Personal computers became a hit in the office when people realized what great typewriters they made.
Instead of whiteout, computer users could remedy a typing error with the push of a delete key. Moving a paragraph, once a messy scissors-and-paste affair, was now easy as ABC.
Today, software makers sell more writing programs than any other kind of business application, and the field remains intensely competitive.
And, for users, intensely confusing. Word processors have evolved from simple programs that made writing a letter easier, to complex, feature-rich products that do everything from correcting grammar to outlining programs for brainstorming.
During the past four months, Microsoft Corp., WordPerfect Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. have shaken up the word-processing landscape again. Each has introduced a state-of-the-art word processor that runs under Microsoft's popular Windows program, software that makes computers easier to use.
Microsoft unveiled its latest version of Word, the most popular writing program devoted to Windows. And WordPerfect Corp., whose WordPerfect software is the top-selling word processor of all time, introduced a Windows version last month. Finally, Lotus updated Ami Pro, a product it acquired last year with the purchase of Samna Corp.
These programs are generally easier to use, more functional and more robust than their non-Windows predecessors. At least the basic functions are easy to use.
It's much more difficult to fully master these programs because of a growing trend among software makers to cram as many features as possible into their products. The result: the average user can feel overwhelmed by options he or she never wanted in the first place.
Among the three there is no clear-cut winner. All offer exemplary word processing, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. All three share some basic features. Each program, for example, comes built in with a dictionary and thesaurus -- goodies that used to cost extra. Microsoft Word even throws in a grammar checker.
And the programs all employ a relatively recent innovation called an "icon bar," essentially on-screen buttons that can be customized to represent almost any command, from "save" to "print." Icon buttons can be a big timesaver if you're writing or editing a lot of documents each day. WordPerfect offers the most flexible and easiest-to-customize icons of the three.
New-breed writing programs also include basic desktop publishing capabilities, so you can easily produce a snappy looking newsletter, chart or graph. All make it easy to integrate a graphic into a document, a procedure that can be a nightmare for a non-Windows application.
At discounted prices of $300 to $400, Word, WordPerfect and Ami Pro are terrific values.
But they are not without their downsides. Although the features are nice, they can quickly become overwhelming. Ami Pro, for example, boasts "built-in automatic charting including 3D or perspective and 168 chart styles." WordPerfect allows its operations to be adapted for use in dozens of languages, another overkill feature.
Overkill because these extras come at a steep price, requiring huge amounts of computer real estate. The full version of WordPerfect demands 9.7 megabytes of hard-disk space, almost 25 percent of the average-sized hard disk in use today. Ami Pro wants 8 megabytes. But the prince of portliness is Word for Windows, which requires 15 megabytes for the full version.
Although some features can be trimmed during the installation process, these new word processors may be the best argument yet for "modular" applications: basic programs that can be augmented with features as needed.
So which one to buy? If you already have earlier versions of any of these programs, the choice is easy: Upgrade. It's cheaper and more hassle-free than learning a new program and trying to convert documents stored in the previous format. Otherwise, get demonstration copies of the software you want to evaluate, then get write to it.