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.

Learning to experiment

I have been recently thinking why I feel that I’ve not really made any real progress in my photography for the last few years. There are a few periods when some kind of leap has seemed to take place; e.g. when I moved into using my first DSRL, and also in the early days of entering the young Internet photography communities, such like Flickr. Reflecting on those, rather than the tools themselves (a better camera, software, or service), the crucial element in those perhaps has been that the “new” element just stimulated exploration, experimentation, and willingness to learn. If one does not take photos, one does not evolve. And I suppose one can get the energy and passion to continue doing things in experimental manner – every day (or: at least in sometimes) – from many things.

Currently I am constantly pushing against certain technical limitations (but cannot really afford to upgrade my camera and lenses), and there’s also lack of time and opportunity that a bit restrict more radical experiments with any exotic locations, but there are other areas where I definitely can learn to do more: e.g. in a) selecting the subject matter, b) in composition, and c) in post-production. Going to places with new eyes, or, finding an alternative perspective in “old” places, or, just learning new ways to handle and process all those photos.

I have never really bothered to study deeper the fine art of digital photo editing, as I have felt that the photos should stand by themselves, and also stay “real”, as documents of moments in life. But there are actually many ways that one can do to overcome technical limitations of cameras and lenses, that can also help in creating sort of “psychological photorealism”: to create the feelings and associations that the original situation, feeling or subject matter evoked, rather than just trying to live with the lines, colours and contrast values that the machinery was capable of registering originally. When the software post-processing is added to the creative toolbox, it can also remove bottlenecks from the creative subject matter selection, and from finding those interesting, alternative perspectives to all those “old” scenes and situations – that one might feel have already been worn out and exhausted.

Thus: I personally recommend going a bit avant-garde, now and then, even in the name of enhanced realism. 🙂

Personal Computers as Multistratal Technology

HP-Sure-Run-Error
HP “Sure Run” technology here getting into conflicts with the OS and/or computer BIOS itself.

As I was struggling through some operating system updates and other installs (and uninstalls) this week, I was again reminded about the history of personal computers, and about their (fascinating, yet often also frustrating) character as multistratal technology. By this I mean their historically, commercially and pragmatically multi-layered nature. A typical contemporary personal computer is a laptop more often than a desktop computer (this has been the situation for numerous years already, see e.g. https://www.statista.com/statistics/272595/global-shipments-forecast-for-tablets-laptops-and-desktop-pcs/). Whereas a personal computer in a desktop format is still something that one can realistically consider to construct by combining various standards-following parts and modules, and expect to start operating after installation of an operating system (plus typically some device drivers), the laptop computer is always configured and tweaked into particular interpretation of what a personal computing device should be – for this price group, for this usage category, with these special, differentiating features. The keyboard is typically customised to fit into the (metal and/or plastic) body so that the functions of a standard 101/102-key PC keyboard layout (originally by Mark Tiddens of Key Tronic, 1982, then adopted by IBM) are fitted into e.g. c. 80 physical keys of a laptop computer. As the portable computers have become smaller, there has been increased need to do various customised solutions, and a keyboard is a good example of this, as different manufacturers appear to resort each into their own style of fitting e.g. function keys, volume up/down, brightness controls and other special keys into same physical keys, using various keyboard press combinations. While this means that it is hard to be a complete touch-typist if one is changing from one brand of laptops to another one (as the special keys will be in different places), one should still remember that in the early days of computers, and even in the era of early home and personal computers, the keyboards were even much more different from each other, than they are in today’s personal computers. (See e.g. Wikipedia articles for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_keyboard and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key).

The heritage of IBM personal computers (the “original PCs”) coupled with the Microsoft operating systems, (first DOS, then various Windows versions) has meant that there is much shared DNA in how the hardware and software of contemporary personal computers is designed. And even Apple Macintosh computers share much of similar roots with those of IBM PC heritage – most importantly due to the influential role that the graphical user interface and with its (keyboard and mouse accessed) windows, menus and other graphical elements originating in Douglas Engelbart’s On-Line System, then in Xerox PARC and Alto computers had for both Apple’s macOS and Microsoft Windows. All these historical elements, influences and (industry) standards are nevertheless layered in complex manner in today’s computing systems. It is not feasible to “start from an empty table”, as the software that organisations and individuals have invested in using needs to be accessible in the new systems, as also the skill sets of human users themselves are based on similarity and compatibility with the old ways of operating computers.

