Does your word processor really need tabbing?

Hanks Williams, a recent addition to my Google Reader subscriptions, thinks that Google Docs is fundamentally flawed. He argues that as it’s essentially just an HTML editor (with nice collaboration features), it lacks what it takes to be a real word processor. He points to Adobe’s recently purchased Buzzword as an example of a web-based word processor that has what it takes to succeed. Namely, being completely Flash-based, it offers actual control over exactly where and how things will end up on paper. He cites tabs (that is, indentation tabs, the sort you control with tab-stops, not the UI-type tabs. That had me confused for quite a bit) as a proxy for the class of print-oriented features that will ultimately separate the real contenders for the throne of Word-usurper from the ones that never really had a chance.

I believe he’s quite wrong, and there’s two sides to my thinking on this.

The first probably stems from my past five years of academic life, where any time I’ve had to write something more than a couple of pages, I was probably whipping out LaTeX or its friendlier front-end LyX. LaTeX is a document processing system that takes in raw text files marked up with its macro language, and spits out printer-ready files with a layout usually far superior to anything I could have arranged myself in a feasible amount of time. Because you edit the documents as raw text, it forces a separation of layout and content in the process of writing. Instead of worrying about what font size I was making my chapter titles, I just wrapped the chapter title in a \chapter{} tag (or just selected the “Chapter” style from the drop-down box in LyX), and let the document style sort it out.

The learning curve was a real pain though, to the point where although LaTeX is still used decades after its introduction, it’s still only really used in maths and computer science circles, though even this was because until recently (with the advent of Word 2007, which has improved things), no WYSIWYG editor had an equation editor that could begin to compare with LaTeX on the layout of mathematical formulae. Just anecdotally I think I do see Word being increasingly for writing papers in CS. But I’ve always thought that the LaTeX model was more heading in the right direction, towards a focus on the content, from a word processor towards a document processor, and eventually an idea processor, like the one Douglas Engelbart suggested in his 1962 essay Augmented Intellect.

That’s the ideal for where I’d like to see modern text editors heading. It’s why I like the appearance of tools like Zemanta, a blog editor add-in that suggests links to content and images based on what you’re writing about.

The other side to my thinking is based on current trends. The world is going paperless. Slowly, painfully, decades behind schedule, and not completely, but it is going that way. Interesting new document structures are appearing in formats that make the printed page irrelevant. Wikis are hard to print out, and it’s often pointless to do so given their often very rapid transitions in content. That hasn’t stopped them from becoming vast repositories of written information, Wikipedia being only the exemplar from which thousands of others have gained an air of legitmacy.

Microsoft too recognise this. Word in the past couple of versions has been starting to introduce usage modes that go beyond the glorified typewriter model, where the entire interface is oriented around physical pieces of paper. But it is still ultimately constrained by the baggage of a legacy interface metaphor. Sharepoint’s existence argues that the informational and social context surrounding a document is quickly becoming just as important as the documents themselves. We are consuming more textual information on screen, and of screens of different sizes too. In this world, the best solution is to just mark up the semantics and let the computers handle rendering depending on the target media. And paradigm shifts like productivity tools moving to the web are our best opportunity to break from aging metaphor.

If I’m writing a document, I don’t really want to care about indentation. If you think Buzzword’s a better word processor than Google Docs by virtue of it offering accurate page layout, then it’s not really a word processor you’re looking for. It’s a publishing and layout tool, and that’s something else.

3 responses to “Does your word processor really need tabbing?

  1. hi from Zemanta!

    Thanks for noticing Zemanta.

    Do you have any other ideas how Zemanta could improve your writing experience? What would you expect from a ‘automagic’ service like this one?

    drop us a mail !


  2. Well ideally it’d be working with Firefox 3b4 :)…

  3. it should already.

    If not, wait for beta5 to come out, FF beta 4 had some problems when installing extensions.

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