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2008 August 13 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Beyond Microsoft Word: Many Options Available for Word Processing

If you’re like most people, you’re using the word processor that came with your computer. Or you may be using the word processor you’ve used for years, moving it from old computer to new one because of the time you’ve invested in learning its ins and outs and because it’s familiar.

In a recent online discussion about word processing among members of the Internet Press Guild (IPG), an organization of professional writers who write about computers and the Internet, many people confessed to using older products. Others said they use free software. Still others said they use Microsoft Office Word, the word processing market leader.

Interesting options exist today in word processing that can be worth spending a few hours investigating even if you’re comfortable with your current set-up.

As it has for years, Microsoft Word has the lion’s share of the word processing market, both for PCs and Macs. The word processor that comes with Microsoft Works, which is bundled with many new computers these days, is similar.

Word is a big program with a slew of features, and most people use only a small subset of them. According to the pros of IPG, using Word makes especially good sense if you work with others also using it, such as coworkers and clients. Word has excellent tools for collaborating with
others and tracking editing changes in a document.

Even if your word processing needs are relatively simple, such as working with straight text documents, Word can be a good choice. You can set it up, for instance, to save documents in .txt format as the default instead of Word’s own .doc format.

Along with being available in Microsoft Office, the suite of programs that includes a spreadsheet and other tools, Word is also available as a stand-alone program. The latest version for Windows is Word 2007, and for the Mac it’s Word 2008.

Word is the priciest mainstream word processor option out there, and this has led even professional writers to look at alternatives.

The most popular non-Microsoft Word option among the IPG pros, a program otherwise highly regarded as well, is OpenOffice Write. It’s part of the free OpenOffice.org suite of programs (www.openoffice.org). This office suite was released as “open source” software by Microsoft archrival Sun Microsystems in 2000 specifically to try to stop the Microsoft juggernaut.

OpenOffice is available not only for Windows and Mac OS X but also Linux and other operating systems. An offshoot of it, written specifically for Mac OS X, is NeoOffice (www.neooffice.org), which also is totally free.

Both OpenOffice and NeoOffice can read and write to Microsoft Office formats, including Word’s .doc format, though sharing Word documents among Word users isn’t as seamless as using Word. Along with a word processor, OpenOffice includes spreadsheet, presentation, database, drawing, and math equation programs.

An up-and-coming newcomer for word processing is Google Docs (docs.google.com), a free online suite of programs from the maker of the market-leading Google Internet search engine. Along with a word processor, the suite includes a spreadsheet and presentation program.

Unlike traditional computer programs, Google Docs is a Web application, which means you run it from within your Web browser. You can run it through Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, or Opera.

Being a Web application makes collaborating on documents with others more convenient, particularly when traveling. Documents by default are saved to Google’s own computers, though you can optionally save them to your own computer. Google Docs supports popular file types, including Word’s .doc format.

Google Docs as of this writing was still officially in beta, or testing, mode, but the word processing component has been around since 2005. It does have some limitations compared with traditional word processors particularly in terms of storage, but this won’t be an issue for most users. Individual documents must be less than 500 kilobytes in size, though embedded images can be up to 2 megabytes. The limit on the number of documents is 5,000.

Other word processors used by the IPG pros include some oldies but goodies, such as  WordPerfect (www.corel.com), which is still on the market, and WordStar, which isn’t, as well as older versions of Word.

For creating and editing very long documents, including technical documentation, a recommended program is Adobe FrameMaker (www.adobe.com/products/framemaker), which can be used for both word processing and desktop publishing. As a specialized program, it’s pricey at about $1,000.

For word processing aficionados, Wikipedia has a good list of many other programs.

 Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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