The Rise and Fall and Rise of MS Word and the Notepad

MS Word installation floppy. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Note-taking and writing are interesting activities. For example, it is interesting to follow how some people turn physical notepads into veritable art projects: scratchbooks, colourful pages filled with intermixing text, doodles, mindmaps and larger illustrations. Usually these artistic people like to work with real pens (or even paintbrushes) on real paper pads.

Then there was time, when Microsoft Office arrived into personal computers, and typing with a clanky keyboard into an MS Word window started to dominate the intellectually productive work. (I am old enough to remember the DOS times with WordPerfect, and my first Finnish language word processor program – “Sanatar” – that I long used in my Commodore 64 – which, btw, had actually a rather nice keyboard for typing text.)

WordPerfect 5.1 screen. (Image: Wikipedia.)

It is also interesting to note how some people still nostalgically look back to e.g. Word 6.0 (1993) or Word 2007, which was still pretty straightforward tool in its focus, while introducing such modern elements as the adaptive “Ribbon” toolbars (that many people hated).

The versatility and power of Word as a multi-purpose tool has been both its power as well as its main weakness. There are hundreds of operations one can carry out with MS Word, including programmable macros, printing out massive amounts of form letters or envelopes with addresses drawn from a separate data file (“Mail Merge”), and even editing and typesetting entire books (which I have also personally done, even while I do not recommend it to anyone – Word is not originally designed as a desktop publishing program, even if its WYSIWYG print layout mode can be extended into that direction).

Microsoft Word 6.0, Mac version. (Image: user “MR” at https://www.macintoshrepository.org/851-microsoft-word-6)

These days, the free, open-source LibreOffice is perhaps closest one can get to the look, interface and feature set of the “classic” Microsoft Word. It is a 2010 fork of OpenOffice.org, the earlier open-source office software suite.

Generally speaking, there appears to be at least three main directions where individual text editing programs focus on. One is writing as note-taking. This is situational and generally short form. Notes are practical, information-filled prose pieces that are often intended to be used as part of some job or project. Meeting notes, or notes that summarise books one had read, or data one has gathered (notes on index cards) are some examples.

The second main type of text programs focus on writing as content production. This is something that an author working on a novel does. Also screenwriters, journalists, podcast producers and many others so-called ‘creatives’ have needs for dedicated writing software in this sense.

Third category I already briefly mentioned: text editing as publication production. One can easily use any version of MS Word to produce a classic-style software manual, for example. It can handle multiple chapters, has tools such as section breaks that allow pagination to restart or re-format at different sections of longer documents, and it also features tools for adding footnotes, endnotes and for creating an index for the final, book-length publication. But while it provides a WYSIWYG style print layout of pages, it does not allow such really robust page layout features that professional desktop publishing tools focus on. The fine art of tweaking font kerning (spacing of proportional fonts), very exact positioning of graphic elements in publication pages – all that is best left to tools such as PageMaker, QuarkXPress, InDesign (or LaTex, if that is your cup of tea).

As all these three practical fields are rather different, it is obvious that a tool that excels in one is probably not optimal for another. One would not want to use a heavy-duty professional publication software (e.g. InDesign) to quickly draft the meeting notes, for example. The weight and complexity of the tool hinders, rather than augments, the task.

MS Word (originally published in 1983) achieved dominant position in word processing in the early 1990s. During the 1980s there were tens of different, competing word processing tools (eagerly competing for the place of earlier, mechanical and electric typewriters), but Microsoft was early to enter the graphical interface era, first publishing Word for Apple Macintosh computers (1985), then to Microsoft Windows (1989). The popularity and even de facto “industry standard” position of Word – as part of the MS Office Suite – is due to several factors, but for many kinds of offices, professions and purposes, the versatility of MS Word was a good match. As the .doc file format, feature set and interface of Office and Word became the standard, it was logical for people to use it also in homes. The pricing might have been an issue, though (I read somewhere that a single-user licence of “MS Office 2000 Premium” at one point had the asking price of $800).

There has been counter-reactions and multiple alternative offered to the dominance of MS Word. I already mentioned the OpenOffice and LibreOffice as important, more lean, free and open alternatives to the commercial behemot. An interesting development is related to the rise of Apple iPad as a popular mobile writing environment. Somewhat similarly as Mac and Windows PCs heralded transformation from the ealier, command-line era, the iPad shows signs of (admittedly yet somewhat more limited) transformative potential of “post-PC” era. At its best, iPad is a highly compact and intuitive, multipurpose tool that is optimised for touch-screens and simplified mobile software applications – the “apps”.

There are writing tools designed for iPad that some people argue are better than MS Word for people who want to focus on writing in the second sense – as content production. The main argument here is that “less is better”: as these writing apps are just designed for writing, there is no danger that one would lose time by starting to fiddle with font settings or page layouts, for example. The iPad is also arguably a better “distraction free” writing environment, as the mobile device is designed for a single app filling the small screen entirely – while Mac and Windows, on the other hand, boast stronger multitasking capabilities which might lead to cluttered desktops, filled by multiple browser windows, other programs and other distracting elements.

