Microsoft Word at 25: What we’ve learned about applications

I learned to type on Corel WordPerfect. I suffered through years on my first job using Lotus WordPro. I even, for longer than I care to admit, used a piece of shareware at home called PC-Write. By the time I got to Microsoft Word this was a software category whose best days seemed long past.

And yet, as Microsoft Word turns 25, I think there’s a lot we can learn about usability and the long-term evolution of enterprise applications by looking at how word processing as matured.

E-mail is often credited as the killer app that PC usage, just as the browser made the Internet meaningful, but word processors represented the transition, the bridge between typewriters and a completely different kind of keyboard. I remember reading an interview in the early 1990s with Anne Rice, the horror novelist best known for Interview with the Vampire and other horror classics. She marvelled at the ability to move whole paragraphs around at will, rather than re-typing pages and using white-out. “There’s no excuse for not writing the perfect book,” she said.

That flexibility, of course, is something we now take for granted, but Microsoft Word and its brethren offered more than that. A typewriter could allow users to produce a lot of documents, but not a lot of templates. The most recent version of Word in Office 2007, for instance, allows users to either create a new document or a new blog post. The ability to change fonts, font sizes, and all kinds of other effects have opened up a great deal of opportunities to users, most of which are completely ignored or unknown to them. This is the scary truth about enterprise IT: word processing is probably the most frequently used application on the desktop but one in which they receive absolutely no formal training. I’d be surprised if many companies even had a usage policy around it.

Even if its full capabilities are never discovered, Microsoft Word has achieved a degree of familiarity that is unrivalled by anything in IT. That’s why and other online word processors try to resemble word as much as possible, and why even blogging engines like WordPress have rulers that look more or less like Microsoft’s product. Although I should probably check with Gartner and IDC before saying this, I’m willing to bet that Microsoft Word represents a very small percentage of the help desk calls IT departments receive. Unless you’re doing something really out of the ordinary, this is a product that doesn’t require a lot of hand-holding. That’s why, unless concerns around public sector document storage came up, the standards surrounding Office and ODF didn’t matter much to most users.

Now think about Microsoft Word in another 25 years. There are people will who tell you it won’t exist – not with the variety of online options available, including a lot of custom-built content management systems and an increased use of multimedia. But if all people needed were simple solutions, WordPad and NotePad would be the default of choice, and we’d see a lot less stuff coming out of the printer than we do. The product may not always enjoy the dominance that it does now, but that doesn’t really matter (unless you’re Microsoft). What matters is that, after two and a half decades, we can safely say we managed to move from one manual business process to an electronic one that’s commonly accepted and generally pretty useful. As we move onto the next ones, perhaps we can settle on more than one product.

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