Word processing did not develop out of computer technology. It evolved from the needs of writers using typewriters rather than those of mathematicians, only later merging with the computer field. They were first used for automatic typing of letters. Later, they were used to playback material that was typed correctly when corrections were added. The history of word processing is the story of the gradual automation of the physical aspects of writing and editing, and the refinement of the technology to make it available to individual and corporate users.

Before disk programs most word processing packages were ‘dedicated’ systems, which were bulky and expensive, and did not admit computing functions other than word processing. Disk programs made it practical to develop packages for use with personal computers, first made available in completely assembled form in 1977. Thus the separation of the software from the hardware also opened up the field to individuals. Word processing is now one of the most common general applications for personal computers.

Over the next ten years many new features were introduced in the field. One important innovation was the development of ‘spell checking’ (actually checks against wordlists), ‘grammar checking’ (checks for what seem to be simple grammar errors), and a ‘thesaurus’ function (finds words with similar or opposite meanings). Another advance, introduced by Xerox in its Star Information System, allowed working on more than one document at a time on the same screen. Some programs even incorporated bookkeeping and inventory functions, combining word processing with data processing and completing the marriage of the word processor to the computer.

Today’s word processor
How times have moved on! Modern word processors are totally software-based and the good ones handle the automatic generation of batch mailings using a form letter template and an address database (also called mail merging), indices of keywords and their page numbers, tables of contents with section titles and their page numbers, tables of figures with caption titles and their page numbers, cross-referencing with section or page numbers, footnote numbering, and new versions of a document using variables (e.g. model numbers, product names and so on).

Microsoft’s Word is the world’s most widely used computer word processing system. It is estimated that over five hundred million people use Office, which includes Word. One of the main reasons Word is so popular is that it is almost as hard to escape as Internet Explorer or even Windows itself, as it is included with many computers (whether you want it or not), and so many people try to give you files in Microsoft’s proprietary DOC format. And since Microsoft won’t tell other developers how to read and write DOC files, it seems that buying Word is the only way out.

But other developers have done a pretty good job of decoding DOC files, and many of the other word processors available are pretty darn good in their own right. These include Corel’s WordPerfect, which dominated the market from the mid-1980s to early-1990s, and IBM’s Lotus Word Pro. Open-source applications such as Abiword, KWord, LyX and OpenOffice Writer are rapidly gaining in popularity, and online word processors such as Google Docs and Zoho Writer (reviewed here) are also becoming increasingly popular.

Today is the age of Web-based applications and cloud computing. Unless you are a complete security nut job, there is very little reason to depend on a hard drive-based application for your general office duties. Google Docs and Zoho Web 2.0 are both free and provide everything you will probably ever need – and you already have access to both suites if you have a Google or Yahoo! e-mail account. They can both be used offline too thanks to Google’s Gears. Zoho is the most comprehensive suite of Web-based programmes and is more poised than ever to provide a complete alternative to Microsoft’s Office and other similar programs. Its flagship word processor just got a major interface overhaul in its 2.0 incarnation.

Zoho Writer is an online word processor that allows you to create and share documents online. The biggest benefit of the software is that you do not need to install any software onto your machine – all you need is a Web browser (Internet Explorer 5.5+, Firefox 1.5+, Mozilla 1.4+, or Netscape 7.0+) and an Internet connection. Regardless of the browser type, you must enable JavaScript for Zoho Writer to function properly. Very similar in appearance to Word – thanks to version 2.0’s interface upheaval – Zoho Writer is loaded with a rich set of functionalities. For instance, you can create and format documents online with a powerful WYSIWYG editor, as well as access, edit, and share (by e-mail address) documents online from anywhere with whomever you choose.

You can import and export documents in all the most popular formats (Word, SXW, ODT, RTF, JPG, GIF, PNG, HTML and TXT), as well as post your documents to your blogs (Blogger, LiveJournal, Typepad, WordPress etc) from within Zoho Writer. Two other really neat features include the ability to view your documents’ revision history, compare versions and rollback to any version of your choice, as well as lock your documents while working in shared mode. Vitally important is the way Zoho Writer periodically auto-saves your documents to prevent data loss.

Using Zoho Writer is just as easy to use as Word. While there are many changes in the tabbed interface, the core frame remains the same with document listing on the left, editor on the right, the ability to open multiple documents as tabs. But then, every part of the interface is now enhanced. In the previous version, Zoho Writer’s core functionality was available as links and buttons in three rows. As its features grew over the past three years, the number of buttons increased which made it difficult in finding the right button.

