In Depth News Feature: Top alternatives to Microsoft Word

The Feedster

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Jun 26, 2007
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At the moment one piece of word processing software dominates the market: Microsoft Office Word. Word has been through many incarnations, and with the latest version the designers have gone back to the drawing board and attempted to give customers what they really want: an application that they can use to create documents without wading through menus to locate a feature.

This has been a relative success, but if your writing is specialised, you need to write in a language other than English or you're just strapped for cash, there are many alternatives available.

Free software

The biggest drawback with Word is that it can be expensive when bought as a standalone application or as part of Microsoft Office. However, a superb alternative called OpenOffice has been developed by the open source community. The Writer component of this suite now has a feature set that's comparable to Microsoft Word, but is completely free to download.

Non English languages

Multilingual versions of Word exist, but if you're looking for a dedicated word processor that can handle non-Latin alphabets, Global Writer and Universal Word 2000 support right-to-left languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, as well as dozens of other languages.

Dagesh Pro IV is a specialised Hebrew-English word processor that runs with all versions of Windows. If you're a Mac user, Nisus Writer is a well-developed multilingual word processor for the Mac OS. You can buy multilingual word processors from Languagesource, as well as keyboards to match the language of the word processor you're using.

Specialist notation

The layout of complex scientific notation is usually the province of high-end apps like FrameMaker, but there is a specialised word processor that can handle this task with ease. LaTeX, based on the Tex system, is a typesetting program that gives the user incredible control over every character's position on the page. If you lay out newspapers or magazines and use InDesign, then the InCopy word processor is a superb application that integrates into your InDesign workflow.

Scriptwriting tools

Budding film and television screenwriters have a number of specialised word processors to choose from, including Sophocles and Screenplay. Novelists, too, are spoiled for choice when it comes to customised word processing.

Often, the applications will be basic word processors with a whole raft of add-ons that writers might find useful, such as character profiling and plot anatomy. Packages that are worth trying out include Power Writer, Dramatica Pro, NewNovel, and Liquid Story Binder. If you're a Mac user, check out Avenir, which is quickly gaining a loyal following among writers.

Online applications

Online word processors have proliferated over the last couple of years, but the market really got started when Writely appeared. This is now a component of the Google Docs suite of applications.

Others soon joined, including Zoho, which is now part of a complete online office suite that even has a Word plug-in, so you can save your files directly to Zoho's servers for online editing. There's also ThinkFree, Nevrocode Docs, FlyWord and Docly, which has the ability to automatically assign copyright protection to your documents.

Web 2.0 is also impacting the online word processing market. AjaxWrite takes the application design philosophy of Web 2.0 to offer an office suite that seamlessly integrates with your Firefox browser.

The word processor is now ubiquitous and with the Internet opening a new facet to how we create and edit words, whether you need to bash out a simple letter or write a bestselling novel, there's a word processor that's ideal for you.

Screenwriting: Final Draft 7 (Approx £120)

Final Draft has been the standard in scriptwriting applications for several years, with many industry luminaries singing its praises. These accolades are well deserved, because the application is not simply a specialised word processor but a complete writing aid to help you become a writer for the small or big screen.

Word documents can be imported and instantly formatted. Templates are available that cover every kind of screenwriting, including screenplays for BBC television. Features include macros that mean you don't have to type your leading lady's name for the 600th time; tagging to add comments or thoughts about sets or locations, which can then be exported into scheduling software; and a digital index card system that lets you keep relevant information in front of you as your script progresses. All are superb.

If you're serious about being a screenwriter, you need a serious tool to craft your screenplay. Available for Mac and PC, this isn't the cheapest on the market but it's undoubtedly the best.

Verdict: 4/5

Novels: Scrivener (£20)

There are dozens of applications that purport to help you write the novel you have burning inside you, but many of these packages are little more than souped-up word processors. Scrivener is different. This Mac-only word processor and project management tool has been developed by someone who understands how writers think and what kind of tools they need to craft their prose.

One of Scrivener's most useful features is its ability to track your research material, saving you hours of frustration, because everything you need is just a click away. You can access PDFs, web pages, sound files and even video from within the package. Couple this with its corkboard approach to annotation and note making and you have a writer's aid that doesn't get in the way of the creative process.

Scrivener is available as a 30-day trial, so if you're a Mac user, do yourself a favour and give it a try. Once you begin to see the power of the application, you'll wonder how you were ever going to write your novel without it.

Verdict: 4/5

Collaborative: Writeboard (Free)

Collaborative writing used to mean endless email attachments being bounced between dozens of users. Writeboard puts the whiteboard concept online and gives it tracking capability. The practical upshot is that you suddenly have a collaborative tool that any group of people can use with ease.

Once a Writeboard is set up, changes are tracked and tagged by user and time. You can invite as many people as you want to collaborate, safe in the knowledge that each user and their changes will be tracked to every full stop. And with RSS notification built in, you always know when changes have been made.

This incarnation of the online whiteboard application is certainly capable, although it's a little sparse. The interface is clean and tidy, but asking you to enter codes to format text is pretty archaic when a simple point and click formatting window could have been used.

However, if you need to collaborate on a piece of text with a large group of people, this is a capable platform to use.

Verdict: 3/5

Online: Buzzword (Free)

The Internet is awash with online word processors at the moment, but if you want a peek into the future, Buzzword is the next big thing in web writing utilities. Built on Adobe's Flash (so you'll need version 9 of the Flash Player installed on your computer), its interface is simply stunning.

Buzzword is slick. Choose a formatting command and see the new toolbar slide out with smooth Flash animation. Editing is also polished, with comments, history and dynamic spellchecker that all work well.

RTF and Word formats are supported, with Adobe expecting to add PDF support shortly. You need to download an exported file to your PC of course, but expect the Rich Internet Applications that will soon be upon us to make this a seamless experience for users.

With Adobe intending to marry Buzzword with its AIR runtime, and talk of the company's Share initiative also being made available to Buzzword users, the online word processor will truly have come of age if Adobe delivers on its promises.

Verdict: 4.5/5