Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ultimate Writing Software

We can all agree, I’m sure, that the best distraction-free writing hardware out there is a manual typewriter. However…

After long, careful, and somewhat regretful consideration, I’ve determined that the best word processing software I’ve used over the past decade and a half is Microsoft Word 97.


Marvel as it launches, entire, within microseconds of that second click. Struggle to spot the tiny 50 MB memory footprint. Relax as you discover that it handles novel-length documents without a hiccup. Thrill as you discover the organizational potential of its online layout view. Wonder at what, exactly, software developers have been doing for the past decade and a half to improve on a package that did everything you needed, without complaint.

Granted, it’s proprietary. It’s not open-source. It won’t open the documents your friends and co-workers might email you, since they’ve most likely moved on to pointlessly newer iterations of the office suite. Oh well. Just ask them to dig into their “save as” menu for something more compatible.

Alas! When I think back on the writing tools I’ve tried over the years, only to settle back to this one. But OpenOffice takes a full 20 seconds to launch, consumes eleven times the RAM, requires the Java Runtime Environment, and from what I can tell doesn’t offer me a single additional feature I have any use for. Then there’s AbiWord, the lightweight open-source alternative, but with every machine I’ve ever run that on, the text has flickered as I type. Not only is this distracting, it leaves me with the impression that my words are the merest whispers on a screen, ready to be swept away by the slightest electrical whim. (This is true, of course. But there’s no call for rubbing it in.) Evernote does a nice job of organizing my thoughts, but it invites a bit too much obsessive shuffling around—and there goes my focus. Besides, who really wants to have their every thought and self-indulgent drivel synchronized across internet servers, anyway? That’s what blogging is for!

The Only Office You Ever NeedIt was on a lark that I popped this old Office 97 disk in when I found it during a deep tidying-up. I thought, “Gosh, this ran just fine on the computer I was using 14 years ago, and I wrote two novels with it. I wonder how well it would work on a Pentium-4 with a dedicated graphics card and dual monitors?” (Yes, I think I’ve officially “maxxed out” the old PC which I bought from the gentleman who recycles pieces he picks up at the dump.) And it turns out that Word 97 launches faster on this computer than Windows 7 Notepad.

It’s funny how hardware and software have been advancing in lockstep, with applications growing bigger and more bloated just as processors grow more powerful and memory more accommodating. Why does it feel as if it takes just as long to get something done on a computer today as it did 15 years ago? This is patently absurd. But the business plan of selling cheap hardware loaded with the latest bloat-ware—thereby making your new computer feel just a little out of date as soon as you’ve turned it on—has been doing a decent job of driving Moore’s Law into the 21st century.

The best operating environment for me these days seems to be a moderately up-to-date PC (four to eight years old) running software from the generation before. Excel 97 launches faster than the Windows Calculator, and has become my go-to tool for summing columns of numbers or performing basic arithmetic. Photoshop 5.5 (from another late 90s install disk) is more than capable of formatting images for blogging and has the capability of handling more professional photo-editing than I’m qualified to perform, and it, too, runs nimbly on a modern, high-definition monitor.

Notable exception: Windows Live Writer, which provides the simplest interface for blogging on any platform. Even Apple doesn’t have anything to compete with it, for love or money. Which is surprising. People have been blogging for over a decade now and only Microsoft has come up with a simple way for them to edit posts locally and then post them to any service. Who would have thought?

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