Today Apple with its Mac computers and Google with the Chromebook computers that it specifies (and sometimes also designs to the hardware level) are most optimally positioned to produce a harmonious and unified whole, out of these disjointed origins. And the reliability and generally positive user experiences provided both by Macs and Chromebooks indeed bears witness to the strength of unified hardware-software design and production. On the other hand, the most popular platform – that of a personal computer running a Microsoft Windows operating system – is the most challenging from the unity, coherence and reliability perspectives. (According to reports, the market share of Windows is above 75 %, macOS at c. 20 %, Google’s ChromeOS at c. 5 % and Linux at c. 2 % in most markets of desktop and laptop computers.)

A contemporary Windows laptop is set up in a complex network of collaborative, competitive and parallel operations networks of multiple operators. There is the actual manufacturer and packager of computers that markets and delivers certain, branded products to users: Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and numerous others. Then there is Microsoft who develops and licences the Windows operating system to these OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), collaborating to various degrees with them, and with the developers of PC components and other device makers. For example, a “peripheral” manufacturer like Logitech develops computer mice, keyboards and other devices that should install and run in a seamless manner when connected to desktop or laptop computer that has been put together by some OEM, which, in turn, has been combining hardware and software elements coming from e.g. Intel (which develops and manufactures the CPUs, Central Processing Units, but also affiliated motherboard “chipsets”, integrated graphics processing units and such), Samsung (which develops and manufactures e.g. memory chips, solid state drives and display components) or Qualcomm (which is best known for their wireless components, such as cellular modems, Bluetooth products and Wi-Fi chipsets). In order for the new personal computer to run smoothly after it has been turned on for the first time, the operating system should have right updates and drivers for all such components. As new technologies are constantly introduced, and the laptop computer in particular follows the evolution of smartphones in sensor technologies (e.g. in using fingerprint readers or multiple camera systems to do biometric authentication of the user), there are constant needs for updates that involve both the operating system itself, and the firmware (deep, hardware-close level software) as well as operating system level drivers and utility programs, that are provided by the component, device, or computer manufacturers.

The sad truth is, that often these updates do not work out that fine. There are endless stories in the user discussion and support forums in the Internet, where unhappy customers describe their frustrations while attempting to update Windows (as Microsoft advices them), the drivers and utility programs (as the computer manufacturer instructs them), and/or the device drivers (that are directly provided by the component manufacturers, such as Intel or Qualcomm). There is just so much opportunity for conflicts and errors, even while the big companies of course try to test their software before it is released to customers. The Windows PC ecosystem is just so messy, heterogeneous and historically layered, that it is impossible to test beforehand every possible combination of hardware and software that the user might be having on their devices.

Adobe-Update-Issue
Adobe Acrobat Reader update error.

In practice there are just few common rules of thumb. E.g. it is a good idea to postpone installing the most recent version of the operating system as long as possible, since the new one will always have more compatibility issues until it has been tested in “real world”, and updated a few times. Secondly, while the most recent and advanced functionalities are something that are used in marketing and in differentiation of the laptop from the competing models, it is in these new features where most of the problems will probably appear. One could play safe, and wipe out all software and drivers that the OEM had installed into their computer, and reinstall a “pure” Windows OS into the new computer instead. But this can mean that some of the new components do not operate in advertised ways. Myself, I usually test the OEM recommended setup and software (and all recommended updates) for a while, but also do regular backups, restore points, and keep a reinstall media available, just in case something goes wrong. And unfortunately, quite often this happens, and returning to the original state, or even doing a full, clean reinstall is needed. In a more “typical” or average combination of hardware and software such issues are not so common, but if one works with new technologies and features, then such consequences of complexity, heterogeneity and multistratal character of personal computers can indeed be expected. Sometimes, only trial and error helps: the most recent software and drivers might be needed to solve issues, but sometimes it is precisely the new software that produces the problems, and the solution is going back to some older versions. Sometimes disabling some function helps, sometimes only way into proper reliability is just completely uninstalling an entire software suite by a certain manufacturer, even if it means giving up some promised, advanced functionalities. Life might just be simpler that way.