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.

Gestures and multi-touch: Logitech T650

As operating systems evolve, so do the ways of interacting with them. While older laptops might have still the processing power or even the disk space to run e.g. Win8 or Win10, it is often in the control, or human interface hardware where the support is lacking. Adding an external keyboard and touchpad might be a way to give some extra life to an older system, while the downside of such “hybrid system” will unavoidably be that you’ll lose the simplicity of being able to just open the laptop cover and quickly start working. Setting up the external keyboard and external touchpad might make nevertheless sense for longer working sessions. In my case, I suffer from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and simply cannot work with non-ergonomic mouses, keyboards or touchpads – and I regularly rotate and try all sorts of mouse replacements and other add-ons.

Logitech T650
Logitech T650.

My optimal system at the moment is based on some very nice gear Logitech has developed. Both on my Macbook Pro and Vaio Z3 I have now set up the illuminated bluetooth keyboard by Logitech: K810 model for Vaio, K811 for Mac. The key travel in either of these, otherwise pretty excellent PCs is just too shallow to allow for high-speed typing – at least for me, your mileage may vary. Logitech K810/K811 is so excellent piece of design and engineering, with such an outstanding typing experience, that I just cannot stop marvelling at it every day I use these things – and I have purchased several, despite the rather steep price. My lurking nightmare is that Logitech will some day cancel this product, or somehow alter and ruin the design and functionality – so I just might again go out and get a couple extra ones to my spare parts closet, just to be on the safe side.

While I really like the touchpads of Macbooks, the touch behaviour in Windows systems has been much more problematic. In modern Windows 10 systems the touchpads apparently are getting closer to the Mac standard, and there is also the additional interaction affordance of touch screen in many Win10 models (something that Apple has stayed away in their laptops, while the touch interface of iPads and iPhones is of course very good). I happen to like the combination of touch screen and mouse/touchpad – it feels natural to handle screen directly, and it is also good for ergonomics to change the manner of manipulation every now and then – even while if touch screen would be the only mouse replacement, it would not really work.

For older Windows 7 devices like my Vaio Z3 there is no luxury of truly working multitouch gestures or anything like that – the touchpad in this Vaio is small, cramped and operates so erratically that it can pretty much drive you crazy, particularly if you have used something like Macbook Pro, with a really good touchpad and multigesture OS X that supports it.

While originally purchased for my other, Windows 8.1 equipped home computer, I recently took the Logitech T650 external touchpad to work and tried setting it up with my Vaio. While the small “Unifying” connector now takes up one precious USB port (no bluetooth in T650), I was surprised how well this Logitech touchpad works with Windows 7. The newest version of Logitech’s SetPoint software works really well also under Windows 7, and the two-finger, three-finger and even four-finger gestures really transform the speed and ease of use for scrolling and handling many documents and different software running simultaneously in my Vaio. The operating system is originally not really optimised for this kind of use, and there is no e.g. “expose” style overview mode in Win7, but Logitech add-on software provides that feature, as well as several others. The main problem is that if you are constantly running from meeting room to another like I do, there is not really time to set up the laptop, set up the keyboard and touchpad, switch on all of them, make sure that they connect correctly (sometimes they do not – a reboot might be required); and then, at the end of meeting to switch off and repack all three things again – just to repeat everything at the next room. But I guess I’ll just need to live with that at the moment. The multitouch gestures and solid typing experience that Logitech provides are so much better than the alternatives.

Logitech T650 multitouch gestures
Logitech T650 multitouch gestures.

Price for mobile use value: laptops

Chromebook 2 on scale.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 on scale.

I did a quick comparison of three kinds of laptops: a touchscreen Win8-PC, Macbook Pro, and a Chromebook. Since I am primarily interested in how much use time I get, for which price, and how much weight I need to carry around, here is a simple metric for the price of such “mobile use value” of a laptop. ASUS Vivobook X202E (500 €) = 1,5 kg, MacBook Pro Retina 13 (1300 €) = 2.2 kg, Toshiba Chromebook 2 Full HD/IPS (400 €) = 1,5 kg (all weights with the powerbrick included, my Mac is also protected by a Tech21 case). Vivobook’s battery runs out in c. 3-4 hours, Toshiba should go for 8 hours, and the Mac can do perhaps 9-11 hours (this is the late 2013 model). The “metric” for price/hours*weight comparison would thus be:

  • ASUS Vivobook: 500/4*1,5 = 188
  • Macbook Pro: 1300/10*2,2 = 286
  • Toshiba Chromebook 2: 400/8*1,5 = 75

Your needs may vary, but with these criteria of mine, Toshiba Chromebook 2 is pretty much in its own class regarding this kind of mobile use value (light-weight, capable laptop with adequate battery life and moderate price). Chrome OS is mostly limited by its reliance on various online services, and particularly on daily work, moving data and files from one service to another may require some extra steps, but in my tests, almost everything that needs to be done, can be done also with a Chromebook. And the totally silent, solid laptop with good keyboard, responsive touchpad and amazing, Full-HD IPS screen provides excellent user experience. MacBook Pro is much more premium device, but with its price-tag I feel less confident throwing it into my back while running into bus/airport etc. (hence, the Tech21 case). A Chromebook can even be lost on the road – and all data is still safe in the cloud, not in the laptop. (The “Smart Lock” of Chromebook detects when myself/my Android phone is not nearby, and will automatically lock itself.) A budget Windows laptop like my old ASUS Vivobook simply cannot compete here, it is much slower than either of the two others, its touchpad is pretty terrible and touchscreen use of Win8.1 has its continuous challenges. Add there mediocre battery life, and you do not have best value for mobile use.

Toshiba Chromebook 2.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 (viewing angles, from the sides).

One could of course add tablet devices like iPad Air 2 or the forthcoming Surface Pro 4 into the equation here, and argue that they’d make more sense than a Chromebook – even according to the above metric. That might be true for some, but in my use I rely on the classic “clamshell” design of a laptop, and an add-on keyboard is never the same. MacBook Air, or the new 12″ MacBook are very good devices for mobile use, but the price is not in the Chromebook range. But: everyone makes their own decisions, in the end. My guess is that particularly in the education sector Chromebooks will do increasingly well in this new era of “Cloud Computing”.

MacBook Pro

The battery life of the new, Haswell+Retina display version of MacBook Pro is pretty wonderful. The Engadget tests marked it at 11 hours 18 minutes run life, and while I was today working in the airplane with Wi-Fi turned off, it promised to deliver even more.

Screenshot, MacBook Pro battery life
Screenshot, MacBook Pro battery life

Mac is not a perfect thing, of course. I have got my share of kernel panic/crashed apps (Steam, for example), and the first thing when out of box, this thing had was to completely hang up the touchpad and keyboard (there was a fix by Apple for that particular bug). But there are clear benefits of manufacturing hardware in intimate connection with the software, like this battery example proves. In the Windows ecosystem it is difficult to achieve anything similar, since no one one party controls the hardware, applications and drivers that make all of them come together. There is much less choice, and OS X is very much a “walled garden”, but if you are willing to take the leap, there are clear benefits to reap. Now, if I only could re-educate the 20 years of muscle memory to reprogram new keyboard shortcuts to come automatically from my fingers…