PleaseTech blog

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Will online word processors ever become mainstream?

Posted by Tim Robinson on 17. June 2013 12:54

CTO at PleaseTech


You have to hand it to Google. In the early days at least, they achieved success by unleashing a product on the market that was so far ahead, not just of current offerings, but of people’s expectations, that they changed the game. First this happened with search, then with webmail and then again with online maps. In each case they went into an already-busy marketplace and blew it away purely with the superiority of their product.

Of course you can argue that Google and Microsoft are now head-to-head on all 3 applications (and on online word processing which we’ll come to in a second), but there’s no doubt that Google defined the genre and MS have been playing catch-up. And I’m not naïve enough to think that these offering (either MS or Google) were developed from scratch in house, but it’s the Google machine that has rolled them out and made them ubiquitous. The point I’m making is simply that if anyone can make a web application work, Google can.

Not long after maps and Gmail, they turned their attention to Google Docs and the fields of online word processing and spreadsheets. They’ve certainly made their mark here but in terms of overall adoption to this type of application, it’s still relatively a minority activity. The obvious corollary to my previous conclusion is: If Google can’t make it work, maybe nobody can.

I think there are several reasons for this: firstly the fact that Google Docs by a massive margin falls short of the usability and functionality of Microsoft Word (even the 10% that most users use) and, judging by the lack of improvements in the last couple of years, Google isn’t that fussed about catching up. Even the idea of writing a word processor inside a web browser using JavaScript is a really difficult (some might say crazy) thing to attempt. Secondly the “always connected world” isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as those living in Southern California would like us to believe (I regularly find myself in locations without even cell phone access, and I don’t exactly live in the middle of nowhere); and thirdly there’s the fact that if you have a document saved somewhere you control (whether that’s on your hard drive or EDMS), you can at least have a strategy for security, backup and Disaster Recovery whereas with the online world you’ll never really know where your data is or who has access.

But lastly I think there’s a more philosophical angle: writing a document is a very personal activity, even when that document, as a piece of intellectual property, is owned by your employer. Of course there is a need for collaboration – that’s what PleaseTech is all about – but for the creative business of writing, I want to work on my own, and I don’t want people messing with my content until I’ve decided I’ve finished with it and am ready to hand it over.

We use both Google Docs and spreadsheets in PleaseTech but only where the need for real-time multi-user access overrides all other considerations, and in 95% of cases (maybe 99 – I never counted) that doesn’t apply. So, for all those reasons above, I’m writing this blog post where I write all my documents: on my PC in Microsoft Word, and while I’m actually posting it, if the network connection drops or gets timed out, I can just paste it in again.

Disclaimer: other non-JavaScript Word processors are available. I am most definitely not a Microsoft shill – I hate the ribbon, I hate Windows 8, and I hate SharePoint, I’m not specifically attached to MS Word other than familiarity, and apart from WYSIWYG, I don’t really think the state-of-the-art in word processing has advanced that much since Word Perfect 5.1

 

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