Critical Thinking About Word and .doc

Many of us teach cultural analysis and critical thinking in our writing classes. Our first year readers are full of cultural commentary, and we use these texts to teach our students to question the status quo and understand more deeply the implications of the choices they make in this consumer culture.

Do writing teachers do the same when they tell students to submit their documents as .doc files or tell them they need to buy Word from the campus store? Have teachers questioned the assumptions behind their personal use of MS Word?

Writing teachers have an obligation to explore the assumptions regarding the one tool we can't do without in the teaching of writing, the word processor. The following will explore some of the common reasons I believe people continue to use and promote MS Office and its file formats, and I will challenge some of the assumptions behind those reasons and the consequences.

Everyone Uses .doc Format

I always beware of a lemming-based argument, but there is no doubt that .doc and MS Office are the most widely used applications by education, the corporate world, professional organizations, and home users. The assumption is that using the .doc file format makes it easy to share files and is the only alternative. That is certainly no longer the case if teachers adopt and begin using ODF and ODF support continues to develop.

But has it been true before now? Any Mac users can tell you they have long had problems sharing .doc files produced with MS Office from PC to Mac. Even today, Office 2007's new file format produces a Mac-incompatible word processing file.

While file format incompatibility may be more visible to Mac users, it has been a problem in Windows as well. There are two reasons for this file format incompatibility which are most likely intentional marketing strategies by MS.

Forced Upgrades

When a new version of Office is released and it produces files that are not compatible with other versions of MS Office, this pushes everyone to purchase and upgrade to the latest version. In an institutional or corporate environment, once new computers are purchased with the upgrade, all existing computers then need to purchase an upgrade, too, to maintain file compatibility. Eventually, home users are forced to upgrade their software, even though they do only minimal word processing, since many people they are sharing .doc documents with are creating those files in the workplace. The financial cost to education and the rest of our society is high, even though we might not need the new features that the latest--and sometimes not so greatest--MS Word version has to offer.

Barrier to Competitors

Microsoft has a known history of using file format incompatibility to force competitors from the market. During the browser wars, MS regularly released versions of IE which had numerous HTML compatibility issues with Netscape. We all know what happened to Netscape. It is only more recently since Firefox has become popular and web designers have determined to design for the best open standards compliant browsers that MS has begun to stop this practice.

If we think of the file issues that Mac users have faced, imagine how that impacts Windows market share. When .doc is the dominant format in the workplace and there are issues with its support in Mac OS X, institutions are less likely to consider switching to Apple products.

When it comes to office productivity, how many people have abandoned WordPerfect or AppleWorks for MS Office because of file compatibility issues? There are too many examples to ignore the fact that when we support .doc and MS's control of a file format, we create an environment that gives MS a strong competitive edge.

I Like the Features in MS Office

One comment I often here from MS Office users who have evaluated other office productivity tools (such as OpenOffice) is that " I like the features in MS Office better."

I would caution teachers to consider two factors that should inform that opinion:

  1. Different software has different features. Are teachers evaluating alternatives in depth? Alternative office productivity software may not have all of the features Word has, but may have features that Word does not.
  2. Learned literacies. Without in depth evaluation of a new application, teachers may be succumbing to a learned literacy bias. We develop literacies for specific ways in which a software application works. Quite often, an alternative application may work as well once we get through the learning curve. Moreover, learning to work with different applications is itself an information/digital literacy skill. One of the main goals of education is to challenge students to develop new literacies. Since writing teachers are the academic experts on word processing, should teachers challenge themselves in the same way?

Monopolies Don't Have to Innovate

If better features are important, then continuing to support MS's monopoly could easily be a bad choice. How many times have you noticed only little difference between Word versions? Innovation typically occurs best in a competitive market. Since MS can depend on file format incompatibility to force consumers to upgrade, there is less incentive to build new, improved products.

For instance, MS originally had no plans to include tabbed browsing, a favorite of Firefox users, in IE 7. If it weren't for Firefox's steadily increasing market share, it would not be available. It's also reasonable to assume that many of the new Mac-like features in Vista are there because Mac is a competitor.

What Can I Do?