Some examples of this style of dedicated writers’ tools include Scrivener (by company called Literature and Latte, and originally published for Mac in 2007), which is optimized for handling long manuscripts and related writing processes. It has a drafting and note-handing area (with the “corkboard” metaphor), outliner and editor, making it also a sort of project-management tool for writers.

Scrivener. (Image: Literature and Latte.)

Another popular writing and “text project management” focused app is Ulysses (by a small German company of the same name). The initiative and main emphasis in development of these kinds of “tools for creatives” has clearly been in the side of Apple, rather than Microsoft (or Google, or Linux) ecosystems. A typical writing app of this kind automatically syncs via iCloud, making same text seamlessly available to the iPad, iPhone and Mac of the same (Apple) user.

In emphasising “distraction free writing”, many tools of this kind feature clean, empty interfaces where only the currently created text is allowed to appear. Some have specific “focus modes” that hightlight the current paragraph or sentence, and dim everything else. Popular apps of this kind include iA Writer and Bear. While there are even simpler tools for writing – Windows Notepad and Apple Notes most notably (sic) – these newer writing apps typically include essential text formatting with Markdown, a simple code system that allows e.g. application of bold formatting by surrounding the expression with *asterisk* marks.

iA Writer. (Image: iA Inc.)

The big question of course is, that are such (sometimes rather expensive and/or subscription based) writing apps really necessary? It is perfectly possible to create a distraction-free writing environment in a common Windows PC: one just closes all the other windows. And if the multiple menus of MS Word distract, it is possible to hide the menus while writing. Admittedly, the temptation to stray into exploring other areas and functions is still there, but then again, even an iPad contains multiple apps and can be used in a multitasking manner (even while not as easily as a desktop PC environment, like a Mac or Windows computer). There are also ergonomic issues: a full desktop computer probably allows the large, standalone screen to be adjusted into the height and angle that is much better (or healthier) for longer writing sessions than the small screen of iPad (or even a 13”/15” laptop computer), particularly if one tries to balance the mobile device while lying on a sofa or squeezing it into a tiny cafeteria table corner while writing. The keyboards for desktop computers typically also have better tactile and ergonomic characteristics than the virtual, on-screen keyboards, or add-on external keyboards used with iPad style devices. Though, with some search and experimentation, one should be able to find some rather decent solutions that work also in mobile contexts (this text is written using a Logitech “Slim Combo” keyboard cover, attached to a 10.5” iPad Pro).

For note-taking workflows, neither a word processor or a distraction-free writing app are optimal. The leading solutions that have been designed for this purpose include OneNote by Microsoft and Evernote. Both are available for multiple platforms and ecosystems, and both allow both text and rich media content, browser capture, categorisation, tagging and powerful search functions.

I have used – and am still using – all of the above mentioned alternatives in various times and for various purposes. As years, decades and device generations have passed, archiving and access have become an increasingly important criteria. I have thousands of notes in OneNote and Evernote, hundreds of text snippets in iA Writer and in all kinds of other writing tools, often synchronized into iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive or some other such service. Most importantly, in our Gamelab, most of our collabrative research article writing happens in Google Docs/Drive, which is still the most clear, simple and efficient tool for such real-time collaboration. The downside of this happily polyphonic reality is that when I need to find something specific from this jungle of text and data, it is often a difficult task involving searches into multiple tools, devices and online services.

In the end, what I am mostly today using is a combination of MS Word, Notepad (or, these days Sublime Text 3) and Dropbox. I have 300,000+ files in my Dropbox archives, and the cross-platform synchronization, version-controlled backups and two-factor authenticated security features are something that I have grown to rely on. When I make my projects into file folders that propagate through the Dropbox system, and use either plain text, or MS Word (rich text), plus standard image file types (though often also PDFs) in these folders, it is pretty easy to find my text and data, and continue working on it, where and when needed. Text editing works equally well in a personal computer, iPad and even in a smartphone. (The free, browser-based MS Word for the web, and the solid mobile app versions of MS Word help, too.) Sharing and collaboration requires some thought in each invidual case, though.

Dropbox. (Image: Dropbox, Inc.)

In my work flow, blog writing is perhaps the main exception to the above. These days, I like writing directly into the WordPress app or into their online editor. The experience is pretty close to the “distraction-free” style of writing tools, and as WordPress saves drafts into their online servers, I need not worry about a local app crash or device failure. But when I write with MS Word, the same is true: it either auto-saves in real time into OneDrive (via O365 we use at work), or my local PC projects get synced into the Dropbox cloud as soon as I press ctrl-s. And I keep pressing that key combination after each five seconds or so – a habit that comes instinctually, after decades of work with earlier versions of MS Word for Windows, which could crash and take all of your hard-worked text with it, any minute.

So, happy 36th anniversary, MS Word.

Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.

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