What is a word processor?

It’s the class of application that Microsoft Word belongs to.

Generic applications

Sometimes people ask how to get started on some computing job, and I tell them it’s best done in a “word processor”, “spreadsheet” or “presentation package”.  This is often not a helpful answer.  If I have just directed you to this post, it probably didn’t help you, either.

I could have said “Word”, “Excel”, or “PowerPoint”, but I don’t own or use those applications.  Depending on the task, I use LibreOffice or iWork.  I also shop photos in the Gnu Image Manipulation Program or Pixelmator.  (However, even if you own and use Adobe® Photoshop®, Adobe requests than you stop using their trademark as a verb.1)

So, how do we talk about these applications?  By describing what we do with them.  While there are a multitude of document editors, three are the most common by a wide margin:

Word Processors

If you’re writing paragraphs of text, you’re using a word processor.

Spreadsheet

If you’re putting numbers in tables and performing calculations on them, you’re probably using a spreadsheet.  You’re also creating a spreadsheet in the spreadsheet, which is bad grammar.

Presentation Packages

If you’re preparing text and graphics for display on a screen, you’re probably using a presentation package.

These are so common that they’re often bundled together (sometimes with other applications) into an Office Suite.

Not everyone needs to be a power user, but if you use a computer[[Unless someone printed out this blog post and gave it to you, you’re using a computer right now.]], you should know which tasks are best suited to these three classes of application.

Know your applications

Office suite Word processor Spreadsheet Presentation package
Microsoft Office Word Excel PowerPoint
Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice Writer Calc Impress
Apple iWork2 Pages Numbers Keynote
Google Docs No individual component names

For a much more comprehensive list, see Wikipedia on Comparison of office suites.

Why do I need to know this?

It’s useful to be aware of the distinction between the generic classes of application, and the specific ones you use. This is especially important if you share work with other people, and find their word processor doesn’t import your documents properly. This happens, it happens often, and it is not the fault of either the person or the word processor. Know what you use, know what other people use, and find a format that you can share.

Ancient History Supplement

None of the applications in the table above were the first of their type.

Word processors grew out of the first text editors, and dozens existed for the first microcomputers. Two applications that defined what a word processor did were WordStar and WordPerfect.

The first spreadsheet for home computers — the application that turned the home computer from a toy into a business tool — was VisiCalc, followed by Lotus 1-2-3.

Computer presentations were first defined by Harvard Graphics.

  1. While statements like this are easy to laugh at, current trademark law is what makes it necessary. []
  2. The Mac OS version of iWork was released as a suite on disc. With the move to the Mac OS and iOS app stores, the apps are be bought individually, not as a suite. However, at the time of writing they are still collectively promoted as iWork. []

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