9.197 wordprocessing: summary of discussion

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sun, 1 Oct 1995 19:31:18 -0400 (EDT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 197.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: "Paul R. Falzer" <prf@callnet.com> (74)
Subject: Future of word processing, follow-up

I want to thank all of you who replied to my questions about word processing
software. You may recall that I asked for responses to two questions: What
word processing features and functions do you regard as important to your
work? What capabilities would you like to have that do not currently exist,
or are not well implemented in current applications? As these questions were
prompted by remarks that appeared in a John Dvorak column, some of you chose
to discuss his prediction about the demise of the word processor as a viable
software product.

People who write papers, essays, and books are likely to have the most
demanding requirements. Those who, in addition, are knowledgeable about
computer technology will be less inclined than others to tolerate the
limitations of current products. Your responses have borne out these
expectations. Though I did not indicate it in my previous posting, my own
opinion is that Dvorak's prediction, if true, is ominous. I say that if word
processing software is at the end of its development cycle, it is because
writing by and large has resolved into a rote and mechanical activity. If
Dvorak is right, the basic unit of the writing will be the business letter,
and the electronic tool best able to produce an efficient writing unit is
not a word processor, but a database.

Thankfully, there still are many, especially humanities scholars, who think
and act otherwise. What is most interesting about your replies, taken as a
whole, is that you want the best of what today's technology offers and more.
You want flexible formatting, symbolic fonts, graphics, indexes, and
multilingual spell checking; but you insist above all on a tool that is
quick and responsive. You do not want ideas to drain through an hourglass.
You want fingers on the keyboard, not on a pointing device, and you want to
configure the instrument to complement -- even anticipate -- your needs and

Richard Bear wants a single program that allows him to move without
discontinuity between SGML, PostScript, TeX, and ASCII; he wants one piece
of software for composing, editing, formatting, and electronically
disseminating his work. Sarah Higley wants the speed and flexibility of Nota
Bene, but with added stability. In a similar vein, Roger Brisson wants the
functionality of WinWord, but a slimmed-down version with the unnecessary,
memory hogging, elements removed. (I agree with Roger: WinWord is my
principal word processor these days, but it more nearly resembles a shopping
mall than a writing tool.) Like the editor in my original posting, Ted
Underwood prefers to keep his putatively antiquated software rather than
switch to a monstrosity replete with bells, whistles, and balloon help.
Jimmy Adair wants a full featured, fully multilingual program, which
includes an electronic analogue to linguistic code-switching.

Like the editor in my original posting, several of you appear to be
compensating for the limitations of current word processing software by
using several programs. Cmartc@aol.com (sorry for not having a real name),
uses two programs, which s/he identifies as "Monster" and "Low Perk." The
latter lacks essential features, but it is lean and quick. The former has
desirable elements, but it carries unnecessary baggage, runs at a snail's
pace, and hogs the computer's CPU. This person's well crafted posting
included a set of recommendations, which I group into two categories: First,
there is a set of features that would fashion the "Monster" to better meet
the needs of individual users. An administrative assistant has different
needs than a writer. They will use different features and may use the same
features (for instance, templates, fields, and mail merge) for different
purposes. Second, there is a rather novel set of requests for a more dynamic
and interactive word processing environment. These requests include ongoing
grammatical, text, and feature monitoring; personal information management;
and integrated voice type and scanning technology. As the author points out,
the problem with these requests is that they would produce a "super Monster"
-- even slower and more unwieldy than anything currently on the market.

The author of this posting does not ask it, but I will: why can't we have
our cake and eat it too? Why can't we have a modular package that includes
every desire listed here, with the ability to use what is needed, nothing
more, and assess the memory, disk space, and CPU cost for each and every
choice. If John Dvorak thinks that word processing software is as developed
as it ever will be, he would do well to review these comments and
suggestions. He is in the position to present this list to the likes of
Novell, IBM, and Microsoft and challenge them to create a product with speed
and economy besides. At this stage, it seems that people who write for a
living may be forced to use one piece of software for composing, another for
editing, a third for formatting, a fourth for disseminating, and a fifth for
special purposes. The alternative is to use a single piece of gear that
effects a decent compromise, but ultimately fails to meet their needs. That
these are the alternatives shows us how far we have to go before the product
line is as mature as Dvorak envisions.

Paul Falzer