One of the biggest disasters to hit the IT industry is Microsoft Word. By any standards it is a mundane product which should have been put on the scrap heap many years ago, but Microsoft cleverly (when are they anything else except when it comes to designing products) packaged it with the other Office products so that it became the de facto standard. It is of course not the only inferior de facto standard, but this is a particularly nasty one.
The problem with Word is that it is a mess! It was bought by Microsoft years ago and has continually been added to every year since. The regular releases all have some degree of incompatibility with previous releases in order to put pressure on existing users to upgrade, Microsoft's key strategy for making obscene profits. Unfortunately very few of these additions are of much value and so the product gets more complex and inevitably more user hostile.
What then is wrong with Word if most users are asking for it? The answer is that they are asking for the product that is being forced on to them, not what they actually want. Few users when asked will produce a list of their actual text processing needs. If they did, then very few of them would match Word!
Most users need to produce reports and letters a few pages long. Some of us produce such reports as long as 20 pages or so, but they are still relatively simple and complete in themselves. Occasionally I add a few pictures to a family letter. What is needed is a simple, easy to use, intuitive text processor; a GUI version of the old word processors such as TrendText or Word Star. Word is far to complex and as such is counter-productive. The only normal users I come across who do not curse Word are trainers; they love it, because it creates good business!
But as well as normal individual, self-contained items, the corporate world produces a lot of documents. They may be single authored and have a short life span, but most have a long life and are created by multiple authors. Even single authored documents may well be modified by another person during their life span. Another common requirement is to create a single document from a multiplicity of smaller documents, with the final document being presented in a common format.
These documents are key elements in the operation of a company, both from a legal and an efficiency viewpoint. These documents, as well as a lot of "letters" and e-mails, contain important information, in some cases as relevant to decision making as the more conventional data in the business systems. Thus it should be essential that this source of information should be accessible to high level query systems. And yet most of these business critical documents are created using the dreaded Word, simply because the users don't know what problems they are creating. In any case the users will accept whatever is available, and awful though Word is, it is better than a pen or a typewriter!
While a much simpler and cheaper replacement for Word will solve most users' problems, the answer for documents lies in separating the content from the rendering, for which XML is ideal. Currently being used to format messages for business applications, XML is ideal for building corporate document servers. XML databases are in fact already available as are XML editors, but it needs some real support before we can see the end of the Word horror story.< BR>
Martin Healey, pioneer development Intel-based computers en c/s-architecture. Director of a number of IT specialist companies and an Emeritus Professor of the University of Wales.