Word processing

Word processing, in its now-usual meaning, is the use of a word processor to create documents using computers.

Word processing can also refer to advanced shorthand techniques, sometimes used in conjunction with specialised keyboards. In this sense of the term, the processing may or may not be being done on a computer terminal, but on a modified typewriter.

Word processing (in the usual meaning) developed as specialised application programs on mainframe computers during the 1970's as "online computing" (with the use of personal terminal devices having keyboards and display screens) became more common. These applications evolved from text based editors used by programmers and computer professionals. The advent of microprocessors and, in the late 1970's, the ability to place intelligent devices on the desks of workers at reasonable cost including cheaper and smaller printers, led to the introduction of machines dedicated to "word processing". These were primarily aimed at typists, particularly those in centralised typing pools where other workers sent handwritten notes or dictaphone tapes to be transcribed into documents that could be printed and returned for reviewing. Considerable time saving economies were achieved by word processing operators. This resulted from:

  • the faster typing speeds achieved by as a result of electronic keyboards
  • the assistance of the word processing software for functions like layout and spell checking.

Further time savings were gained because the originators of documents could mark corrections and additions, return them for revision in the electronic files and then re-review without checking the entire document again for new errors but only checking the updates. Not only were economies gained but superior presentation and layout was achieved with the use of multiple fonts and superior print quality (when compared with typewriters). These advantages led to a rapid replacement of typists with word processing operators, especially as the word processing systems evolved to give more powerful functions and the power to cost ratio for electronic equipment continued upwards exponentially (refer to Moore's Law).

For a few years word processing was very much centralised in the way that typing was. The special word processing systems were still too expensive and complex to become general issue. However, this began to change rapidly as the PC began to appear on desktops throughout organisations, with general staff doing their own typing and document preparation.

By the early 1990's, the typing and word processing pool had disappeared. The evolution of word processing software continued with both increased ability and ease of use as PC's increased in power and as graphical user interfaces (i.e. GUIs) became the norm. The early text only applications become powerful document creation packages able to manipulate images as well as text to create publications to a standard that would previously only be achievable by professional typesetters and printers. Not only had the typing pool disappeared but the career of typist too, with ordinary workers doing all their own typing and document creation and increasingly by direct entry from thoughts into electronic form, via a PC keyboard, without any drafting of ideas onto paper.

This evolution from typing using mechnical devices to electronic word processing systems to "do-it-youself" PC based packages, provided commercial opportunities as well as pit-falls. Companies rose and grew strong and then declined and even disappeared as a result of the fast changes that were occurring. Perhaps Wang Computers is the best example of a company that became very successful on the back of specialised word processing systems but then collapsed when it lost its revenue from word processing systems and was not able to substitute newer forms of computing quickly enough. Olivetti is another company that struggled to migrate from mechanical typewriter devices to word processing systems and then to PC computing.

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