Microsoft Word Is Rolling Out Some New Features. But Will It Help Its Melting Popularity?

By Henry Kronk
April 30, 2018

For years now, Microsoft Word has been the favorite punching bag of writers throughout the world of tech and education. Slate’s Tom Scocca hit a vein with his 2012 rant titled ‘Death to Word.’ The issues he raises probably number in the dozens, but the most salient reads as follows: “Like the fax machine, Word was designed to put things on paper.”

And yet, Word remains one of the most widely used word processors. Countless hacky clickbait-type listicles still rank it the best word processor. While wholly unscientific, they reflect a general mood.

Microsoft Word Lost Major Ground to Google Docs in K-12 Classrooms

Many students in K-12 classrooms, however, are learning in a post-Word environment. According to a New York Times report last year, over half of the U.S.’s roughly 50 million primary and secondary students use Google products, including Docs. Another smaller section wield Apple Pages.

Once the king of basic operational software, Microsoft Word is not quite taking this insurgency lying down. In January of this year, the company announced it would be prototyping  the new ‘Editor Overview Pane.’ The new feature began to rollout last week. It goes beyond underlining what the software perceives to be incorrect spelling, grammar, or syntax.

Microsoft summarizes it with three points of improvement as follows:

“1. Showing a categorized Overview of writing enhancement opportunities:

  • Corrections are issues you’re strongly advised to fix.
  • Refinements give optional advice on stylistic or situational matters.
  • Counters and Checkmarks track progress & celebrate achievement.

2. Drawing attention to elements of Good Writing:

  • Gives writers a dashboard for self-assessment.
  • Gives teachers a scorecard to drive learning goal conversations.
  • Presents the breadth and depth of checks in a manageable way.

3. Making it easy to fix just those categories that matter to your writing goals:

  • Scrub the whole document linearly – or a Category at a time.
  • Fix in a recommended sequence: Spelling > Grammar > Refinements.
  • Spend time on Categories you want to focus on.”

As of last week, the editor was made available to all Office 365 subscribers with the proper hardware.

The move seems somewhat tone deaf, considering the fact that Microsoft Word frequently flags grammar and syntax that are, in fact, correct. Its accepted spellings of words are also know to be out of date or simply wrong.

Which Word Processor?

Still—and yes this sounds exceedingly cliche—there is no perfect word processor. Besides K-12 classrooms, Google Docs has also recently taken over the professional world. But the work environment created by Docs where anyone can edit in real time isn’t always ideal. Sharing via shareable link opens up the possibility for strangers to break into your prose and get comfortable. The New Yorker’s Katy Waldman recently described Docs’ collaborative environment (along with its anonymous animals) as a ‘psychic Zoo space.’

Li Kelly, Flickr.

“The app activates fears that are rooted not in logic but in magic;” Waldman writes, “the lock of hair gives the sorcerer power over the maiden; once the manuscript brushes elbows with the public seating chart, it is revealed to the same set of prying eyes. I cannot be in the same Google Doc as my editor; it is a mutual violation of privacy, and the surest route in the Google cloud to an anxiety attack.”

Writing one’s diary entries in Docs is also a good way for advertisers purchasing Google’s data to target one’s behaviors and vulnerabilities with laser precision.

Apple Pages, meanwhile, is less used and, in many work spaces, wholly incompatible. Yes, it is some good, simple software and no, it doesn’t track each word you write. But it won’t matter if you still need to copy and paste to a Word or Docs file in order to share it.

Waldman—a Docs user—concludes, writing, “As Google Docs slowly and inevitably conquers its space, Microsoft Word has inspired a slew of ride-or-die defenses, despite its jankier interface and its price tag that never received the free-economy memo. What instinct keeps some of us tied to Word? Perhaps a love of the familiar. A desire for control. A longing for the illusion that we get to compose only for ourselves, and then, when we die, our friends will burn the pages. But Google Docs forces the writer to view her text as a sandbox, played in and raked and molded by unknown multitudes. There is something empowering in that vision. Typing these thoughts directly into the cloud, I feel as though I am convening a squad, like Nick Fury. The welcome mat lies on the doorstep. The bowls of water for the quaggas and wombats are ready. The capybara calmly ruminates. The waving semaphore of the cursor says, ‘Please come in.’”