The Death of the Word Processor


The title may be provocative, but there is a reasoning behind it based on current trends I see in the industry.   As I look back on the evolution of one of the very first business applications for the personal computer the word processor, I think we are at a time when the standard word processing application is about to evolve again into a different form (and cheaper) than what we have grown used to with packaged applications that we load on our computers hard drive.

If we look back upon the early days there were a lot of players in the industry WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, WordStar, Wang to name but a few.  But because it had a strong long-term vision tied to the operating system which it owned Microsoft’s Word for Windows would emerge the winner.  The last one standing was WordPerfect, but it would just slowly fade away.  Beyond the Word processor, Microsoft looked beyond and incorporated the spreadsheet and presentation software realizing the long-term vision that many people would use all three and would want seamless integration.  The result was Microsoft Office and the rest was history as Microsoft fought battles on all three fronts while the rest just tried to stay afloat.

As we turned the corner into a new century Microsoft Word basically sat alone, unchallenged.  Every document people opened, every attachment received was in a Word.doc format.  With every new release there were new features, new user interface designs (the ribbon anyone?).  It owned the market. It was a cash cow.  When Open Source came onto the scene it was believed it would challenge Word, but in all reality they were just free copy cat images of Word and did not offer anything new.  I always felt that if they did get any traction Microsoft would open its deep pockets to a bunch of lawyers to file a lawsuit for patent infringement etc..This view is simply based on the fact that if did not seem that these Open Source developers were coming up with a single new idea, it looked like they opened Word for Windows and were intent on creating a copy of the software.

Through this past decade there have been numerous challenges, and in certain regions of the world, some have even gained some traction, but they have never been able to gain any sustained momentum.  With the new business models being driven by companies like Google and the fact that pretty much all of us are always connected to the internet, it brings us back to a fundamental question, “If I only use 10 percent of Words capabilities why do I need to install the rest?” and the follow-up question, “why should I pay for innovation that I never will use?”.

What will the future word processor look like?  In a simple word, Notepad.  If you are running Windows just click “Start”, then “All Programs” , then “accessories” – you will find a little application called  Notepad.  You may say is this all?  No but what I believe could and will happen is for your document application you will be presented with a basic framework that allows you to type and provides a subset of fonts.  Then using the persistent connection to the internet you will be able to surf the web and add accessories to your document framework.  It will look like two things already available in the market.  The Eclipse Framework (developers will know what I am talking about), which allows developers just to grab plug-ins for whatever they are working on  and an online store similar to what most people most are already familiar with, the Apple App Store.  Some of these add-ins will be free, some charged for – but your word processor which for years has been a couple of hundred dollars will now be available to do most of what you want to do for under $20 and in some instances it will be free.

For some companies, namely one, Microsoft, this will be a very painful transition.  Unless they get out in front of the market it will be a missed opportunity that will cost them dearly as more and more end-users spend time outside of the Microsoft software ecosystem.  However like everything else in technology when markets change there will be those who seize the opportunity.  Could you have an ad driven model within a word processor?  Why not?  Could the market for cool ad-ons in the document framework explode?  Sure.  In the end the one thing I am sure of is the one benefit will be a better more affordable experience for both end-users and enterprises a like.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 21, 2010

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