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Why Pay For A
Word Processor?

Some people argue that word processors and spreadsheets were the first true "killer" software applications that made the PC revolution take off.

The reason they did this is that provided businesses with genuine productivity tools at a considerable saving to what was otherwise available at the time.

This gave anyone in business who owned a PC with a word processor and/or a spreadsheet a distinct competitive advantage over anyone who didn't. And so PCs took off.

However - beyond the move from DOS to a graphical interface that occurred with the arrival of Windows - word processors and spreadsheets have advanced very little over the last few decades.

Most claimed advances have really been in the area of little-used features, which has led to an epidemic of  "featuritis" (ie "Product A has more features than Product B so it must be better, even though you'll never use 90% of Product A's features")

Some vendors have also tried to give the illusion of progress by moving features around from one release to the next (for example, the dramatic change in interface design that came with Office 2007).

However - beyond fuelling demand in the software training and support industry and large sales of "Dummies" books - very little has really changed under the hood.

This being so - and in a world where nearly anyone with a PC now also has a word processor and spreadsheet of some description - it's becoming increasingly hard for software vendors to justify charging steep prices for what is essentially old hat software that hasn't advanced significantly in a long, long  time.

And we think the powerful applications on this page (and the sizable market share of OpenOffice.org) are proof that the market is much more aware - and skeptical - than big vendors would like it to be.

Other Word Processing Resources

Word Processors
Background: A word processor is a software application that allows you to write letters, articles or other documents in a WYSIWYG environment and then print them out.

Word processing is now one of the most common and widely used software applications in the world. Yet the first word processors originally appeared in the early 1970s as extensions to electric typewriters (where they generally sold for around US$10,000 a unit).

And this remained the dominant form of word processing until the rise of personal computers and PC word processors wiped the original market out of existence in the late 1980s.

In the early DOS world, the dominant PC word processor was WordPerfect. But the introduction of Windows and Microsoft Office in the late 1980s saw Microsoft Word quickly rise to become the dominant word processor in the market. Wordperfect was ultimately sold to Novell in 1994 and then to its current owner Corel in 1996, where it remains as a niche word processor used by some legal firms and academics to this day.

Microsoft estimate that there are now 500 million Word users around the world. But the software's market dominance hasn't equated to universal user satisfaction and many people feel that Word has only become bulkier and more unusable with each new release.

In fact, dissatisfaction levels with Word - certainly, in our own office - hit a peak with the release of Office 2007 and a new "ribbon" interface designed to fit in with Microsoft's Vista operating system. We felt (and many other people feel) that far from making the software more usable, Word has steadily become less and less usable in the 2000s due to bad interface design and bad programming practices.

But if you share the same concerns, the good news is that there are alternatives to Word that work well; are much more lightweight and flexible; and which can be used in both an office and a home environment without putting you at any disadvantage in a Word-centric world.

Here's what they are:

 

Popular Word Processors
OpenOffice.org Writer
OpenOffice.org is a free, open-source alternative to Microsoft Office and it incorporates its own alternative to Word: OpenOffice.org Writer. OpenOffice.org is derived from Sun Microsystems' StarOffice and it was founded in late 2000 when Sun released StarOffice's code to the public. A new OpenOffice.org version 3.0 was released in October 2008 and demand for it was initially so heavy that it put OpenOffice.org's server out of action. While Star Office received mixed reviews when it was first released, the quality of OpenOffice.org has steadily risen from one version to the next. OpenOffice.org now release major updates to the software every 6 months along with intermediate bug-fix releases every quarter. And the latest version 3.0 not only supports the Open Document Format standard for data interchange (which means it can read all non-Office documents that support ODF) but also supports all Microsoft Office formats from Office 97 to Office 2007 (Office 2007 support is one of the key features of the new version 3 release, though in our tests we found this aspect is still a little buggy). OpenOffice.org aims to compete with Microsoft Office and to emulate its look and feel where suitable. So if you've used Office applications already the learning curve for OpenOffice.org is fairly negligible. It can also read and write most of the file formats found in Microsoft Office and many other applications, and it's even able to open older and/or damaged files that newer versions of Microsoft Office can't open! OpenOffice.org's popularity has increased steadily over the last few years and it took a very big upward swing with the release of Vista and Office 2007 and consumers' general rejection of both. In fact, this software was estimated to have 14% of the large enterprise market and 19% of the small business market as of a few years ago. OpenOffice.org is completely free and comes in 14 languages. Versions are available for Windows (Win95 to Vista); for Mac (OS 10.2 to 10.5); and for Linux (as well as Solaris, BSD, OpenVMS, OS/2 and IRIX, though you'll have to hunt around for those). We like OpenOffice.org a lot and you might too. Get OpenOffice.org

 

AbiWord
If you're just looking for a lightweight replacement for Word and don't want to download OpenOffice.org's 127Mb+ suite (above), then AbiWord may be the alternative you're looking for. This small program (around 6 Mb) is very similar to MS Word (for which read: it has a negligible learning curve) and it's able to read and write all industry standard document types including OpenOffice.org documents, Microsoft Word documents, WordPerfect documents, Rich Text Format documents, HTML web pages and many more. AbiWord uses tables, bullets, lists, images, footnotes, endnotes and styles to enhance the way your document looks in much the same manner as MS Word and has a built-in spell-checker. It also supports more than 30 languages and right-to-left, left-to-right, and mixed-mode text (so you can use it to word process non-European languages just as well as English). It also has mail-merge capabilities and its basic functionality can be extended with a variety of plugins ranging from document importers to a thesaurus, image importers and a text summariser. Early versions of AbiWord used to crash and/or slow down when opening large files and the software had a few other small, annoying bugs as well. But like OpenOffice.org, it continues to improve from one release to the next and the latest version has received very positive reviews indeed (AbiWord's website provides lots of additional reviews if you want to see what other people think about it). AbiWord runs on all versions of Windows from Win95 to XP/2003 and it's freeware. Get AbiWord