I doubt teachers can immediately switch from .doc to ODF, and many teachers will likely continue using Word. But ten years ago, we successfully taught writing with word processing software. There are applications today other than Word with a wider range of features than what was available then. Weigh the pedagogical benefits of using Word now against how you taught writing then and the problems with using Word outlined here and others you can think of. Make an informed decision. Be willing to inform your students about the implications of using Word and .doc.

If you decide to continue using Word, understand that people may choose not to use .doc for very good reasons. Be willing to install the ODF to MS Word file translator when working with friends and colleagues.

At the very least, don't tell students who have WordPerfect or MS Works on their computer that they need Word to create good .doc files in first year writing classes. Suggest that they download and install OpenOffice for free. Ask your institutions to offer OpenOffice in the labs so students can experiment with it and see that it is a viable alternative to Word.

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Comments

Charlie,

Good points. At a recent college-wide faculty meeting where revisions to our university wide information literacy test were discussed, I tried to bring up the need to let students know about Open Office, Google Docs, and so on. I was quickly told, first by members of the college of business and then by some others, that "students need to know Office and Office only" since that is "what their future employers will want." Vicious circle...

We are also going through a "forced" update to Vista right now, which is not only confusing the less-technologically literate students and faculty (all computer labs and mediated classrooms are involved in this), but also generates countless hours of pointless meetings and "information sessions" where the IT staff who, it seems, have not quite figured everything out for themselves, are trying to teach others how to use this new and fancy OS.

I don't really understand the point of converting to Vista. What could it possibly have that is a "must have" for education at this point? Sounds like from what you have written, they could not answer that question.

As for the "Office and Office only" argument, that may be true for business majors, but I don't see why you couldn't argue the fallacy of that thinking for writing majors, that we have to teach better critical literacies about the tools and that our students have to have experience with a wider range of tools. Make the case for different needs for your discipline.

Besides. Google Docs is the bomb for collaborative writing projects. It doesn't matter if one is a writing or business major or teacher or whatever :-)

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Charlie | cyberdash

I am not sure why Vista either, but I guess it's the bandwagon so my university of 18000 students plus faculty must jump on it. I am not even sure the IT staff understand what is so great about it. It is interesting that when I brought up Google Docs, the argument was something like, "yeah, yeah, but you have to be online all the time to use it and with MS Office, you are 'portable'". And it doesn't matter that you can upload and export files in and out of Google Docs to those arguing for the exclusivity of MS...

And, by the way, I somewhat smugly observe the debates about Windows on my campus and on the web since I ditched Windows on favor of OS X a couple of years ago. Too bad Neooffice is so slow.

Try the OpenOffice X11 version. I have. It's not slow at all. Some users wouldn't like it because it doesn't have that pretty Aqua interface, but you might not mind. It also has just a few peculiarities. See this review.

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Charlie | cyberdash

Nice post, and good thoughts about the Word/.doc monopoly. I thought I might throw out a few recommendations for alternatives, particularly for Mac users.

Folks on all three platforms should take a look at AbiWord (http://www.abisource.com/), an open-source, feature-rich word processor that has a native build for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.  It opens fast, runs fast, can open and save .doc files, but can also open a number of other formats and save in a variety, as well-- including saving as LaTex and .odt (Open-Document Format).

Mac users might also try Mellel (http://www.redlers.com/) or Nisus Writer Express (http://www.nisus.com/), both of which bill themselves as "writers' word processors";.  Mellel has been said to be especially good at handling bibliographical citations and footnotes/endnotes.

Google Docs has already been mentioned as a strong way to handle collaborative writing-- which previously was a compelling reason for me to keep a recent copy of Word (I admit I love Word's Track Changes features).  And handling footnotes/endnotes/citation is important in many contexts.  

However, apart from this, nearly every basic text editor (WordPad, TextEdit, etc.) on any platform has adequate styled-text editing for writers.  Why do writers feel they need more?  And what gives them the impression that Word has what they need?

I do most of my article writing in DevonThink (http://www.devon-technologies.com/products/devonthink/), where the Mac's text editing engine (the same one found in TextEdit) is esentially all I've got.  This is more than adequate for these situations, because 1) all of my research is ready-at-hand, 2) I have styled texts and lists, the two things I absolutely need for the way I write, and 3) I'm going to export to a generic format for my editors anyway-- RTF in many cases, .txt in the rest-- so why bother with the bloated file size that Word generates?

