On macs and wordprocessing

First posted on a Guardian CIF forum:

(Mac user speaks)

Macs are ridiculously expensive and far from perfect, and service pretty shoddy here in SA (but then most service is here) – but every time I use a win machine for even a few minutes I’m glad I switched. mostly, on a mac, I can forget about the computer, and focus on the work. Linux I used extensively a few years back, but felt too much time was spent in enforced geekery. might go back, tho, if mac prices don’t drop.

my specific gripe though, is Word. I have to use this program for editing work for two reasons: a) it’s the standard b) track changes. Yes, there’s Open Office, but it’s slow and unstable on the Mac.

Here’s the traumatising tech snag: I have experienced enormous pain and frustration trying to manage large, complex Word docs (250 pages plus, with 1000+ endnotes)

OpenOffice missed a huge opportunity by creating itself as a Word clone, rather than creating a better word processor. The problem with the Word model is that content and layout are confused and overlapped, with horrendous results.

An ideal/better word processor would follow this logic:

  1. User chooses document type (note/letter/article/book etc)
  2. User creates document, tagging some content as “heading 1”, “heading 2”, “footnote”, “list” etc – but NEVER touches fonts or styles (indeed, these options are kept invisible at this stage of doc creation)
  3. Having completed content, user ONLY THEN decides what font size, etc to assign to different content tags
  4. All functions/tools, would be invisible until needed/invoked. At present, the average Word user is a bit like someone who wants to bang a few nails through a couple of pieces of wood – and is ushered into a Formula One (some fairly dismal team) workshop for the purpose.

(I firmly believe the developer who could, say, repurpose the libraries/code deployed in OpenOffice along the lines described above, might revolutionise word processing)

Ah, the Word devotees will argue, you can do all that tagging stuff in Word with styles. True – but:

  1. most users don’t know about styles, so their documents are riddled with innumerable invisibly coded artifacts resulting from changes in font, size and and style – artifacts which play havoc when one attempts to export to another application (ah, for the ‘reveal codes’ function of Word Perfect)
  2. styles are implemented with the same bloat factor that afflicts the whole package, so that they are difficult to use efficiently
  3. they’re not neatly integrated with document structure (table of contents) so a heading, for example, has to be tagged not once but twice, for structure and for style. Which is simply crazy.

LaTeX (look it up on wikipedia) produces stunning typography, has very strong design logic, and could be a fabulous solution, but:

  1. You have to be super-geeky to have the persistence to learn it – in usability terms, it’s rather like Linux ten years ago, and few designers/typographers are, in my experience, that super-geeky
  2. It’s so arcane at times, not even its devotees completely understand it
  3. the document classes are mostly super dull/ugly – and THERE’S NO TOOL for easily creating one’s own document classes so one has to choose one of the ugly classes (these are layout ‘templates’)
  4. the development curve is glacial in pace (which is not really a valid complaint from the perspective of existing users who are quite happy with it, of course).

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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