Every so often, writing on my decrepit laptop at home or on the fast up-to-date PCs in the library, I find myself wondering when modern word processors like Word will catch up with the old one which I used from about 1989…
I’m talking about the Amstrad PCW8256, running a wordprocessing package called Locoscript 2. (Later, I upgraded to Locoscript 3!) The computer had 256 kB of memory (yes kilobytes not megabytes), though I eventually upgraded mine to 512 kB. It had no hard drive. Starting up the wordprocessor involved inserting a 360 kB disc, waiting until the grunting noises from the disc drive stopped, then taking it out to insert whatever disc my documents were on.
The computer had a specially designed keyboard, with extra keys which are absent from the standard PC one: in particular the [CUT], [COPY] and [PASTE] keys. Also unlike a standard PC keyboard, it had all the characters on it which you would have expected any decent typewriter to have. (Yes, I remember typewriters too…) And they were a comfortable distance apart–less stretching of the fingers was involved than on most PC keyboards.
As I recall–unless I had to upgrade the memory before I could use that version–Locoscript 2 fitted on one side of its 360k disc; the other side was used for extra fonts and things. Yet it could happily do useful things which in modern wordprocessors are either absent or very difficult. Features I particularly miss are:
- Multiple clipboards for copying and pasting. I found this incredibly useful if I had a set of notes in a more or less random order and was trying to collect them into something organised. There were effectively 36 clipboards, labelled A-Z and 0-9. So if I wanted to collect the material together for a particular section of my document, I would simply go through the notes, and copy/cut each relevant one to one of the clipboards. Then when I’d got them all, [B][PASTE] A [PASTE] B [PASTE] C [PASTE] D[/B] etc. would plonk the contents of clipboards A, B, C, D… all down into the new location, nicely collected together in the desired order. You’ve no idea how clumsy and inefficient having just one clipboard seems after being used to working like that.
- Search and replace for formatting codes, not just text. By formatting codes I mean the ones for bold type, italics etc. Suppose you decide that a particular word–say a name of a pub or something–should always appear in quotation marks. Then you change your mind and want it in italics, without the quotation marks. Simple: you search for all instances of “word in quotes”, and have them automatically replaces with word in italics.
- Add any accent to any character. I think I’m right in saying that with current PCs running Windows, if you want a particular accent on a particular character then you’ve got to have a font installed that includes that particular accented character. Some are more difficult to come by than others. For example, I’ve searched and searched unsuccessfully for a c with a hacek on it (needed, for example, if I want to spell the composer Janacek properly, or even if I want to spell hacek properly), and I occasionally want to type Welsh words which have a circumflex accent on a w or a y: both very common in the Welsh language but completely lacking in the standard fonts. This was easy in Locoscript: accents are like separate characters, so you just type the accent, type the character, and get what you’re after.
- No need to use 0.5 when you mean a half. How many times have you seen people type, say, 1.5 hours simply because it’s so hard to get at a half sign? (I mean, since when did we divide hours up into tenths? Units of six minutes? It’s crazy!) It leaps out as WRONG. No problem on the PCW: it was properly thought-out and you simply pressed the half key, located somewhere to the right of the spacebar. I still remember my shocked disbelief the first time I used a standard PC keyboard, was merrily typing away, then needed to type something-and-a-half. How could anything so utterly basic be missing?!
- Add user-designed characters to a font. No font can cover absolutely everything that might be needed. In my case, I wanted to make notes on harmony, and I needed symbols which are used for that, such as a 6 above a 4, or a 9 above a 7 with a flat sign after the 9. Obviously those didn’t come with the font. But it was easy enough to create them, and add them as special characters.
The question is: if a wordprocessor which fitted on one small disc and ran on a computer with only 512k of memory could do all this, why can’t the memory-eating modern ones like Word do it? In particular, the multiple clipboards and the half sign seem to me like essentials in anything calling itself a wordprocessor, and ther absence makes present-day wordprocessors feel clumsy and amateurish in comparison–almost as if they’d accidentally missed out a letter of the alphabet or something.
And don’t get me started on the amateurishness of the DTP-like features of certain wordprocessors… Well not unless you want to. Let’s just say that some of the default settings are designed to make any document leap out as being amateurish and the first thing you have to do for any piece of serious work is to override them all…
There. That feels better! 🙂