For longer writing (books), I use Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html), which offers me more in the way of outlining and easier re-arranging of material.  Scrivener also exports to a handful of very useable formats, and if I need to do my own layout after writing and editing I can.  Once again, however, I don't need Word to do this; Pages (http://www.apple.com/iwork/pages/) or any other layout-oriented application is far better.

The bottom line: I appreciate your stance on the unnecessary overabundance of Word.  However, I don't think you went far enough!  Not only should writers prefer a word processor other than Word, they don't even need Word to ply their craft.

This is a great list. One thing to add regarding AbiWord is that it used to have (I'm assuming it still does) a conversion utility for opening WordPerfect wpd files. That can help teachers and students who have previously used WordPerfect and have legacy word processing documents, or teachers who want to be able to open students' wpd files.

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Charlie | cyberdash

Nice post. I've often wondered why pdf is not the default format for students submitting papers. It would seem to avoid many of the compatibility issues you describe here. Personally, I've stopped using all word processors. My reasons are many, but I was very influenced by <http://www.ecn.wfu.edu/%7ecottrell/wp.html>

Of course, if we are concerned about the proprietary nature of Word and .doc files, the use of .pdf is also a problem.  The format is the property of Adobe.  Currently, the reader is free, but this could change at any time, as could the nature of .pdf.   

A forced upgrade to Vista? Hmmm...I'm not sure who would be complaining about Vista who's actually used it. It'd be like someone with an Xbox complaining about upgrading to a 360. Yeah, right!

I've been using Vista Home Ultimate now for about two weeks and am very impressed with it. Besides the cosmetic improvements (and this stuff DOES matter), it makes better use of RAM to quickly load programs. Plus, I can appreciate the security enhancements. I'll admit, though, that OS X fans won't be impressed. Most of the new features are ripped straight from OS X, and others only slightly modified. People who will most appreciate the new OS will likely be those who haven't experienced OS X or Firefox. For instance, who really cares that IE 7 has tabbed browsing? The reaction is probably more like "finally!" than "wow."

I haven't had a chance to try Office 2007 yet, but again I think most of the complaints are a bit overblown. I've heard so much about the docx format, but it's really just a .zip with some XML data. Furthermore, it's a royalty-free format, and I'm sure there will be pretty much universal support for it in a few months (weeks?) Rather than condemn Microsoft for this, I have to give them some credit for being willing to make such a radical break from the old .doc format. After all, it's Microsoft's own customers who will feel most of the pinch! At some point, it really seems that FOSS extremists are unwilling to grant any kudos to Microsoft whatsoever, even when they're obviously trying to do a good thing.

I'm also excited about Microsoft's promise to make Vista the ultimate PC gaming platform. Let's face it--Mac OS X sucks for gaming, and GNU/Linux is hardly better. My guess is that we'll be seeing some really triumphant games emerging for this platform very soon.

Finally, I do agree that Google Docs is a great program, but I don't see it as a replacement for a word processor. At best, I see it as a convenient program to use when you're away from your desktop/laptop and just need a quick solution. I use Word's built-in features quite a bit (track changes/comments, thesaurus, research tools, macros, etc.) so Google Docs does not meet all my needs.

As far as Open Office is concerned, again I think it's an awesome program, particularly for those who can't afford proprietary Office suites. Nevertheless, there are few outside the "converted" who would use Impress over Power Point or Keynote. The word processor seems better, but let's just say that OO ain't no Firefox.

On the other hand, I'd like to see what would happen in the academy if suddenly all the funding for proprietary apps went away and we were "forced" to use FOSS exclusively. My guess is that it wouldn't just be business profs ranting and raving.

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Adobe's PDF file format has previously met some standards of openness, and now it's to be an open ISO standard. .doc has never been open at all; developers have to reverse engineer it, and Adobe doesn't have the long history of using file format incompatibility to shut out competitors like Microsoft has. Adobe is a much lesser evil :-)

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Charlie | cyberdash

Most of the new features are ripped straight from OS X, and others only slightly modified.

tsk, tsk. A FOSS fan not even willing to give Linux credit for having some of the eye candy features first? And giving MS credit for .docx? There wouldn't be much effort to open docx if not for open source advocates. What will we do about you? ;-)

But on a more serious note, have you heard about the crazy bloat in the docx XML specs?

