Word Processing Innovation – Or Lack Thereof

17th November, 2017 by

If you consider the look and feel of most of the software and hardware we used 10 or 20 years ago, it’s clear that technology has come a long way. A phone, email interface, or program that was popular 10 years ago and is still thriving today has had to adapt to the aesthetic and expectations of the modern tech consumer.

But one area that has remained curiously stagnant is word processing. Indeed, the interface for Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Pages, or any other word processor looks strikingly familiar to how a similar program would have looked a decade (or even two) ago. For many people in the baby boomer or millennial generations, word processing was one of the first programs they learned on a personal computer. It’s almost as though we’ve been maintaining the look and feel of word processors for the sake of sheer nostalgia.

In the beginning there was WordStar

While Microsoft Word was not the first software-based word processor—that distinction belongs to WordStar, released in 1978—it is the one that really took off. As The Tech Ninja blog described the history: “WordStar was slowly replaced by WordPerfect in the mid-80s, becoming the “standard” for Disk Operating Systems. The growing popularity of the Windows operating system took Microsoft Word along with him. Originally called “Microsoft Multi-Tool Word”, it quickly became a synonym of “word processor”… and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Sending words to the cloud

The first significant innovation forward from this stage was the “cloud-based word processor”, such as Google Docs, which allow people to simultaneously collaborate on the same document in real time. While this was definitely a welcome advancement, the actual interface of the product itself didn’t change much. Then came a competitor to Google Docs – Dropbox Paper – which TechCrunch described as probably one of the biggest and more radical attempts at trying to figure out how to approach the whole “blank slate on the internet.” While these are a step forward, it’s still surprising no one has taken it further.

Reinventing the wheel

Until now, that is. Thanks to two MIT alums—Alex DeNeui and Shishir Mehrotra, one formerly working for Microsoft, the other for Google—it looks like some innovation in the way of design and function is taking place. The duo, who have founded a company called “Coda”, have been given funding to rethink how we do word processing and the spreadsheets that often go along with it.

In an interview with TechCrunch, the founders of the company described their vision for how they wanted to overhaul word processing and number crunching: “We like to describe it as a new document that blends flexibility of documents, the power of spreadsheets, and the utility of applications into a single new canvas. It really started from an observation that we think that the world is full of all these different types of applications but most work gets done on documents and spreadsheets. Every team we looked at, you’d ask them what they use to run things they’d name off all these different applications. They have task trackers, CRM tools, inventory tools, but if you looked over their shoulders they’d spend all day in documents and spreadsheets.”

For nostalgia’s sake

Indeed, as co-founder of the company Shishir Mehrotra notes, even though apps and software have advanced considerably, most people are still using word processors and spreadsheets because they serve as a “blank slate” that so many of us are most comfortable and familiar with. The fact that nobody has yet come up with a better alternative, though, could have as much to do with users’ habitual comfort with old-fashioned word processors as with a failure to come up with an innovative alternative. Old digital habits die hard, so innovators like those behind Coda will have to understand how to encourage the switch to a new piece of software without undermining that sense of familiarity.

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