Five years ago Apple’s software engineering took an astonishing leap with the introduction of iMovie. Video crossfades, slow motion, titling and triple stereo soundtracks were all placed within easy reach of the absolute beginner. It was spectacularly easy to drive, and yet had a complex and powerful engine hidden beneath the hood.
iDVD, iTunes, iPhoto and GarageBand followed – each one sleek, powerful and a doddle to use. iLife strikes me as the software equivalent of a small automatic BMW for the price of a bicycle – fine engineering made completely transparent to the casual user. It spares us the geeky details and lets us get on with the job.
Trouble is, most of our jobs don’t involve CD ripping, music writing, photo sorting, video editing or burning DVDs. Most of the work done at most of the computers in the world involves typing – either emails or word processing – and for most computers in the world, word processing means Microsoft Word.
If iLife’s a BMW, then Word is a half-ton SUV with bullbars and a cockpit bristling with odd controls to regulate the carburettor, distributor, transmission, wheel tracking, brake sensitivity and water flow for the windscreen washers. The SatNav guesses where you’re trying to go and criticizes your driving. It needs a V8 engine to power it, and takes up the space of three normal cars outside your house.
Writing’s vital to my job but I don’t need tables of contents, style sheets, kerning, footnotes, hyperlinks or baseline shifts. Or colour coded balloons, integration with chat apps or online encyclopaedias. I don’t want to track edits, flag important entries, embed movies or record time-stamped audio in my documents. All I need is to get words on paper as as quickly and efficiently as possible. Back in 1985 I did this with a heavy-duty manual Remington typewriter, which my first Mac murdered the moment it climbed out of the box. The weapon it used was a 400k floppy, containing the entire Macintosh OS and an application called MacWrite.
The computer had arrived with 128K (yes, one-eighth of one megabyte) of memory, an external floppy drive and a dot-matrix Imagewriter. The whole lot cost more than £4,000 in today’s money, but that first Mac stole my heart on the basis of MacWrite alone. Within literally 15 minutes of unpacking I was typing my first letter with no training whatsoever.
You clicked, you typed, you printed – and what you saw on the screen was exactly what you got on the paper. You could change fonts, styles and sizes at the click of a button. In those dark DOS days of regulation green characters on regulation black screens, how cool was that?
If you write words for a living, being able to draft and redraft them onscreen saves you vast time and effort. In the blissful innocence of that early MacEden I happily wrote songs, poems, diaries, contracts, newsletters, lists, scripts and magazine articles like this one. The only thing my Remington could do that the Apple couldn’t was type the fractions
1⁄2, 1⁄3, 1⁄4 and 3⁄4.
But you know the nature of sinful man. How nice it would be, I mused, if MacWrite could only open more than one document at once, or let you navigate using the keyboard. Double columns would be nice. And in mid 1985 along came the serpent in the Apple tree – a free seminar on MS Word for Macintosh.
Sure enough, it offered multiple columns and open documents, plus more keyboard shortcuts than you could point a mouse at. Search and replace, mailmerge, bullet lists and a comprehensive spellchecker were thrown in. I took one bite of the Microsoft Apple and fell from grace forever.
Word 1.0 fitted on a single 400k disk complete with help file and dictionaries, but cost a king’s ransom. It took many minutes to boot up, crashed repeatedly, and its glacial speed on my 128K Mac eventually cost me another £500 to quadruple the memory. But once having tasted forbidden fruit there was no going back to the garden.
I wandered an imperfect world yearning for MacWrite’s ease of use but hooked on Word’s functionality. As the years and updates came and went I flirted in turn with WriteNow, FullWrite, WordPerfect, Nisus, Mariner Write and ClarisWorks, but in 1992 Microsoft suddenly got it right: Word 5.1 was slim, fast, stable and a joy to use. For a decade I cheerfully ignored every successive upgrade and got on with my work.
Of course it couldn’t last. Along came new a new generation of OS X PowerBooks that were to my G3 Lombard brick as that first Mac had been to the typewriter. A switch to Jaguar and the bloatware of Office X beckoned. I lashed out on my tiny shiny laptop and bowed to the inevitable.
January’s surprise announcement of an all-new word processor from Apple set my trainspotter heart racing. Could this at last be TextEdit with sensible menus, or AppleWorks without stylesheets? Well, no. Pages is a many-featured thing that lets you “create tables filled with text, graphics or photos” or even “control widows and orphans” if you know what they are. You can create footnotes with Arabic or Roman numbering and integrate it seamlessly with Safari and iLife.
But a lean, mean writing machine it ain’t. Even 20 years ago MacWrite could change font or type size with a single click, whereas Pages and TextEdit make you open a palette and select from its cluttered contents. No big deal, but imagine having to open the “driving controls palette” every time you needed the windscreen wipers.
So it’s a quick peck on the cheek for Pages and back to the clammy embrace of Microsoft. In 20 years Word’s grown threehundredfold in size but retains one wonderful trick that keeps me coming back: you can strip out every one of those unneccessary features and still use it as a bare-bones word processor. It may not have worked out how to type fractions, but Word and a PowerBook G4 still beat the hell out of my old Remington. MW