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Cutting off your word processor's tail


Jon Udell makes a return to the subject of word processors.

He wonders about distilling, sorry reducing, the functionality of a word processor:

Suppose we boiled down a large sample of office documents to their constituent elements and ranked them by frequency. We'd find paragraphs, lists, tables, images, links, basic styling, and then a long diminishing tail of rarely used features.


Yes! (Sounds like something culinary – a reduction of Microsoft Word)

I discussed this a lot, last year when I kicked off the WP Interop project. While Jon's dream of a well-oiled word processor without a long tail is appealing, it's something that will take significant effort, according to Tim Bray:

Well, yeah, but... authoring software is hard. I’ve used a lot of different programs over the years, and written some myself, and I’ve never seen software, designed for use by human authors, that has good usability and isn’t a great big honking monster. And usually, they’re not only big, but they take years and years to get working properly. So I really hope Jon’s right, but I’m not holding my breath.


So Tim Bray's not holding his breath waiting. Just as well because then he wouldn't be able to be a cheerleader for openoffice.org.

I'm not holding my breath either. I decided to build Jon Udell's 'reduction of word processor', not on top of 'web 2.0' or 'the Internet' but on top of Word and OpenOffice.org.


Well, the wait could be a long one, and I can't write an authoring application. But what I can do, and have done for ten years or so is design good, simple templates that do Udell's 'paragraphs, lists, tables, images, links, basic styling'. We're well on the way to having this working in the ICE project, where the same set of simple styles can be used in Microsoft Word and OpenOffice.org Writer reasonably interchangeably to produce, usable, reusable documents efficiently. ICE documents can be automatically published as XHTML (via OpenOffice.org and some XSLT and Python) or PDF (via OpenOffice.org) and maybe to DocBook via work done by Ian Barnes for long term archiving and more publishing options.

Even in the absence of a good lightweight authoring tool we need to do something to promote efficiency and sustainability and reusability. And the people who work in this way (basically the ones who use styles) will be ready for the new lightweight world, whereas some of the less considered word processor users will have a hard time migrating to a new tool.

The application Jon Udell wishes for could well be based on a slice of XHTML. There was a bit of talk of such an applicationlast year, but it died down, and I have heard of no real progress, except, of course my dogged pursuit of the word processor interoperability stylesheets.

The ICE projecthas an OpenOffice.org v2 template, which you can have alook at in the downloads section for our 0.2 release. A word template is coming in the next couple of weeks – email me if you're impatient to try one. To convert documents to HTML you need to install ICE because the export in OpenOffice.org (and Word) is so woeful as discussed here last week. There are ICE binaries available, but unless you are particularly adventurous maybe wait a bit until we get some more instructions published.