A word processor (also more formally known as a document preparation system) is a computer application used for the production (including composition, editing, formatting, and possibly printing) of any sort of viewable or printed material.
They are descended from early text formatting tools (sometimes called text justification tools, from their only real capability). Word processing was one of the earliest applications for the personal computer in office productivity.
Although early word processors used tag-based markup for document formatting, most modern word processors take advantage of a graphical user interface. Most are powerful systems consisting of one or more programs which can produce any arbitary combination of images, graphics and text, the latter handled with full-blown type-setting capability.
The 'word processing' typically refers to text manipulation functions such as automatic generation of
- batch mailing using a form letter template and an address database (aka mail merging),
- index of keywords and their page numbers,
- table of contents with section titles and their page numbers,
- table of figures with caption titles and their page numbers,
- 'see also' cross referencing with page numbers.
Page number and footnote information is extremely hard to maintain without a word processor because addition or deleting of text can affect pagination i.e. page numbers can change in each edition. Other word processing functions include spelling and grammar checking.
Word processors can be distinguished from several other, related forms of software:
Text editor programs were the precursors of word processors. While offering facilities for composing and editing text, they do not offer direct support for document formatting. Batch document processing systems, starting with TJ-2 and RUNOFF, and still extant in such systems as LaTeX (as well as programs that implement the paged-media extensions to HTML and CSS), fill this gap. Text editors are now used mainly by programmers and web site designers for creating and modifying computer programs, and by computer system administrators for creating and editing configuration files.
Later desktop publishing programs, meanwhile, were specifically designed to allow elaborate layout for publication, but offer only limited support for editing. Typically, desktop publishing programs allow users to import text that they have written using a text editor or word processor.
The word processor has become a central component of the office applications suite and is increasingly only available in this form, rather than as a standalone program.
Origin of word processing
The term word processing was devised by IBM in the 1960s, and originally encompassed all business equipment—including manually operated typewriters—that was concerned with the handling of text, as opposed to data. Electromechanical paper-tape-based equipment such as the Friden Flexowriter had long been available; the Flexowriter allowed for operations such as repetitive typing of form letters (with a pause for the operator to manually type in the variable information). In the sixties it began to be feasible to apply the technology developed for electronic computers to office automation tasks. IBM's Mag-Card Selectric was an early device of this kind. It allowed editing, simple revision, and repetitive typing, with a one-line display for editing single lines.
In the early 1970s Lexitron and Vydec introduced pioneering word-processing systems with CRT display editing, but the real breakthrough occurred in 1976 with the introduction of a CRT-based system by Wang Laboratories. (A Canadian electronics company, Applied Electronic Systems, introduced a similar product in 1974, but went into bankruptcy a year later. In 1976, refinanced by the Canada Development Corporation, it returned to operation as AES Data, and went on to successfully market its brand of word processors worldwide until its demise in the mid-1980s.) This was a true office machine, affordable by organizations such as medium-sized law firms. It was easily learned and operated by secretarial staff.
The Wang word processor displayed text two-dimensionally on a CRT screen, and incorporated virtually every fundamental characteristic of word processors as we know them today. The phrase "word processor" rapidly came to refer to CRT-based machines similar to Wang's. Numerous machines of this kind emerged, typically marketed by traditional office equipment companies such as IBM, Lanier (marketing AES Data machines, re-badged), CPT, and NBI. These all, of course, were specialized, dedicated, proprietary systems. Cheap general-purpose computers were still the domain of hobbyists.
With the rise of personal computers, and in particular the IBM PC and PC compatibles, software-based word processors running on general-purpose commodity hardware gradually displaced dedicated word processors, and the term came to refer to software rather than hardware.
Early word-processing software was ludicrously clumsy in comparison to dedicated word processors; for example, it required users to memorize semi-mnemonic key combinations rather than pressing keys labelled "copy" or "bold." (In fact, many early PCs lacked cursor keys; WordStar famously used the I/J/K/M "diamond" for cursor navigation.) However, the cost differences between dedicated word processor and general-purpose PCs, and the value added by non-WP applications such as VisiCalc, were so compelling that personal computers and word processing software soon became serious competition for the dedicated machines.
The late 1980s saw the advent of laser printers, a "typographic" approach to word processing (WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get), using bitmap displays with multiple fonts (pioneered by the Xerox Alto computer and Bravo word processing program), and graphical user interfaces (another Xerox PARC innovation, with the Gypsy word processor). These were popularized by Microsoft Word on the IBM PC in 1983, and MacWrite on the Apple Macintosh in 1984; these were probably the first true WYSIWYG word processors to become known to a large group of users. Dedicated word processors became museum pieces.
Word processing programs
Programs still available and in use
Historically important programs
TJ-2 — One candidate for "first word processor" (command-based, not WYSIWYG); in use in 1963
- Amí — Notable early word processor for Windows 3.x, and arguably the first full-featured WYSIWYG word processor for Windows. Preceded Microsoft Word for Windows to market by over a year. When Word for Windows appeared, many regarded the two word processors as broadly similar in overall quality and capabilities.
Bravo — First bitmap-based multifont WYSIWYG word processor, completed at Xerox PARC by Charles Simonyi and colleagues in 1974
Gypsy, 1975 — Follow-on to Bravo, by Larry Tesler and colleagues; graphic user interface, cut-and-paste modeless editing
IBM DisplayWrite — Similar in design to IBM's dedicated DisplayWriter word processor. Widely used within IBM shops (most large U. S. corporations), but awkward, slow and expensive, so almost no use elsewhere.
Xerox Document Editor
MacWrite — Free word processor included with early versions of the Apple Macintosh
MultiMate — Briefly popular word processor with similarities to Wang's dedicated machines.
WordStar — Widely considered at the time to be the first "full-featured" word processor. The dominant word processor for the CP/M operating system, it retained some popularity under MS-DOS.
XyWrite — Not the easiest to learn, this program for MS-DOS and then Windows still has a small following thanks to its speed and great ability to be reconfigured and programmed.
EasyWriter — Briefly a leading word processor for the IBM PC, notable firstly for having been written by legendary hacker John Draper ("Cap'n Crunch") and secondly for having been written in FORTH
Magic Wand — For CP/M-based computers