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Online word processors: Awesome and primitive

Web 2.0 is built on the idea of styles, so it's astounding when the best and brightest of online applications fails to support styles in user documents.

I love that you can now write full, rich, graphical applications for the Web--even for core tools like word processors. As Stephen Shankland recently noted, Google Docs has evolved into something surprisingly useful, even for a professional writer. I second that opinion, and add that competitors like Zoho Writer are similarly powerful, usable, and useful--as are other "Office 2.0" apps for spreadsheets, presentations, project management, and other tasks. Cloud apps have come a long way, baby!

A document in Google Docs
A document in Google Docs Screenshot by Illuminata

Online editors let you move your work easily to just about any connected computer, and they enormously facilitate live, real-time collaboration. They do have some drawbacks, though. If the Net goes down, or you're in a place you can't get a good network connection, you're out of luck. Offline editors like Microsoft Word and work perfectly well without a network. Desktop apps are also functionally much richer. But there's one place where online editors are pathetically weak: their appalling lack of support for structured, well-styled documents.

In the early days, word processing was just about typing plain text, like on a typewriter. Remember those? Every character was the same. But along came desktop publishing. Individual words and characters could be displayed in different typefaces (fonts), in different colors, sizes, weights, and variations. The documents we produce stopped looking like typewritten text and started to look like traditional print design. We started adding graphics, tables, footnotes, sidebars, and other elements that make work-a-day documents very similar to--if usually not as polished as--professionally typeset publications.

The early days of putting typographic controls in the hands of untrained users led to horrible excesses--documents using 12 different fonts, and seemingly random font sizes, line spacing, and levels of indentation. Over time, the novelty of using a dozen different typefaces wore off. Word processors also got better at helping users create attractive, consistent documents. One way they did this was by providing pre-created document templates and styles, serving as design guides. Wikipedia puts it well:

Almost all word processors enable users to employ styles, which are used to automate consistent formatting of text body, titles, subtitles, highlighted text, and so on.

Styles greatly simplify managing the formatting of large documents, since changing a style automatically changes all text that the style has been applied to. Even in shorter documents styles can save a lot of time while formatting.

Unfortunately, online word processors don't support styles. Sure, they let you specify Heading 1, Heading 2, and Normal Text--a small handful of the most rudimentary styles, drawn directly from HTML. But titles, subtitles, quotes, definitions, and other kinds of logical distinctions or structured elements found in many documents? Nowhere to be found. And define your own styles? Not a chance. When you change typefaces, sizes, colors, and such in an online word processor, you're obliged to apply those attributes individually, to each selection of the document you want to change. If you later decide to change a document's look, you have to go back and change it everywhere, manually. If you forget in some places--and if the document is more than a page or two long, you will--consistency vanishes.

All sorts of documents--reports, dissertations, depositions, requests, proposals, product brochures, resumes, press releases, memos, articles, etc.--have stylistic requirements and expectations. Styles help users and organizations meet those requirements, and do so in a consistent and efficient way. Not having styles makes the user once again responsible for very low-level editing tasks. Without styles, errors increase and consistency decreases.

Worse, when you need to integrate with the rest of the world, online word processors don't play nicely with others. If you upload your nicely styled and structured .doc, .docx, or .odt file, the online editor will present it looking pretty much as it did before. But it just looks right. If you do some editing and download the results, your precious styles are gone. The look of the document is there, more or less, but the intent and structure is gone.

If your needs are simple--you have a small number of documents, they're simple, you don't much care how your documents look and are laid out, and changes are infrequent--it's not a big deal. But manual styling isn't a "best practice" in document preparation--and hasn't been for over 20 years. It was primitive even when Office 97 was new, and it's downright barbaric considering the refinements of Office 2007 or Office 2010. The more documents you have, the more complex or structured they are, and the more you care about achieving a consistent look and layout, the more important styles become. The same is true if you're trying to integrate online and offline word processing in organizational and publishing workflows that depend on styles.

Today's Web is built on styles. They're the linchpin of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), all modern renderings of HTML (e.g. HTML5), and the entire rich Internet app/Web 2.0 look-and-feel. Given that, it's astounding that the pinnacle of Web 2.0 apps do such a poor job maintaining styles in user documents. "The Net" is supposed to make our work more efficient and better integrated--not send us back to 1980 approaches to content.

Dear Google, Zoho, and fellow travelers: Time to step up your games! You've got amazing Web-based word processors. Now, give us some style!

P.S. I wrote this document in Google Docs. It worked very nicely--but I then had to clean up the document's styles and structure in an offline editor before publication. I believe the Internet expression for this irony is: ha ha! *sob*