Collins

    Err I do :) If I’m writing a book for example, for some reason I like to see what its going to look like on the smaller page, so I’ll format the pages accordingly. Maybe its just me!

    I believe Microsoft (and probably others) did try out the idea of “the universal page” (my words, not theirs) that could be used for anything. Apparently they couldn’t get people interested, they said they preferred the traditional word processor approach.

    And incidentally, I used to have a copy of StarOffice installed for the sole reason that it could recover files if Microsoft Word corrupted them when it crashed ;)

    A last thought – the IDE idea is quite appealing – perhaps there could be a basic “universal page” (I always quite liked the idea myself) and then plug-ins for different presentation requirements, interfaces etc that could be installed on demand. That would certainly be worth a look.

    Jon

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady stephen o’grady

    Andrew: Jon’s right – you shouldn’t hate to say that. while i don’t use it because Microsoft chooses not to support Office on my platform, it’s a fine product.

    Jon: agreed. i don’t think you need to look any further than OneNote to conclude that Microsoft still has a few innovations up their sleeve.

    Dan & Luis: i dunno. i agree that traditional notions of “word processing” are limiting, i do think there’s a lot of runway left for innovation divorced from specific use cases. autosave, super highly polished UIs, stripped down features, network features, and so on i think would be great candidates for future products.

    Jon: “Perhaps there could be a basic “universal page” (I always quite liked the idea myself) and then plug-ins for different presentation requirements, interfaces etc that could be installed on demand.”

    exactly right.