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What is a Word Processor?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 16, 2024
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A word processor is a software application that enables a personal computer user to create, format, edit, save and retrieve documents. The documents may contain text, numbers, graphics, photographs or a combination of two or more of these formats. The processor may be installed on a desktop or laptop computer or be part of both operating system software programs.

Prior to the mid 1980s, the term word processor normally referred to a self-contained document preparation system. These somewhat bulky machines, introduced to the public in the 1970s, combined the keyboard functions of an electric typewriter with memory capabilities in a processor inside the device. A printer was typically attached to the back of the apparatus. A single line electronic readout at the bottom of the keyboard enabled the user to view text before printing it. A diskette or memory card inserted into the machine stored documents for retrieval.

As technology advanced, the word processor became more sophisticated. New features were steadily introduced and typically included font directories and formatting capabilities, such as italics, boldfacing, column creation and pagination. Internal spell checking capabilities were soon added, along with grammar checking programs and thesauruses.

When the personal computer was introduced to the public, self-contained word processors were quickly replaced with systems comprised of separate peripherals that were connected by data transmission cords and devices. Instead of one machine, people who desired to electronically create documents had to purchase a video monitor, keyboard, mouse and operating system, which was enclosed in a metal cabinet. This cabinet also contained a disk drive into which small cards called floppy disks were inserted for data storage.

Word processor software was initially available from several manufacturing companies. While all these software programs had similar features, each had unique names for the word processing tools included in the software. As technology advanced, these software companies introduced increasingly sophisticated versions that had more features and easier accessibility to attract more novice users.

Today’s word processor options include programs suitable for children as well as people with physical disabilities. Some word processor programs are voice activated and others can be operated through joystick manipulation instead of keyboards. Nearly every language in the world is accessible through various word processing programs.

Although several computer word processing programs were marketed, two emerged as industry leaders. In the mid 1980s, WordPerfect was the preferred software and maintained market leadership until the early 1990s. At that time, Microsoft Word was introduced and became the most installed computer word processing program worldwide.

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Discussion Comments
By sherlock87 — On Feb 10, 2011

In an attempt to encourage freeware word processors and avoid spending a lot of money, I tried to download Open Office, the most popular open ware word processor. While I liked it, I found that it was not compatible with anything, or so it seemed; when I sent files to other people, they often could not open them. Now that I teach and often use office computers to open files, I find that I cannot open them students send them to me. It is a vicious cycle, it seems.

By vogueknit17 — On Feb 08, 2011

Some word processors are actually too confusing for me. For example, I dislike the most recent versions of Microsoft word and stubbornly keep Microsoft Word 2003 on my computer instead. I am used to it, and know where everything is, and found none of the new features on 2007 and onward had anything I wanted.

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