If you’re reading this, you probably have Microsoft Word installed on your computer. It’s hard to function without it. Eventually, someone, somewhere, will send you a dreaded .doc (or .docx). And for a few brief moments, as you leave the rock-solid dependability of Gmail, you double click it, hold your breath, and hope that your old copy of the software is compatible with whatever was sent.
You never bothered to update because Word hasn’t fundamentally changed in the last 20 years. That means its core functions are timelessly usable. That also means the product has ignored the most important two decades in all of computing. Slate’s Tom Scocca argues the point with cutting prose in his recent article, "Death to Word," lamenting everything we’ve all come to hate about the product—namely, a dichotomy between desktop publishing and web publishing—and all of the annoying workarounds it necessitates.
Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for Web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.
When Word’s web approach "works," we can copy and paste a hyperlink into the document…a hyperlink that no one would ever open on paper. And when it doesn’t, well, Scocca cites pasting a piece of text that inserted eight pages of this metadata into his work. That’s eight pages of jargon solely explaining how the original pasted text is meant to appear in Word!
And then he moves to my personal, biggest pet peeve: Track Changes.
Word’s idea of effective collaboration is its Track Changes feature, which makes an uneventful edit read like a color-coded transcript of an argument between the world’s most narcissistic writer and the world’s most pedantic and passive-aggressive copy editor. No change is too small to pass without the writer’s explicit approval, and the editor is psychopathically unwilling to accept a blanket concession.
Track Changes is meant to be a handy way to follow collaborative edits. Instead, it reads like fistfight over the Oxford comma (does the default color scheme really need to be "you got an answer wrong" red?). When I’m edited in Google Docs, I feel like my editor is the most laid back boss in the world. When I’m edited in Word, I immediately want to walk off a project.
Now, to be fair to Microsoft, they have been addressing a lot of Word’s flaws. Their cloud product, Office 365, looks to be much better at allowing several people to fiddle in a shared file at once. And in the upcoming Office 15, not only will Track Changes get a makeover (the extent of which isn’t entirely clear in The Verge’s preview), Word will bridge a few gaps in its strange digital niche. Most importantly, it will allow inline editing of PDFs. Hallelujah.
Yet, none of these updates will really solve Word’s biggest shortcomings: Most publishing that we do is now online, and Word is fundamentally built for paper. We insert our text into a blogging backend that has 80% of the functionality of Word with none of the formatting fuss. And that simple backend isn’t saddled with fonts that we haven’t licensed or bulleted lists that arise out of nowhere. Then again, why is Word on every desktop in the world and not a single blogging backend? Why doesn’t Word exist where most people are actually writing?
I’m not sure that Word can solve this problem of scope. Even if it could publish straight to every major blogging platform (which would be an immediate, possible improvement), there’s no way Word could handle richer formatting like embedded multimedia because every single website is formatted differently.
Or, at least, there’s no way Word could handle this feat without Microsoft changing the way it approaches its product entirely. Iterating the aging word processor won’t be (and hasn’t been) enough to keep people using Word. They need to fundamentally rethink its purpose and innovate toward that purpose. Word needs to fix the impossibility of web standards as they once did our atrocious spelling.
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