Computers: Advances that are less than perfect: Steve Homer berates his word processor for losing sight of the essentials in favour of more bells and whistles

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The Independent Online
It was word processing that really first brought computing into the office. For me, taking in characters as you type, storing them, and then manipulating them at your leisure, is still one of the miracles of computing. To correct spelling and typing errors, to allow me to change my mind and move a paragraph in moments and then produce a document of pristine good looks, for me is a delight.

But word processor manufacturers, and, it has to be admitted, users, have been lured away from this simplicity. 'Please sir can I have some more,' users cry and more and more features are bolted on.

Word processors have now taken on many of the tasks of a desk top publishing package. They will allow you to write in columns, as in newspapers, include images, change the size of letters, use hundreds of different tyrpfaces. Today word processors will even allow you to link into spreadsheets and other programs and let you send faxes. Many packages can today even include sound notes and small video clips. There is pretty much nothing you cannot do in a word processor today.

Back in 1989 WordPerfect introduced its version 5.1 for Dos, the basic PC-compatible operating system. I have been using it ever since. The company launched version 6 for Dos earlier this year but this offered few advantages and the way you accessed many of the most commonly used functions had changed. Importantly, the use of a mouse seemed almost essential. It would do almost everything a Windows program could, but, to run properly, required the power of a machine capable of running Windows, the PC's graphics-based operting system, which seemed rather to miss the point.

Version 5.1 for Dos offers you a spartan screen with almost no indication as to the power of the program. But, with a little application, you can do all your important tasks by hitting a few keys. As you use the keys to type the words you are processing, there is a certain logic to using keys to perform actions such as checking the spelling of a document, counting the number of words, retrieving files to be worked on and so forth.

Wordperfect for Windows 6 should have been a great leap forward. But the problems started almost at once. Under Windows, characters are not as clear on screen as running under Dos. I found text difficult to read using my medium resolution 14-inch VGA screen. I then tried a higher resolution Super VGA screen, which really did not improve things much. I then finally tried a new Brilliance 17-inch SVGA monitor from Philips, which was wonderful. But, it costs more than pounds 1,000. All that money just to be able to read what I am writing easily again.

There is also another problem. Programs operating under Windows communicate with the hardware in a much more complex way than under Dos. This means they are slower and have a greater potential to stop working. I have had many problems. WordPerfect technical support solved my initial problems, but I was left with crashes that would occur in different places, mostly at random. I wasted more than two hours trying to create a Christmas fax because every time I tried to move a certain part of the design, the computer would lock up and I would have to switch off and start again.

However, Wordperfect for Windows 6 is a good powerful product and the company assures me I am being unlucky with the number of crashes. It has lots of bells and whistles - including a pretty good spreadsheet, graph drawing and graphics package - and will do almost everything you will ever want to do in document preparation. But as someone principally interested in writing, I have very straightforward requirements. I do not need to worry about how my documents look. All I want to do is put the right words in the right order.

For straightforward writing, I would still recommend Wordperfect 5.1. Apart from anything else, 5.1 will happily run on a slow 386 computer with 1 megabyte of memory, while Wordperfect for Windows really needs a 486 machine and 8 megabytes of memory. Microsoft's Word 6 for Dos, which will run even on stone-age 8086 PCs is another excellent alternative. But if you are thinking of moving from a WordPerfect for DOS word processor to Wordperfect for Windows 6 there is one big problem.

As you use a product like a word processor, over the years it moulds itself to your needs. The special words you use in your type of writing will be stored in a supplementary dictionary. You may well have written macros - shortcuts - for frequently repeated tasks and so on. Most copies of WordPerfect's new word processor are being sold to users of existing versions of WordPerfect who will have spent many hours fine tuning their systems. But WordPerfect offers a poor program for converting macros and totally ignores the supplementary dictionary and other related files. What is more, although it claims that users familiar with the Dos version can use their old key commands, this is simply not true.

Nowhere in its documentation is there a simple conversion course. There is no explanation along the lines 'If you are used to doing X, then sorry but you will have to do Y in the new version'. Ironically Microsoft Word's documentation offers much more focused help for users converting from Wordperfect for Dos than does the WordPerfect product.

A machine that could have cost pounds 2,500 barely a year ago can be yours for under pounds 800 today. This should mean that you can do things a lot faster and things that you could not do before. The trouble is that as things get more complicated, basic functions seem to be getting pushed to the side and the performance of the basic word processing work - moving around in a document, finding files, using the spell checker and so on - are, if anything, becoming slower, are more difficult to use and can be quite difficult to find.

It is a pity that word processor manufacturers do not use this increase in power to improve the central word processing functions. Microsoft in its latest release of Word is beginning to try some clever tricks. However, WordPerfect has done little new to make its flagship a better word processor in the strict meaning of the term.

(Photograph omitted)

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