Saturday, November 15, 2008

On the processing of words

Coming out to Minnesota for six weeks, I packed the only available laptop, the iBook G4 that my father no longer uses. It’s old and slow and doesn’t run Leopard, but it’s a perfectly adequate writing machine, which is all I need it to be. There was, though, a problem: it had no word-processing program installed. I’m pretty sure it had the Apple software when it was new, but Works has disappeared from its hard drive, and iWork was never installed to replace it. So I had to work something out.

The answer seemed obvious. I would turn to Google Docs, the web-based word processor I’d used a bit and had been tracking since it was known as Writely. The GD interface is similar to Microsoft Word’s, it has features that make it a great tool for collaborative writing or writer-editor work—and it’s free. But I’d had a few passing problems saving documents (just as I have saving posts on Blogger—also a Google product). What killed it off as a primary option was a horror story I’d read about someone who could not retrieve what he’d written due to a Google foul-up involving his password. He discovered that Google has no help desk or customer service for Docs, that, in fact, it is impossible to reach a human being to solve what is, essentially a simple problem. So no. GD was out, except as a handy traveler’s backup (along with the trusty thumb drive).

How about getting a copy of iWork and using Pages? It’s a lot cheaper than buying Office to get Word. But although I use Pages for simple layout tasks on my desktop iMac, I haven’t gotten comfortable with its word processing side.

Almost 20 years ago, I was forced, kicking and screaming, to begin using the pompous, ponderous, stubborn, but dominant Word. I’ve been annoyed by it ever since, but, as with an utterly maddening relative, I’m used to it, and like those cranky old guys who only write with fountain pens, I’m sensitive to change—I miss that hard-won feeling of familiarity, if not ease.

I tried a few smaller programs, primarily meant for memo-writing or journaling, but they didn’t click for me. Which meant back to Word. Word, however, only comes with Office, and the package isn’t cheap. So: eBay. I found someone selling the consumer version, and joined the bidding. With a final bid placed two seconds before the auction closed, I won a copy for what was still too much money, but was substantially below retail. And here I sit, using it to type this post.

Of course, it’s the new version, and at home I have the old one, so after all this I’m still having to come to grips with those ease and familiarity issues.

[Special irrelevant historical comment: For my money, the best all-time word processor—a tool for processing words and nothing more—was the late, great XyWrite, a writer’s tool if ever there was one, and once a mainstay of newspaper and magazine editorial offices. It worked in DOS only (there is or was a Windows version, but it wasn’t/isn’t the same superb program), wasn’t WYSIWYG, and had no menus. On the other hand, you could personalize it through simple programming, the commands and (programmable) keyboard shortcuts were easy to learn, moves and changes were direct and instantaneous. Best of all, the mechanics of all this stayed out of your way. It never asked you questions or made suggestions or assumed it knew more about what you were trying to do than you did. It let you write the way you wrote. It was to Word as a great athlete is to a blind and blundering hulk. A great, great program that I jury-rigged a system to use for years after it had become “obsolete.” I’d buy a copy in a minute at five times the price of Office if—technical impossibility—it were available today for the Mac.]

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