WordPerfectOne of the big frustrations of writing a book is that while Microsoft Word can be used for creating and formatting a book, it’s a real pain in the neck for ordinary mortals to use it for that purpose.  In fact, at least one person (Aaron Shepard) has written an entire book telling you how to pull that feat off.

Why is that true, do you suppose?

Well, here’s the answer:  it’s because Microsoft wiped out all office suite competition 20 years ago, before anyone making word processing software for general users thought there was a market for such functionality. After that happened, unless Microsoft thought it could make money making it easy to format a book, no one was going to do it. And since Microsoft’s products are targeted at business users, and businesses don’t write books unless they’re actual publishers, well, then, you’re just going to be out of luck.

What about the money Microsoft makes selling Word and Office to home users? That’s very small change compared to Microsoft’s sales to large, “enterprise” users. The main reason that Microsoft serves the home market at all is because one way that Microsoft was able to create, and then maintain, a monopoly was by being sure that everyone that used Word at work could use it as home as well, and therefore didn’t have a motive to learn a different program. Even more important, though, was the fact that every Word user could trade documents with anyone else, and they’d always look perfect when they were opened. If they used any other program, they might have all sorts of minor issues.

How much should you care?

Well, contrast the status of Word with that of mobile phones – devices that barely existed seven years ago, and look at the hundreds of thousands of apps that have been created to do just about anything on them, often for free.  Or (if you’re old enough to remember) with how fast features got added to word processing packages back when WordPerfect and a few other contenders were still viable. Every new release brought new tricks – borders, colors, shapes, embedded objects, and much more.  After WordPerfect was chased into a tiny corner of the market, Microsoft pretty much put Word on the shelf, except to come up with trivial and unnecessary “innovations” like adding the Ribbon (now being phased out). Once WordPerfect was out of the way, Microsoft never even bothered to get rid of some obvious bugs (how many thousands of times have you had to click “no” when the pop up asks “save changes?” when all you did was open a document), or to add the “show changes” feature to PowerPoint – a collaborative tool for which almost any business user would need that function.

You may recall that the same thing happened with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  In the first two years, Microsoft put out about 7 releases of Explorer, each one getting better, and then gave it away for free, until Netscape was driven into a corner.  And then, for almost ten years, Microsoft never put out another release – ten years being more than half the life of the Web up to that point before release 8 came out, and then only because Mozilla was taking over the marketplace.

As someone who has spent his entire vocational and avocational life behind a keyboard, that’s a heartbreaking story.  For starters, I’ve had to make do without beloved WordPerfect features like the “show codes” function. With that little gem, when you found that you were having trouble with some element of formatting, all you had to do was hit two keys and Voila!  There was the actual format command causing the problem.  Just delete it, and problem solved. Or easy macros.  Type whatever you want, hit a couple of keys, give it a name, and whenever you want that module or series of actions again, just hit a few keys, and Voila! again.

But even worse, think what you might be able to do with your word processor today if there had been the same kind of competition there’s been between mobile phone makers? Instead of having to open different programs to do slides, or databases, or text, you’d open just one, and you’d be able to do so much more with it. Want to do a book?  Just click on templates, the way you do with a free blogging site, and all the formatting would happen automatically.  Want to publish it to the Web instead?  Same deal. I guarantee you that you’d be able to do even more things that I can’t even think of (remember the mobile app analogy?)

Happily, there are a couple of glimmers on the horizon that may provide some relief. The first is that there’s a format standard, called OpenDocument Format (ODF for short) that’s been around over ten years, and which formed the basis for the greatest standards war so far this century. To make a long story short, Microsoft successfully blocked that standard, which could have leveled the playing field, making it possible for competition to return to the word processing marketplace. The reason? If Microsoft and everyone else used the same standard, you could open any document, in every program, and it would always look perfect.  If you could do that, would you plump down a couple hundred bucks for Office, or download one of the several existing free office suite packages that already do everything you want to do today.

Now, the United Kingdom Cabinet Office is considering making ODF compliance mandatory for all office suite software that UK government agencies buy, which could make a huge difference, since it has huge buying power – enough to incentivize other vendors to enter the marketplace, and especially if other countries follow their lead (some smaller countries already took the same action before the UK).  You can read more about how and why that might happen in these comments I filed at the UK Cabinet Office in response to its request for public comments on the proposed procurement policy changes.

The second piece of good news is that there are not only free open source word processing products available already, as earlier noted, but also free, open source software tools that you can use to write, format, and export your books as ePub files right now. You can find an excellent “how to,” including links to the free download sites for those programs, here. I’ve used LibreOffice, and if you’re used to Word, it will take almost no time at all to feel comfortable with LibreOffice. I haven’t tried the other tools (yet), but given the fact that using any other paid book formatting software is somewhat tricky, I expect that it’s no more difficult to use these tools. Moreover, most book formatting software carries a hefty price, and these tools are free. So what have you got to lose?

If you do go down that road, drop me a line and tell me how it worked for you.

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