 

Jarte
If you're not interested in replacing Word but just want a simple to use everyday word processor that incorporates all the most commonly-used features of Word (and dispenses with the obscure features most of us never use), then Carolina Road Software's Jarte is well worth your inspection. Jarte is a freeware version of Carolina Road's commercial Jarte Plus. It's based on the Microsoft WordPad word processing engine built into Windows but expands well beyond WordPad's basic feature set. Its features include RTF and .DOC support (Word 95, 97 and 2000); OLE support; a visual header and footer designer; a clip history; an online reference bar; tabbed document access; spell checking; page breaks; a print preview; multi-level undo and redo; a customizable background and colours; bookmarking and many more. Carolina Road have laboured very carefully over this software, though. So while Jarte performs all the standard word processing functions quite well, where it really shines is in the attention that Carolina Road have paid to the small details. These include tabbed document windows for easy access to your open documents; larger buttons for the most commonly used functions; instant dictionary and thesaurus word lookup; spell checking and text search tools that don't park themselves on top of the text you're trying to edit; single click bookmarking that make bookmarks both useful and usable; instant access to the documents, folders and fonts that you designate as your favorites; drag and drop file support and optional system tray access. Jarte is regularly updated and very robust, and if you want even more bells and whistles then upgrading to the Plus version is inexpensive too (just US$19 to US$29). Jarte runs on all versions of Windows (from Win95 to XP) and if you're a student, a writer, a small business person or a home user it may be all the word processor you'll ever need. Get Jarte

 

Atlantis Word Processor
Another really great word processor we think is well worth inspecting is the Atlantis Word Processor, a shareware program you can try free for 30 days (if you decide to keep using it after this time, registration is US$35). Atlantis is a small, fast, quick-loading word processor that looks very much like pre-Vista/Office 2007 MS Word (ie it has a very small start-up learning curve). It supports all the standard word processing functions but it also does many things that MS Word either doesn't do at all or does very poorly. These include allowing you to create newspaper-type columns; to divide documents into sections and give each section its own page settings; an Auto-Correct feature that provides unparalleled control over the typing and formatting of documents (including type correction either as you write it, or when you complete the document); a PowerType feature that learns how you write and can provide intelligent suggestions which can greatly speed up your typing (perfect for one-finger typists!); and many, many others too numerous to list - though their web site makes a very good attempt at doing so: the software's full feature set is comprehensively outlined there. Atlantis also comes with support for a dozen languages besides English, and its web site provides after-sales support - if you need it - through an online forum. The software itself runs on all versions of Windows (from Win95 to Vista) and is highly regarded. Justifiably, we think. Get Atlantis Word Processor

 

Lotus Symphony
If you don't want to try OpenOffice.org but are attracted to alternative Office suites, IBM's Lotus Symphony deserves a close look for two good reasons: it was named Datamation Magazine's Product of the Year for 2008 (beating Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org in the process); and any software with IBM's name on is guaranteed to be fully industrial strength. Lotus Symphony incorporates three core office applications (a word processor, a spreadsheet and IBM version's of Microsoft Powerpoint) and Symphony applications can read and write Microsoft Office files as well as Open Document Format files. The basic software can also be extended with plug-ins and the Symphony suite supports 23 languages. Lotus Symphony Documents (the word processor) allows you to easily create documents using predefined document templates and then apply formatting with predefined styles for paragraphs, characters, and headings. It has contextual toolbars and editing menus; inline spell checking and correction; graphics that you can insert to create a variety of tables, charts, diagrams, and drawn items; automatic creation of a table of contents, footnotes, indexes and footers and headers; and document export to PDF for easy file distribution (as well as support for MS Office and Lotus SmartSuite files). Lotus Symphony works a little differently to Office so there's a learning curve attached to the software. But IBM provide plenty of support with videos and through their web site. Lotus Symphony has been a long time in development and the software is still being upgraded and expanded. It's also a big download (around 196 Mb) and only runs on Windows (XP and Vista) and Linux (though a Mac OS X version is close to release). However, it's absolutely free and could have a great future in front of it. Get Lotus Symphony

 

Google Docs
Finally: what do you do if you're separated from your normal PC and need to do some word processing at short notice? Easy! Go to the nearest Internet cafe or available machine and log into Google Docs - an online word processor and spreadsheet from Google that allows you to create and store word processing documents and spreadsheets directly on Google's own machines (though you can print off hard copies if you have a printer hooked up to your Internet terminal). Google Docs is exclusively online software and while we wouldn't recommend it for daily use, it can be absolutely invaluable on those occasions when you need a word processor in a pinch and don't have your usual one available (eg: travelling on business or on holidays). Google Docs offers a simplified array of all the most common word processing functions and you can quickly create perfectly respectable word processing documents with it. It supports tables; allows you to insert graphics from your PC or the Net; gives you a small range of highly legible fonts to compose with; lets you set up headers, footers and tables of contents; offers standard formatting controls; and even has a spell-checker! If you've used any common word processor you'll find the learning curve on Google Docs is just about zero (we were able to compose our first document in a matter of minutes) and it was surprisingly fast and agile even on a slim ADSL connection (in fact, we suspect it would even be usable on a dial-up line). Naturally, Google Docs is completely free. And since there's nothing to download, all you really need to do is either bookmark it or just remember "Google Docs" when you're on the road. Get Google Docs

 

This page last updated: 15-Oct-2008

 


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