in media, software

Why the kids shouldn’t have to use MS Word

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Microsoft Word is a software program with serious issues. But is the issue really with the program, or is the issue with the whole idea of a print-oriented word processor?

First I should say that I am not a W0rd-knocker. The great thing about Word is that it is so ubiquitous (everybody has it) and is used for all sorts of tasks (manuals, tenders, proposals, book reports, engineering specifications, legal contracts, doing leaflets, invoices, bills of lading, writing letters of various kinds and God knows what else). That is not to say that it is a great or even a good tool for these tasks, but it is certainly workable, especially for documents shorter than 10,000 words. And the fact that a lawyer, an accountant and an engineer can work together on a document that is relevant to them both means that it makes some sort of sense.

But what is the fundamental thing that Word does? What is it actually for? Originally, word processors were for general word processing, but Microsoft Word actually brought something more to it. It is what is called WYSIWYG, or What You See is What You Get. What this actually meant is that Microsoft Word strived to simulate as close as possible the Final Output from the word processing process. This was the printed page, which was typically printed from the then-novel laser printer.

Now, think about this. Nobody really wants print-only documents anymore. There is no point in them. It is far more convenient to have documents on-line. You can still print them out if you want to, but primarily, they are web documents. Only a small category of people (cranks and lawyers mainly) write letters, which was the primary function that most regular people originally used Word for.

Closely related to the continued use of Word is the continued use of PDF. The idea of PDF is to make an electronic version of the printed document. This makes sense in the ‘transitional’ phase, as we move from written to digital as a way of transmitting information. But there is no long-term future in it (except for cranks and people who actually produce output that is going to be printed, like graphic artists or makers of signage.

The future is in digital-first formats. HTML, XML and so on. These formats are essentially content separated from formatting. There is no such thing as a true WYSIWYG editor for these formats because there is no single target format for these documents. The information is designed to be presented and formatted in various ways. So for an extreme example, an invoice should be provided in a format that is not just for looking at and reading, it will also need to be easy to parse into an accounting package. The format should facilitate both requirements.

This might sound a bit abstract, but it’s becoming ever more intuitive and accepted. If you type a tweet or Facebook update on your computer, you don’t expect it to appear the same way on your friend’s Android phone or your granny’s iPhone. You don’t expect the version of an article in a print newspaper to look the same as the web version of the same article.

So Word and PDF are the past, and native formats are the future. What’s the implication? The are many implications and possibilities, but one thing is for sure. We should stop teaching young people about Word.Instead of teaching them about formatting for print and obsessing over fonts, spacing and all the rest, we should teach them about structure and about how to write a document with clear headings and a beginning, a middle and an end. We should teach them to link to other documents appropriately, even if there is not yet any real full consensus on how or where this should be done. We should teach them to collaborate. (If we want to teach an olde worlde skill, then we should spend time getting people to improve their cursive handwriting.)

What tools should we get young people to spend time learning to use? Well they should use something that more resembles the old Wordstar or WordPerfect (MSDOS version) rather than Microsoft Word. There is a whole new generation of what you could call writing-oriented text editors that fill this gap. For example there are the full screen writing programs that have become popular for distraction-free writing or writing tools like Scrivener which are focused on the structure of the document rather than the formatting. For collaborating on documents, a skill everybody should learn at College, they could use something like Google Docs (though in a way, it is a big dirty copy of Microsoft Word). There are lots of other programs for churning out text documents which have various advantages and disadvantages.

But Word Domination is over. There are better ways to get the same job done, which focus on wheat (the writing and the structure) and take the focus away from the chaff (the formatting and the ‘look’).

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