An alternative to the word processor

I’m going to come out and say it, there is a need for a new paradigm in word processing. This paradigm, whatever it might be, must solve the limitations seen with modern word processors (see Microsoft Word and Google Docs). Principally, this paradigm must make it easier to work collaboratively with large documents that are meant to be printed1 and that must exist over a long period of time. It must also retain the ease of use inherent in traditional word processors. If there the friction of using the new word processor is greater than the current model than it will never reach critical adoption. This blog post is the first in a series that seeks to identify the limitations in the current word processing paradigm and outline a future paradigm.

Traditional word processors are what you see is what you get (once again see Microsoft Word and Google Docs). They update the print render as you edit the document, so you can always see how the final document will look. This tight feedback loop between editing and visualizing the final render makes it trivial for new users to pick up and edit any document. You can jump right in and get things done. As a result (and the result of their near universiality) word processors are used almost universally. While the tight feedback look and widespread adoption are greatly increase their utility to businesses2, there are several limitations with traditional word processors. These limitations include, but are not limited to, limited collaborative editing, horrendous edit tracking and underutilized templating. While all of these limitations are addressed in part with specific software, there is no universal solution to all.

While you dear reader may exclusively write in exclusion, isolated from the tyranny of collaboration, most large documents are worked on by several people at once. Hence the need for collaborative editing. Both Google and Microsoft offer an out of the box solutions that just-work^TM but both have significant drawbacks. Remember that Alphabet withholds the right to republish anything you put into one of their services. As and aside, I’ll say this every day until I die, don’t use Google translate for sensitive information! 3.

The form of collaborative editing offered by sharepoint or Docs is more style than substance. What are benefits to seeing your co-workers changes in real time? Do you like to sit arround watching people struggle with there their and they’re? Shouldn’t you be getting work done?

Ideally Sara, John, and Michele should all be able to work on the document at the same time and follow some kind of sane merging strategy once they have made their edits. Word does provide such a utility to but it provides no information management capacity. Was this document pre or post Sandra’s last edits?

This leads directly into the next limitation. I often find myself sitting at my desk asking myself “Who made what change?” With today’s word processors it is an nightmare to identify who edited a document - if it’s even possible at all. This issue is especially insidious if the document is long lived and must be reviewed by several departments concurrently. While the edits the policy director made should be taken into account, the ones made by legal should probably take precedent. While changes can be tracked using the aptly named tracked changes4 this is only a partial solution. In order to have this tracable accountability you need to maintain an impeccable information management strategy across the whole of your organization. One file saved over and there goes the trail! HOW IS THIS HOW DOCUMENTS ARE WRITTEN TODAY!!!

The second area of concern, templating, sucks up more time than I care to think. Thousands of (wo)man hours are wasted each day making sure that the spacing between paragraphs is appropriate and no newlines are missing. This is NOT ok and should NOT be an issue! Both Word and Docs have very good templating features, their cardinal sin however was allowing people to deviate from them. Most people I work with are fully aware of how to use or setup a template. I have never seen one of them use on. Instead its - set space after paragraph to 0; manually adjust each heading to be the proper format; add extra spaces to make sure you don’t leave a dangling header. In other words MADNESS!!!5

The other approaches used today also have their own limitations, and I will not go too far into them here. Structured documents, which are what you see is what you mean and include HTML, LaTeX, org-mode and markdown, are ubiquitous. They separate editing from rendering, which destroys that rapid feedback loop, however they can have very strict templating and source control can be used to both co-ordinate between peers and track document change. While structured document systems are ubiquitous, most people writing documentation professionally don’t work directly in this paradigm. While variants such as markdown and askiidoc are fairly widespread and have a very small learning curve, they have not hit a critical mass of users and nor the benefit of that tight feedback loop between writing and rendering.

I honestly think we have the word processors we have today simply because most office workers have no idea how awful they have it. I have no idea how to fix this. This is not so much a case of selling fire to the devil, but a case of selling ergonomically correct chairs to the devil.

  1. While your communication and documentation may be shifting online, this is not the case for governments and corporations. The target audience of this new paradigm in word processing. [return]
  2. The more people who use the same utility, no matter how limiting, the greater the benefit you yourself gain from using that utility. [return]
  3. Google requires your documents to be hosted on their servers, there is no way to securely edit a google document without google reading it and possibly sharing it without your permission. [return]
  4. read as, I’d rather swim in acid than use track changes. I cannot swim, nor am I fond of acid. [return]
  5. That’s right madness with three exclamation marks. You know I mean business. [return]