Microsoft Word replacements

Microsoft Word is on the way out. I’ll explain.

Every new tool for circulating information used a mental model similar to the previous one. Check it out:

  • The typewriter was a replacement for writing. Both output to paper, but typing was neater. Memos were created and paper was pushed from desk to desk.
  • The original computer + printer combination was a replacement for the typewriter. Both created typeset neat text onto paper, but computers allowed you to save and recall files at will. People still used the “memo” template in Word.
  • Email took over from the internal memo. You had an inbox and outbox, same as the physical boxes that used to sit on a desk. Most people emailed a short note and attached a Word file, in the same way they would with real paper – a cover sheet plus a document.1

For the non-dinosaurs amongst us, the paper model is obsolete, and we have a new mental model – the data was produced on a screen and will be consumed on a screen. Most people consume massive amounts of data from the web – that’s what we’re used to. By comparison, Microsoft Word is a poor tool for the job.

  • It pointlessly splits up a document into pages.2
  • It loads a document very slowly compared to a browser (which is probably already open.)
  • One can only consume information on computers with Word installed. Browsers are installed on almost every computer.
  • Smartphones are fairly bad at reflowing or even viewing text from a word document. However, they’re phenomenally good at doing this for a web page.
  • Extending a document with active elements (e.g. a stock quote) is unusual and hard, so Word documents are almost never used as an up-to-date reporting tool. On a web page it’s bread and butter.

A solution

What will replace Word? I’d argue that the wiki is a natural successor – a collection of web pages (instead of documents) that can interlink easily and be read anywhere using the same technology we use to read everything else.

Why hasn’t it happened yet?

  • Making a Word-like interface that creates documents is a hard problem – hard enough that noone has really solved it yet.3
  • It’s impossible to get off Word, because work gave you a copy, because you’re used to it, or because you’re expected to read / create .doc files.

These problems won’t exist forever. We will get closer to solving the rich text web editor problem – it just needs to be good enough. We will have fewer people to send .doc files to, as products like Huddle and Basecamp become more popular. Most of all, the size of the opportunity provides massive incentive to anyone who can solve this problem.

  1. In the mind of the user, the document attachment is where the information is. Ever seen emails where someone attached a screenshot that’s contained in a Word document? That’s this mental model in action. []
  2. It can however be useful as a reference, i.e. “it’s on page 4”. []
  3. Solutions like CKeditor exist, but they don’t work well enough. It looks lovely, but try living with it and you’ll see where the paint comes off. The only consistently good editors are very basic, like the text editor built into Basecamp. []

3 thoughts on “Microsoft Word replacements”

  1. Hi Shahid! You make some valid points, but I think many of the issues you point out with the client version of Word are addressed quite nicely in the Word Web App.

    Take a look at this doc I put together exclusively in the browser version:

    It doesn’t do your stock quote example (thought I bet the Excel one could), but for me has been a great complement to the client version of Office.

  2. Hi Ryan! Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I didn’t mention Google Apps (which I’ve used a lot) or Office Web Apps (which I haven’t used before) in the article, but they do deserve some airtime.

    Firstly – I’m kinda impressed with what you guys have built with web apps. The switch between reading and editing mode is neat – I personally think it’s necessary to have different views for editing and reading. It’s a relatively fast pageload in reading mode, and it works great for me on a non-IE browser.

    I’m aware that the web is a different kind of tool, but I’m boiling it down to “I just want to consume data”, and for that, the web page is hard to beat. Consider the huge list of things that separates this from a web page. Here’s two important ones:

    • It doesn’t work on mobile. I created a document, sent the URL to my phone, and the return is “We don’t have a mobile version of that page. Redirecting you to the PC site … “. The browser on my phone can and does handle web content pretty well, and since this document was just a very simple block of text, it should have displayed great. It didn’t.
    • It depends on a separate, non-platform agnostic, non-free fat client to do anything complex. And by complex, I mean a two column layout or a non-standard text style. Imagine if CSS only gave you 23 standard styles to work with – the web would look pretty bland.

    I absolutely agree that creating and editing a document on Word Web Apps is way, way easier than creating an editing a web page, even given the latest wiki software. I’m arguing that the right solution just isn’t here yet. This and Google Docs just don’t cut it.

  3. I think Word is on the decline for a tiny segment of its audience, perhaps those who don’t edit documents much. For businesses and academia, printing documents out is still key. Everyone still prefers reading and viewing documents in print over the screen and that isn’t declining at all.

    For these people, Word is and forever will be the gold standard for documents, even if cloud computing takes off. The convenience, security, speed and all the other benefits of digital copies take a second seat when it comes to reading, editing, reviewing, etc. So I doubt we’ll see Word disappear anytime soon.

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