I DON'T KNOW IF IT'S A GOOD IDEA to break up Microsoft or not. But here’s an alternative: just break up Microsoft Word.

I use Word 5.1, copyright 1992, a fast, lean program that processes words—period. But to be compatible with other people I also keep Word 98, a bloated program full of silly frills like the ability to insert video into text (by definition, shouldn’t everything in a word processing program be printable?), and dysfunctions like turning any URL I type into a blue hyperlink in a different font than the rest of my copy, and an annoying talking-computer homunculus who pops up unbidden to offer unhelpful help (no, I don’t need help writing a letter, I’m not writing a letter, I’m writing letter copy, you moron).

Alas, this kind of automated meddling in the writing process is now the direction that all of Microsoft wants to go. Bill Gates recently proposed a hyperconnected future operating system called “Dot-Net,” in which, say, if you write a letter and mention a corporation, info about it will magically appear on screen. Sound cool? Wait till you’re on a tight deadline and every time you type your client’s name, your computer screeches to a halt to go out and retrieve a stock quote. That isn’t help, it’s Hell.

So imagine if Word 5.1 became its own company, competing with Word 98 on minimalism-versus-feature-bloat the way VW fought Detroit in the 60s. The focus of Word 5.1 2001 on writing could make it a mighty competitor indeed—and maybe remind us all which one’s supposed to be doing the thinking here, the man or the machine.


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