Microsoft Word is ubiquitous: It's the standard word processor in most places of business, and it often ends up installed on home PCs due to compatibility and familiarity. It isn't the only choice, however. Whether your main concern is price, complexity, specialized functionality, system footprint, or some combination of the above, you might have many reasons to look beyond Word.
(For links to all of these downloads in one convenient list, see our "Microsoft Word Alternatives" collection.)
This article focuses mainly on programs that offer a significantly different function set, interface, or purpose than Word, but we would be negligent not to mention the free OpenOffice.org, an open-source office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program, database, and more) that provides functionality roughly equivalent to that of Microsoft Office at a 100 percent price reduction. The interface is closer to pre-2003 Office, with standard menu bars instead of ribbons, and for the most part it can open Word 2007 documents. (I have a test document containing complex formatting with every bell and whistle that Word offers. When I tried it in OpenOffice.org, I saw some errors in the layout; all of the text and images were present, though, and things were just a bit misaligned.) OpenOffice.org is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux/Unix systems, making it useful in cross-platform situations.
Specialized Word Processors
"When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like your thumb," or so the saying goes. Microsoft Word has a lot of layout options, but it isn't really a desktop publishing program. If you want that kind of fine control over positioning and output, one alternative to look at is PagePlus Starter Edition, which is free. It provides most of the standard desktop publishing features, such as master pages, column flow, and easy ways to place, move, and lock text boxes and images. The Starter Edition has no time limits or advertising, but it is a good example of what I call "teaserware"--software that shows the menu items and buttons for features available only in a commercial upgrade (in this case, the paid version is US$100). PagePlus Starter Edition at least makes it clear which features are "live"; some teaserware waits until you try to use the locked features, and then slaps you with an error message.
Authors often have special needs (the significant others of authors are nodding their heads, here), and several programs focus on making fiction writing easier. Scrivener is famous in the Macintosh world, and has a free open beta for its Windows edition (the final product will be $40). Scrivener takes a "corkboard" approach, showing your notes and ideas as pinned to the board, and allowing you to stamp "Final," "Rough Draft," or the like on top of them. It integrates the corkboard, an outliner, and a text editor, and it includes the ability to view disparate snippets of text as a continuous document.
Another authorial tool is the $60 WriteItNow, which offers a lot of specialized features such as forms for characters, events, and locations, along with charts to help you remember that Bill loves Mary but Mary loves Joe and Joe is actually the evil clone of Harry, who is secretly Sam's father. WriteItNow's interface is a bit cluttered--and not Windows-standard--but its feature set is deep.
A somewhat older tool than either Scrivener or WriteItNow, Rough Draft hasn't been updated in a while. The program has a built-in file browser and formatting tools aimed at making it easier to write screenplays. It also allows free use of multiple fonts in a document, something the other applications do not have (as a means of getting you to concentrate on the words, not the looks). Rough Draft lacks most other advanced features, but it is free, which neither Scrivener or WriteItNow can match. I was able to run the program on my Windows 7 64-bit machine, but the developer has not confirmed functionality beyond Windows XP.
Also following the divide-and-conquer strategy is Writer's Blocks, which chops your work into "blocks" of text that you can arrange into columns. Your manuscript consists of all or some of your blocks; you can add and edit text that isn't in the blocks, if you desire. The program has a number of features for sorting, connecting, and displaying the blocks, too. I found the interface a little too chunky for my tastes, however. Writer's Blocks version 3 is best used on XP; although it ran without crashing on my 64-bit Windows 7 system, some interface elements looked distorted, and the application was slightly sluggish in scrolling and responding. According to the vendor, the upcoming version 4--slated to arrive within the next few months--is optimized for Windows Vista and 7. The 15-day free trial for the $149 program is short but feature-complete.
Sometimes the issue isn't too few features, but too many. A number of writers want simplicity above all else, so they can focus purely on the words. Dark Room is as simple as you can get without going back to a Smith-Corona. It has a window, and you type in it. A very simple menu bar allows you to load and save. If you prefer, you can go full-screen and see nothing but your words and a few icons to navigate up and down.
If that's too minimalist for your taste, Jarte adds a few more features. Built on the same engine that WordPad uses, Jarte provides an unconventional but usable interface and a lot of functions that WordPad doesn't have, such as headers and footers, tabbed documents, and quick links to handy Websites. (Those links don't seem to be user-editable, however, so there's always a chance that someday a linked site could be taken over by something unpleasant.) Jarte is free, but its creators also offer the $20 Jarte Plus, which includes additional features. Jarte can run from a USB drive, too, so it's nicely portable yet still feature-rich enough for many tasks.
Another open-source project, AbiWord, evolved from a Macintosh word processor to a cross-platform product. It isn't quite as feature-rich (some would say feature-overloaded) as Microsoft Word, but it isn't minimalist, either. Although it has a good set of features, I experienced issues with it, including installation problems with the Help folder as well as some Styles breaking due to hard-coded references to the Dingbats font (which is not included with either Windows or AbiWord).
Although not intended as a replacement for Microsoft's own Word software, Windows Live Writer is interesting because it serves a particular, but large, niche: bloggers. With Windows Live Writer, you can compose and edit items offline and then post them to your blog. I've experienced the heartbreak of losing data to back-end issues and timeouts that crop up after I write a long post in an online editor, so I can say that this is a very useful program. Microsoft is of course pushing its own Windows Live service with this application, but I use it for my WordPress blog, and I've experienced no problems thus far. (Obviously, it doesn't support any editing plug-ins that you may have in your WordPress installation.)
A Word Processor for Every Need
Overall, OpenOffice would be my choice for a full-featured word processor. I might experiment with Dark Room to see if the lack of distractions really improves my productivity. Since my first professional computer was a Mac Plus, I really wanted to like AbiWord, but it doesn't perform well on my Windows 7 system. Although Jarte has a lot of good ideas, it's at a position on the functionality-versus-footprint scale that doesn't match my needs. Meanwhile, the current versions of Writer's Blocks and Rough Draft are both showing their age, but that could make them ideal or at least worth looking at for people still using older systems. As for the author's tools, while Scrivener has a clean, professional look and feel plus an excellent reputation in the Mac world, my personal requirements as a writer are better met by the structure and fill-in-the-blanks tools of WriteItNow.
Fortunately, all of these programs are at least free to try. Check out one or more of these Word alternatives, and you just might find the right wordsmithing tool for you.