Writing by Peter Hilton

The word-processor problem

Software focus in niche markets versus mass-market complication 2023-06-20 #product

Marco Tedaldi

Once a killer application for desktop computers, word-processors less often provide the best tool for any particular job. This creates new opportunities.

Early word processors

The first word processors I used, in my early 1990s touch-typing classes, emulated typewriters. They reproduced typewriters’ hardware-based functionality, such as tab stops, with new limited typographical innovation to bold and italic styles.

Word for Mac 1.0

Mac OS brought significant innovation to the first good word processor I used, with its graphical user interface and multiple fonts: Microsoft Word for Mac 1.x. I loved it for the same reason I write blog posts in Apple Notes today: its simplicity.

The word count problem

When I did the university newspaper’s layout, writers used Word to write articles, which we would import into the desktop publishing application, and place on a page. Their target word counts corresponded to the planned vertical column inches. In general, journalists in print media write to length, to fill a planned space in the magazine, and may be paid by the word. Meanwhile, Word for Mac 1.0 had a minimal feature set, and no word count:

Word for Mac 1.0

Word-processor reviews in computer magazines would complain about their missing word count feature, and write negative reviews. So word-processors added the feature, got better reviews, and became a tool for writing articles for publication in print media.

Feature escalation

In 1985, Microsoft Word for Mac 1.0 was yet to accumulate features for all sorts of document types that present-day word-processors support. But to be the best tool for a document type requires specific features.

Document type Example features
Print media articles Word count
Form letters Mail merge
Contracts Heading numbering, track changes
Newsletters Column layout
(Financial) reports Tables, charts
Technical documentation Cross-references
Expert analysis, e.g. project plan Document templates
Manual or user guide Automatic index and cross-references

The word count problem exemplifies feature escalation due to adding support for writing additional document types. These new features expand the product’s market, at the cost of its usability and simplicity.

A comprehensive tool has a usability problem: supporting all possible document types risks leads to a tool that people successfully use to write none of them, because of the complexity and hard-to-find features. In Microsoft Word’s case, this led to Clippy telling us that, ‘it looks like you’re writing a letter’, in an attempt to help.

Initially, the software vendor benefits from feature escalation: increased revenue in this bigger market. And people who the product didn’t previously serve benefit from a new product they might choose to use. However, people who already use the product only see it get worse, as features they don’t need increase complexity.

Focused writing tools

This feature escalation product strategy eventually creates opportunities for niche tools. Instead of capturing the huge customer bases that belong to word processors and their replacements - Microsoft Word, Confluence and Notion - a simpler tool can focus on a single document type for a smaller audience. For example:

While the market for these tools may seem limited, a big part of a small market can still become wildly profitable. Meanwhile, each successfully established niche market chips away at what used to be one big market for writing tools.

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