I’ve done a lot of writing in word processors over the years, but now that I work in an office full time, I no longer have much use for them. The passing of this once essential program into the category of “sometimes comes in handy” seems worth a moment of reflection, so I offer here a short eulogy and some words of explanation for the death of the word processor.
Before we mourn losing the word processor we should look back at what it is and what it has done for us. At its core the word processor is virtual paper and the promise of WYSIWYG, the promise that, however you arrange things on the virtual paper, they will look the same on real paper when you print a copy. Other capabilities were built in later, things like change tracking, macro languages, and outlining modes, but these tools never take the spotlight; word processors remain word processors, not outlining tools or version control systems. It is all about the virtual paper.
And it was great. In Jr. High we spent weeks learning how to properly format documents. There were tests on where to place the opening line on a business letter, how many lines to skip between address blocks and the To: or From: lines, and other layout details. We were effectively learning typewriter office skills. Word processors made laying out documents so easy that simple formatting information like this could be stored for us. So, by the time any of us had to write a business letter, we no longer needed to remember how to format it. All we needed to do was pick “business letter” from the template menu of our word processor and remember to replace all the dummy "YOUR NAME HERE" text with our real information.
Problems with virtual paper
It was great, but there were problems. Competing word processors were often incapable of reading each other’s files, locking people into one camp or another. Time and competition between camps brought new versions of the word processor software; new tools were added to allow for more complicated layouts, to help correct common errors, and to make existing features easier to use. These changes increased what people could do but also brought further incompatibilities. New versions of the software had problems using old documents and documents in the new formats wouldn’t work at all with the old software.
Virtual paper began to age. People who had used these virtual sheets as a way to archive documents found that new word processors would corrupt the formatting in old documents and refuse entirely to open some of them. People who wanted to switch from one word processor camp to another had it worst, often having to rely on third party conversion utilities to use their old documents at all.
So virtual paper aged, people got increasingly tied to one format or another, and the internet happened. Now rather than exchanging the paper documents, people began exchanging the virtual paper versions, making it even harder to know what version of what program your document would be opened with. Once .doc and .wpd, and later, .odt documents were being sent around, the promise of WYSIWYG stopped meaning much. What you saw might be what you got but you could no longer know just what the other person was getting.
To regain control of their formatting, people began using PDF, the virtual printer for our virtual documents. By making a PDF of your document you basically trade the ability to edit your document in the future for an assurance that your document will look and print the same on any other computer. While this is useful for documents where formatting is important, resumes are an often cited example, it represents a step backwards for word processors.
Word processors are not the only, or even best, way to generate PDFs. Once PDFs became a standard form of print-ready documents, people built web applications to generate them from any page on a website as well as OS-level PDF printers that let you create a PDF out of any file on your computer. As the tools capable of producing print-ready documents multiplied, the word processor began to lose its place as people’s primary tool for authoring documents.
At the same time that PDF was ironing out incompatibilities and creating a nearly universal form of print-ready virtual paper, people started to notice that a lot of their print-ready documents were never getting printed. As people grew more comfortable with digital means of communication they began to rely on them to carry more of the content once invested in paper. People who had once felt the need to attach word processor or PDF documents to their emails began moving the material from those documents into the email itself. Personal correspondence moved not only to email but to chat rooms and instant messaging, places where printing to paper was not a concern.
Free of the complicated formatting necessary for paper, people fell back to the handful of basic formatting options they felt most necessary for communication in a digital context, things like:
>> quoting and
[ links | to places ] and
Those five, in addition to the rich complexity of our natural languages, turn out to cover most of what people need for communicating the sense of their messages.
This trend, of replacing elaborate formatting, like virtual paper, with lightly marked up plain text, is shrinking the domain of word processors each day. Wikis, the largest document creation projects in history, all use variations of the basic formatting options shown above. Current social networking and publishing tools are the same, as is email. The rise of syndication formats like RSS and ATOM is perhaps the best example of people happily removing all page layout formatting to more easily access the plaintext or lightly marked up text underneath.
Which is not to say that people stopped caring about the visual appearance of their documents. Layout and design remain as important as ever, but all of that information simply moved to the side, into CSS sheets, and blog or social networking theme packages.
The prime example of both these trends is the web itself. While many PDF documents, and some few .doc files, remain available online, they are dwarfed by the HTML ones that make up the web around them. The combination of HTML and CSS has beaten out all previous electronic formatting standards and become the most universal way to format writing since paper. Word processors have never created either format well.
Today I neither send nor receive business letters. Almost all of my professional communication happens over email, including things like negotiating for event space, arranging travel, and handling requests for legal services from our office. I write my documents in markdown, one of the popular lightweight markup systems, and use a program called pandoc to convert them to whatever format I need: PDF, HTML, LaTeX, or odt. Separate style sheets let me easily format the same text for letterhead, publishing on our website, publishing on my website, or general printing. The things I read come to me as websites, RSS feeds, email messages, and, most recently, ebooks (which are really just simple HTML documents re-packaged).
And so the word processor has passed from my life. I realize that it has not passed from everyone’s and it may not have left yours yet, but if the trends towards simple markup and PDFs continue forward, odds are that it will.