Narrow text processors 19:50 on Saturday

I guess there’s no doubt about Microsoft Word being the most used word processor on the planet. Word is versatile, but its biggest flaw is that it’s a Swiss knife: Word is something for everybody.

David Heinemeier Hansson’s writes about over-generalization of software:

“We need even more narrow tools. While [the time to develop a new application will] never reach zero, [development time] is aiming enough in that direction to expose the fraud of ultimate generalization. So don’t accept the label of content. Nobody produces content. People write reviews, people write news, people write articles, people exhibits photos.”

In their day to day work people need tools that fit. No carpenter would use a Swiss knife to craft all the different products he can make, still millions of knowledge workers use Word for anything that has to do with text, no matter how different their needs are. Instead, we need narrow text processing tools. Just like the carpenter has a jigsaw for doing a certain thing and a hand saw for another. Thus “narrowness” not only generates better software with a faster development time, but also contributes to an improved user experience.

We could have a news writing application, that would allow for easy fact checking, editing and reviewing by others, and transparent connections and integration into publishing systems. There could be a review writing application that would help writing comparisons between products, and make it easy to add meta data specific to reviews, such as ratings, price, feature lists, etc. Maybe a text processor for students to make it easy to write papers that adhere to common rules and styling for references, footnotes, table of contents, writer credits and so on. Now that Google wants to index all information in the world, throw in live reference checking from Google databases and you could see who else has used the same references and where.

While we’re at it, we could remove the need to save and add automatic versioning.

British Telecom’s futurist Ian Pearson summarizes the need for narrow focus in a Wired article:

“We’ve done 20 years of adding functionality, and 99 percent of that functionality isn’t needed,” Pearson said. “There will be an enormous market over the next several years for really simple stuff.”

As an end note, I have to give props to Microsoft for addressing the apparent bloat of the Office (and hence Word) interface in the upcoming Office 12. While fixing the user interface of a Swiss knife app doesn’t make it a proper hammer, it can make the application more usable. You can see some screenshots of Office 12 in Jensen Harris’ blog.

Also remember to check out Ian Pearson’s Guide to the Future and some business sense on making things narrow.

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