The Microsoft proprietary specification, expertly called “Office Open XML” to confuse everyone is a 4081 page Word centric document from hell. Still I’ll be surprised if this red hot spec is complete and stable by the time Office 2007 actually ships. Still Microsoft have the money and contacts to push this standard as if it was actually a reasonable implementable specification reference. Ouch.

I understand that the ODF specification is under 800 pages. Leave it up to MS to complicate something to the extreme.

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Charlie | cyberdash

I might also add that we ought not to encourage people to think of FOSS as "zero cost," or tell people they should use it simply to avoid paying for "real" software and the like. Truth be told, I think anyone who uses a FOSS program ought to pay for it. If you'd spend $250 acquiring Microsoft Office 2007, why not contribute that same amount to help fund the OO project? It's very easy to do. Likewise, if you're using Firefox or Thunderbird, why not donate to the Mozilla Foundation?

Finally, if you're using a GNU/Linux distro--say Ubuntu--you should plan to spend just as much money donating to Ubuntu as you would purchasing a Microsoft or Apple OS. If everyone who used Ubuntu donated $200, both Microsoft and Apple would be extinct within five years.

Again, my point here is that FOSS is not free as in "free, take one." Unless you're poor to the point of poverty, you ought to try your best to donate just as much to support a FOSS app as you'd spend purchasing the commercial equivalent.

'nuff said!

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Check out Barton's gaming blog at Armchair Arcade. If you want to make Matt very happy, buy him a gift from his

I think anyone who uses a FOSS program ought to pay for it.

Gee. What about those people who download TV shows and games off of BitTorrent. I know a few (one in particular). Shouldn't they be paying, too, if they should pay for FOSS? ;-)

But seriously, I disagree about donating money to FOSS. If you find FOSS software really useful, find a way to contribute back to any open source community in some way to help build the commons. This could be financial support, but could also be teaching others to use a piece of open source software, creating documentation, offering tech support online, designing marketing materials, etc. That's the spirit of FOSS, not promoting the idea of obligated monetary donations. LOL

Besides, simply by using FOSS instead of buying a proprietary app, we take away funding from the proprietary company. In the long term, that has very positive effects, too.

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Charlie | cyberdash

Gee. What about those people who download TV shows and games off of BitTorrent. I know a few (one in particular). Shouldn't they be paying, too, if they should pay for FOSS? ;-)

I don't see the connection. Those shows have been broadcast into my home without my consent. Those bullies forced their way into my home and can probably be linked somehow to cancer. All I'm doing is being a bit more selective in what parts of that spectrum I choose to view, and how. Besides, I still find myself spending all my money at Wal-Mart, slurping down Big Macs, and participating in the "electoral process" even if I don't watch so many television commercials.

If you find FOSS software really useful, find a way to contribute back to any open source community in some way to help build the commons.

Are you kidding me? Those guys don't want me "donating" any of my degenerate source code into their divine gene pool. Although the text adventure game I wrote in C++ last year did win 28th Place in the rec.arts.int-fiction competition 2006. First game ever, and I win a prize. Yeah, go me.

Besides, let's face it. The people who matter in FOSS are the coders. Everyone else are just illiterate "lay people" who ought to quit being so lazy and learn how C so they can enter the Internatioanl Obfuscated C Code Contest. I'm convinced an English PhD is the secret to winning this contest. Make a difference. Or throw your candy money at people who can or they'll DDT you. Or diamond cut you.

Besides, simply by using FOSS instead of buying a proprietary app, we take away funding from the proprietary company. In the long term, that has very positive effects, too.

Hmm. That's like saying everyone who drinks a cup of rainwater instead of Coke is taking funding away from Coca Cola. The trouble is, what if it works and we're stuck drinking nasty old rainwater flavored with a dash of acid rain? Don't get me wrong. I prefer Dr Pepper. But before we get too high handed with all this. Oh, what's the use? You've been eating your own dogfood again, haven't you? :-)

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Check out Barton's gaming blog at Armchair Arcade.

There are some compatibility issues with pdf. Not all platforms create pdf the same way. I have some pdfs that display on my OSX laptop's version of Preview but won't display on my office's OSX desktop. My desktop is a few steps behind my laptop in terms of OSX versions.