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ATPM 16.11
November 2010



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by Mark Tennent,

Here There Be Dragons

Back in the good old days when when there be Dragons and Margaret Thatcher told the world “everyone needs a Willy” (in those days a Jet Set version), we had a whole Spectrum of home computers. Who needed such boring things as word processors?

Blimey! What were computers for, other than making sure your little green “bullet” slowly made its way to the evil Death Star target? Besides, how could we have printed the resulting document? Printers were extremely expensive, huge, and noisy gadgets.

Then those boffins at DEC ruined it all by inventing word processors. Their original, WPS-8, was page-oriented rather than document-oriented. Which meant that you worked on each page by itself. If the text over-ran it had to be cut out and placed at the top of the next page. If that pushed text off that page, the extra text had to be cut and placed in the next page, and the next page…

Golf Balls

This page orientation was just the job for making designs, especially as the output was often done on golf ball printers which had a selection of typefaces, each on a removable golf ball which pushed the letters through one-time foil printer ribbons. These gave excellent results. So good that the output was used for making newsletters and magazines.

Columns of text were pasted onto artwork boards and photographed to make printing plates. With our then “studio,” about three homes ago, we used to use a double bed as our work bench, it being the only area large enough to take the huge art boards.

By then it was also possible to send computer files for output on high-quality photo-setting machines, which printed them on bromide paper in long “galleys.” The coding looked a lot like HTML. And like in Web design, if you forgot to turn off italics in the coding the galley arrived with three metres of italicised text.

Word processors then moved to the new WYSIWYG computer systems coming from the likes of Apple, Commodore, and Atari. It soon became obvious that word processors, even document-oriented ones, were not the answer for making real books and magazines, and desktop publishing was born. Obviously with a bit of help from Adobe, Apple, Xerox, and others.

Write’s Alright

Meanwhile, Microsoft made a pretty neat word processor called Write, devised largely to compete with Apple’s MacWrite and supplied with Windows 1 and 2, Atari TOS, and Mac OS. Although it was fairly simple compared with today’s word processors, it was capable of doing just about everything the average user needs today. Which appears to be organising text with space space space space, return return return return. Adjustment of line or paragraph spacing is a complete mystery, as is the point of turning on invisibles to see why they cannot get the words to line up. “I didn’t type that ¶ or ⇥.”

Microsoft Write developed into Word and became the world’s most-used word processor. Those that chose a different one could always open and save documents in the almost universal .doc format. Many now use ODF, a free-to-use universal standard devised to guarantee long-term access to data without legal or technical barriers. The data storage is far more sophisticated than earlier formats, and the resulting files are automatically ZIP-compressed. Of course, Microsoft bludgeoned a new “standard” into existence, their semi-proprietary Open XML or .docx format.

My colleagues can be reasonably sure they can open any document made in just about any version of Word currently running, including ODF files. Except that their new “standard” is the dreaded .docx. Installing their free converters (how many times have I had to do that?) doesn’t necessarily mean the converted .docx will look remotely like the original. Unlike documents saved as RTF or ODF.

The Bad, the Worst, and the Ugly

But the biggest, worst, ugliest, and most stupid mistake must surely be the abomination Microsoft has made of the new version of Word. Did they think of the end-user? Did they redesign the interface for any valid reason? Our office spends, no, completely wastes, hours every week trying to get the new copies of Word to do what the old versions can with ease.

It took a whole day, an IT department, and four of us to work out why the text steadfastly refused to turn from red to black, which it had automatically done mid-sentence. In the end, I exported it as a .doc file to an older version of Word and changed it there. This is just one small example out of a huge pile we get every day. I hate Wednesdays when all the staff are in for a team meeting. I spend most of it running from one machine to the next, sorting out their tussles with Word.

Meanwhile, in organisations not beholden to the great god of Seattle, they have gone for free software or bought in one of the many cheap, reliable, and better options such as SunOffice, NeoOffice, and OpenOffice. Their users happily swap ODF files between each other and can all access them. The software is clean and easy-to-use, and did I mention free?

Where to Put .docx Files

There is one new piece of software which is stylish, easy to use and on the pocket, and is a combination of word processor and page-layout application. But it doesn’t support ODF. It is Apple’s Pages application, arguably the easiest and best of the lot apart from that one big missing capability.

As for Microsoft, I’d like to get a dragon to blow fire straight up their corporate…p

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