The Case for HTML Word Processors

Making a case for HTML editors as stealth Desktop Word Processors...the strategy has been so stealthy that not even the developers realised what they were building.

We use all these over-complicated softwares to create Desktop documents. Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, whatever you like - we know them. They are one of the core apps in any users operating system. We also know that they are slow, unwieldy and have lots of quirky ways of doing things. However most of us just accept that this is the way it is and we try not to bother ourselves by noticing just how awful these softwares actually are.

So, I think it might be interesting to ask just this simple question - what if we used Desktop HTML Editors instead of Word Processors to do Word Processing? It might sound like an irrational proposition...Word Processors are, after all, for Word Processing. HTML editors are for creating...well, ...HTML. But lets just forget that. What if we could allow ourselves to imagine we used an HTML editor for all our word processing needs and HTML replaces .docx and .odt and all those other over-burdened word processing formats. What do we win and what do we lose?

The first thing to recognise is that Word Processors and HTML editors actually look and work in kinda the same way. They have a big blank page to start with - the empty text canvas. They have similar toolbars with similar tools. They both essentially just allow you to write words on a page and place other stuff on it. You can also change font sizes, styles, colors, backgrounds etc and add images, tables, whatever you like.

There are two big differences that are apparent in the interfaces however:

  • in a Word Processor there are nice margins to write within
  • in an HTML editor there is a 'view source' allowing you to see the mark up behind the display version

Seeing the source is quite nice for those that know how to edit raw HTML. That is certainly an advantage, but for those that do not know how to edit HTML then this difference means relatively little. However having margins in the Word Processor feels pretty necessary. It is the legacy from the age of print that we just can't seem to shake. We still need electronic word processors to create interfaces that conform to the standard paper sizes of our region. In the US its default US Letter, and in Europe it is A4. As crazy as it sounds margin-less word processing is going to take a long time to take off because of our legacy attachment to paper. That is why Google Docs looks like a page. It doesn't make sense but it does make a difference, especially in adoption.

The good news is...adding margins to an HTML editor is easy because we can just add CSS to the document and there you fact I think you can add quite nice margins, much nicer (and easier to change) than the typical Word Processor document. If you define the print region CSS to the page size you want printed then HTML docs can look, feel, and work pretty much the same way Word Processor docs do. With some CSS trickery it is even possible to include pagination.

But what about storage? Word Processors store nice single files on your computer. HTML files, however, have all these messy attachments. CSS files, JS, images...scattered all over the show.

But but but!....a .docx file, the format created by the latest MS Word, is just a compressed archived containing many files. It is actually a zip file. You can try this for yourself. Grab a .docx file, change the suffix from '.docx' to '.zip' and then open it with whatever you use to open zip archives. Taadaa! A folder containing a whole bunch of XML files and other crufty stuff. We think of .docx as a file but it is not, it is a collection of files stored in a compressed container (zip).

So, isn't that cheating a little? Its a cheap way to clean up a file system and lucky for us HTML has a companion technology that does just the same thing - EPUB. EPUB is an ebook format which is also just a zip file. You can do the same trick to open an EPUB as you used to open a .docx file. So why not use EPUB as a local storage format for desktop word processing?

But HTML editors don't allow you to export to EPUB...well, that is one of these side steps we will have to recognise if we went down the path of the HTML Word Processor. We must think about the page, as well as the application as being the component that offers user functionality. If we can make this conceptual side step then we can see that it would be quite possible to add EPUB export functionality to the document using Javascript...we don't have to build these kind of features into the core application. So the tools are already there...there are plenty of Desktop HTML editors (BlueGriffin, Kompozer, Dreamweaver (eek! proprietary!) etc) out there we just need some really smart looking and easy to use, feature-full templates (HTML files)...

So, could a HTML editor with nice margins, and stored as EPUB on your file system to keep things clean, be used as a tool for Word Processing? I just can't see a reason why not. The main thing in the way is our own stupidity. We think that:

  • HTML is for the web
  • HTML editors are for creating 'web pages'
  • EPUBs are for 'ebooks'

But this is convention. Conventions don't have to stand. We can pull them down if they don't make sense and these particular class differences just don't seem to make much sense. We are making very stupid category mistakes and it is preventing a lot of innovation and efficiencies.

If we could break the way we think of HTML editors down a little and re-imagine them as document creators whose format happens to be HTML then we would get to some very interesting places very fast. It would help us break free of these lock-in legacy 'ways' rained down upon us by the creators of out of date technologies like LibreOffice and MS Word.