Last week, Microsoft released it Word Web App for public consumption. A short time ago, Google released its next version of Google Docs. Can either of these replace the desktop version of Microsoft Word? Not at the moment. For formatting large complex documents, desktop word processors (Word, WordPerfect, OpenOffice) are still the way to go. However, web apps have their place and do provide some unique features.
Personally, I think that Microsoft Word 2007 is the best word processor available today (although that may change once I install Word 2010). Word 2007 makes it really easy and fast to format large complex documents. Paragraph styles, linked styles, outline numbering, and quick styles are all tools that make handling complex documents easy. We have an exercise in our Word training course where we format a supreme court brief in about 5 minutes. The best part of that is, once we are done, we generate the table of contents in about 3 clicks. It is really difficult (if not impossible) to accomplish the same thing in web based apps. Let’s see what happens when we need to edit a complex document in these applications.
The Champion: Microsoft Word 2007
For example, let’s suppose I am working on an 81 page revocable trust. The trust is formatted with styles and outline numbering, contains an automatically generated table of contents, and includes page numbering in the format Article Number-Page.
In this example, I have the definitions section for the trust in Article 14, and I want to add a new definition between Section 14.01 and 14.02, and update the table of contents:
In Word, this is easy. First, I make sure my formatting marks are on and my style pane is open, then I type in my new text, and click the style that applies to it:
That formats the text for me, complete with the proper numbering and indents (the rest of the numbering updates automatically), and then all I have to do is press CTRL-A, F9 to update the table of contents, and I am done. The whole formatting process, including updating the table of contents, takes less than 10 seconds (4 clicks and 2 keyboard commands):
The New Kid: Microsoft Office Word Web App
Microsoft’s Office Word Web App is pretty good for a first release, but it has far fewer features than Word 2007. It also works a little differently. Word Web App has two modes: a view mode and an edit mode.
The view mode is fantastic for reading complex Word documents. I uploaded the trust to my Windows Live Skydrive and opened it in Word Web App. Word Web App rendered the trust perfectly, including page numbers, and hot linked the table of contents so clicking on a TOC entry moves the cursor to the correct location in the document. I tested Word Web App in both Internet Explorer and Firefox and it worked fine. The partial screen shots are below.
Edit mode changes the way the document looks on the screen. For example, the table of contents appears as hyperlinks (but you cannot click on them as you can in view mode), and fields and line breaks appear with shaded brackets around them:
Edit mode also failed to properly display the numbering. “Article Fourteen” was changed to “14” on the screen, and “Section 14.01” was changed to “1.”. (Notice that the line break in the article title is displayed as “[Soft Break]”).
However, I was able to apply the styles to my new definition.
Switching back to view mode showed that my changes had been made successfully (and that the numbering was still really there).
There are a few shortcomings to note in all of this:
(1) There is no apparent way to update a field (i.e. I couldn’t update my table of contents).
(2) While all my styles showed up and were usable, there was no apparent way to edit my styles or add new ones.
(3) I miss my styles pane.
(4) No formatting marks.
(5) No ruler.
There is one huge, giant positive about Word Web App, and that is it preserved all the formatting in my document. I was able to download the trust from Skydrive back to my computer, open it in Word, update the table of contents, and I was unable to find any formatting mistakes or glitches in the document. I don’t think this can be emphasized enough - my document was left intact.
However, it is clear that Word Web App is really more of a companion product to Microsoft Word, and not a completely featured word processor. Specifically, there was no apparent way to create or edit styles, insert fields, create a table of contents, etc. These things have to be done in Microsoft Word, but the document can then be viewed, edited and shared on Word Web App. Word Web App is also good for creating a first draft, but the heavy duty formatting still needs to be done in Word.
The Challenger: Google docs
I uploaded my sample trust to Google docs to see what would happen. However, first I turned on the new features of Google Docs by going into Settings –> Document Settings and checking the “Create new text documents using the latest version of the document editor.
The new interface in the latest version looks really nice, but unfortunately, on first glance, it destroyed my numbering (the old version preserved the text of my numbering, but it was no longer automatic):
Older version of Google Docs (numbering looks ok)
Latest version of Google Docs
So can I still make the change I need to make? I added my text, clicked on the styles dropdown, and discovered that there are only 7 styles available in Google docs:
I applied heading 2 to my new heading and it didn’t look right at all:
I didn’t see where I could update the table of contents. So I decided to download it and open it in Word. The end result was not pretty. Google Docs completely destroyed my formatting. The numbering formats were gone, my styles were gone (replaced with generic Styles 1 through Style 22), the footers were a mess, page numbering was gone, the table of contents field had been replaced by hyperlinks, etc, etc.
I also tried the same thing with the older version of Google docs. The results weren’t much better. My automatic numbering had been turned into raw text, all tabs had been converted into non-breaking spaces, my page numbering was gone, my styles were gone, and the table of contents was a mess.
Summary of Results
So for my test for inserting an additional numbered section in my document and updating the table of contents:
Microsoft Word 2007: 10 seconds (approx 4 clicks and 2 keyboard commands after typing the text). Worked perfectly.
Office Word Web App: Longer process. I was able to insert the text and format it correctly with the correct style. However, there was no way to update the table of contents, and the numbering in Edit Mode did not display correctly. Still, I was able to edit the document, download it to Word, and update the table of contents. Most importantly, it left all my formatting in document intact.
Google docs: Google docs just isn’t well suited to this task. Google docs converts the document and in the process destroys all the automatic numbering formatting, page number, table of contents, styles, etc. In addition, with only 7 available styles, I doubt I could duplicate the formatting and make my sample 81 page trust work in Google docs.
For legal writing, desktop based word processors still are really the only practical option, particularly for complex documents. Microsoft Office Word Web App does provide an interesting addition, in that you can view, edit and share your document on the web and still keep all your formatting intact – especially your styles. Google docs just doesn’t seem ready for legal writing at this time. Google docs has many other strengths (simultaneous editing, collaboration), but formatting complex documents just isn’t one of them.