A Better Word from Microsoft

The latest version for the Mac finally allows users to keep it simple. Still, the bloatware king has a ways to go

By Charles Haddad

In writing, less is more. The same is true of word processing programs. Who wants to waste time fishing around some whale of a program for that one feature you consider essential?

Apparently, Microsoft's programmers have been under the impression everyone does. They've just kept layering complexity atop complexity in every new version of Word. You might think they'd want to keep it simple, considering that Word is the world's most widely used program of its kind.

I'm happy to say Microsoft is starting to catch on, at least when it comes to the Mac version of the program. The latest incarnation, Word X, is by the far the easiest to use and figure out. Still, I think it could be much sharper, so I'm going to make some suggestions for changes that Microsoft might want to make next time around.


  First, however, I must give the folks in Redmond their due. This is the first time in my memory that the latest version of Word isn't loaded down with new features. And you can strip this version bare of the clutter of toolbars and buttons and create a custom palette that represent the handful of features you actually use. (Microsoft's user studies show that most people employ only 20% of Word's features, but that 20% varies widely among users.)

Plus, the handful of features that have been added are indeed welcome. You can now select multiple words and sentences throughout a document to be changed all at once. This is a nice touch that has long been part of Nisus Writer. Another wrinkle called clear formatting lets you quickly reset characters and paragraphs to default settings. And my personal favorite: Word now automatically wraps text to fit any time a document window is resized.

Best of all, these improvements are all encased in the biggest remake of Word in a decade. The program, like all of the software in Microsoft's Office suite, has been rewritten to incorporate the stylistic and feature sets of OS X, Apple's snazzy new operating system.


  Sadly, Word also carries forward a legacy of annoying glitches and unfinished features. Files still don't open at the point where you left off. That's a real pain in a book-length document. Scrolling is sluggish in any document longer than a page. And the program continues to not capitalize sentences within quote marks. Granted, the same is true of Nisus Writer, AppleWorks, and Mariner Writer -- but these are all smaller programs produced with much smaller staffs. Microsoft has no excuse for not taking care of such things.

It's time to make a couple of good features great. Back in Word 2001, Microsoft added a dictionary so good it can define such obscure but fun words as "kerfuffle" and "bathetic." Yet Word's longtime thesaurus remains mediocre, and it's kept separate. The dictionary and thesaurus should be united as one supertool that lets users explore and play with words in one place. This is not a novel concept -- Nisus Writer does that, as does Casady & Greene's add-on program, Spell Catcher. And both will also pronounce words for you.

That brings me to another of Word's great weakness. The Mac has long pioneered and excelled in converting text to speech, but Word has taken little advantage of this technology. Sure, Word lets you plug in IBM's dictation software, ViaVoice, but that's not good enough. What the program really needs is first-rate text-to-speech functionality so you could hear your documents read aloud. That's a great way to catch all kinds of errors, from typos to incorrect usage.


  My last beef is Word's half-baked clipboard. At long last, you can save multiple items, both text and graphics. But items are saved in chronological order, piled atop one another. It's no fun having to search repeatedly through a long list of saved items to find the one that you want to paste. Word's clipboard needs to work more like a scrapbook, letting you save items to numbered pages. That would make pasting in saved items much simpler. Again, this isn't a new idea.

Microsoft can greatly improve Word by simply copying the innovations of other, smaller developers. After all, that's something the company has excelled at for a long time.

Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Thane Peterson

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