publishing

It ain’t easy being king.

Microsoft has been the undisputed ruler of productivity software for decades. Its products have become synonymous with many basic computing tasks; using something besides Word, Excel, or PowerPoint is the exception rather than the rule. The products have helped millions of people create a document, spreadsheet, or presentation across a technological menagerie of operating systems and devices.

Now it seems that both Apple and Google are trying to defenestrate Microsoft and popularize their own productivity software. Apple has updated its iWork software suite with a new interface and a tight integration with iCloud, making it available across a variety of devices — including, for the first time, Windows computers. Google is constantly improving Google Drive, its own productivity suite turned cloud platform, to continue the fight it started with Google Docs in 2007. Gauntlet, thrown.

This battle has implications for each of them. Office is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s business, second in importance only to Windows itself; Google Drive is yet another service that makes it harder and harder to resist Google’s never-ending attempt to rule the Web; and offering free, compelling services like iWork helps Apple convince consumers that its hardware products are worth their higher price. But as interesting as a direct conflict between three of the consumer technology industry’s leading companies can be, the real question is how any of this will benefit the people who use this software every day.

Each of these products offers something that the others don’t. Office has the benefit of being the industry standard, requiring its competitors to support the file types it popularized in some way. iWork lends itself to creative work that focuses on design more than it focuses on features that most people will never use. Google Drive allows for collaborative editing that makes it easier to work with others. Microsoft, Apple, and Google have each brought their own expertise to this fight.

Besides those slight differences, though, these products are similar. They perform the same functions in roughly the same way that they performed years ago. Spreadsheets work the same. Presentations are just a series of slides with ho-hum graphics and some text. Documents are long columns of text that, for some unknown reason, are still divided into physical pages.

That last point is ridiculous. The way we create and consume information has changed dramatically since the first time Microsoft demonstrated Office’s capabilities so many years ago. Forcing page breaks into tools meant to help people write essays or letters or blog posts that will never be printed onto a physical page is anachronistic at best. It would be nice for one of these tools to worry less about doing everything Word did in ’95 and more about embracing the way we write in 2013.

Maybe one of ‘em could produce standard HTML that doesn’t make text look like it was written by an alien species when it’s brought over to the Web. Or maybe it could tie directly into the many tools we use to publish to the Web, removing the need to copy and paste text between different apps. Maybe, instead of insisting that everything written on a computer is meant to be printed, one of these technological titans could realize that people are writing for the Web more than ever before and develop software specifically for that purpose.

Plenty of smaller companies are trying to change the way we write for the Web. Editorially makes it easy to collaborate with other people, view different versions of a document, and write with Markdown, a simple tool that makes preparing a document for the Web easy. Draft does something similar with a different interface. Fargo reduces everything from blog posts to grocery lists down to a simple, Web-based outlining tool. The list goes on.

Microsoft, Apple, and Google have demonstrated their ability to constantly tweak the same basic productivity tools they’ve been offering for years. Hopefully the increased competition between the three will encourage one to abandon these antiquated ideas about how things should be made and shared — or at least get rid of those goddamn page breaks.