Previously, Zoho Writer displayed all commands at once via a 3-row toolbar. However, as functionality was quickly added, the interface got busy. The new MenuTab design not only streamlines the toolbar with tabbed menus that are organised in context-based groups, but also provides quick access to commands in other tabs. It also allows enough space to mention what each button does – both under the tab as well as under menus. This was not the case in the previous design where you had to rely on tool tips. But key is the ability to use these tabs as menus. You can access these commands either by clicking the tab, which changes the button set available on your toolbar (much like Microsoft’s Office) or by clicking the little arrow next to them, which opens a drop-down menu without changing your toolbar. With this innovation, you now get the best of both worlds – menus and tabs.

The biggest difference between Zoho Writer and an ‘offline’ word processor, such as Word or Word Perfect, is that uses the concept of tags as folders for organising your documents. Tags are keywords, terms or categories you create that allows you to organise multiple documents by project names, date, subjects, business or anything else you can imagine. Moreover, you can label a single document with multiple tags that helps in cross-referencing of documents. You can add a tag by clicking the blue tag icon, present at the bottom of each document (third icon from left), and enter the tags of your choice. Tag similar documents and have such a tag added on the left panel by clicking on the particular tag and selecting ‘Add as Folder’ option (having a tag as a folder). Zoho Writer also provides sorting of documents by ‘Name’, ‘Created Date’ and ‘Modified Time’ (both ascending and descending). You can do sorting by clicking on the ‘Sort by’ link, next to the ‘My Docs’ on the left hand panel, and selecting any of the above three sorting criteria.

Of course, you can also save a document from Zoho Writer to your hard drive by clicking on the ‘Export’ link, should you want to take manual control of your storage. It is worth noting that to protect your documents from unauthorised access, Zoho Writer uses password authentication as the security mechanism. Regarding data management and backup, Zoho Writer replicates each document, so that even if one copy is lost, there is another live copy.

It also backs up data daily. So in the worst case scenario where it loses both copies due to some unforeseen circumstances, there is a daily backup from which it can restore. Sadly, SSL-based login authentication is not currently available, but the company claims is it planning to offer encrypted document storage for paid subscribers. Thus, only the original owner of the document can decrypt it. Another consideration is storage space. As of now, Zoho Writer offers unlimited storage space. However, documents have a 10MB maximum file size and there are plans to limit total storage space to 1GB once the software comes out of beta. While these aren’t deal breakers for most users, it goes to show that you can’t have unlimited functionality for free.

Other enhancements to the Zoho Writer interface include an enhanced sidebar, improved header/footer with auto-fill, and document info and live word count displayed in the status bar. The new sidebar is now consistent with the sidebar of Zoho Sheet and has features to multi-select documents and perform actions. There is now the ability to change your page layout to landscape mode, but collaborative editing is probably the most important new feature (and a necessary one, given that Google Docs has been doing this for a long time). On the downside, it’s too easy to overwrite another user’s edits. The icons beside the document name shows if the document is shared or public. Search functionality has also been integrated into the sidebar.

Sadly, there are no templates provided as standard, but there’s a link to browse 50 templates (at least at time of writing). There’s also a link to import the template into your library, which is useful if you need it more than once. Another thing we noticed in this release it that the insert layer feature has been removed. The reason being, it tended to mess up certain complex documents by not maintaining its position where it has been inserted. As a work-around you have to use the ‘Insert Table’ option without borders.

Zoho Writer 2.0 is feature rich, looks great, and is easy to use – all of which are critical to replace Office. Zoho Writer’s redesign works brilliantly and makes sure that the application doesn’t overwhelm you visually, which in turn makes it easier to work with. If you are used to working with Office or Web-based applications, you will feel right at home with Zoho Writer. It doesn’t offer some of the advanced features of desktop word processors, but it makes up for it with one of the richest feature sets of any online word processor. The only weakness of Zoho Writer – considering it is free – is that it is perhaps a little too much like Word, and can be as cluttered. Unlike more streamlined applications, you may find the multi-coloured buttons and options too distracting. But, seriously, that’s me being really picky! Zoho Writer is a fantastic word processor that provides a wide range of options. As long as you have a reliable broadband connection, there really is no need to pay for an office suite.