Word processor wars: Microsoft Word versus Google Docs

For many years now Microsoft Word has been the go to word processor but there is a new kid in town. In May 2021, Jake Anbinder, a PhD candidate in US history, caused a storm on Twitter after tweeting ‘Gen Z just does not use Microsoft Word, period. When you ask them to submit .doc files they’re all converting them from Google Docs or Pages.’ So what is all the fuss about? In this blog post, I take a look at the history of word processing, what the old and the new have to offer and whether one really is better than the other.

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What is a word processor

The Britannia encyclopaedia defines a word processor as ‘a computer program used to write and revise documents, compose the layout of the text and preview on a computer monitor how the printed copy will appear. The last capability is known as “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG; pronounced wi-zē-wig). Word processors facilitate writing and editing, especially with their ability to copy and move text (“cut-and-paste”), their built-in dictionaries to check spelling, and their grammar checkers. Other common features include a wide choice of typographic fonts and sizes, various paragraph and page layouts, tools for finding and replacing strings of characters, and word counts. Modern word processors also have many features once reserved for desktop publishing systems, such as table creation and importation of graphic images. They typically provide templates for common document types, such as letters, memos, and résumés, and can generate multiple copies of a document with recipient addresses drawn from a list (“mail merge”).’

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Image by Esther Hildebrandt on Adobe Stock.


Word processing as we know it today, can be traced back to 1961 when IBM introduced the Selectric typewriter​, followed in 1964 by the Magnetic Tape/Selectric Typewriter (MT/ST) that allowed typed material ​to be edited without having to retype the whole text, saved, printed as many times as needed and reused for other projects. The MT/ST was marketed as a ​’​word processing​’ machine, a German translation of the word ‘textverabeitung’ which IBM redefined to mean ‘electronic ways of handling a standard set of office activities — composing, revising, printing, and filing written documents.’

In 1969 magnetic cards known as MagCards followed. The cards were slipped into a box attached to a typewriter to record text as it was typed on paper. Then in 1972 Lexitron And Linolex developed a similar system with the addition of a video display screen and tape cassette for storage.

Remember the floppy disk? They revolutionised the word processing industry, capable of holding up to 100 pages of text. Cathode ray tube (CRT) screens and computerised printers followed, enabling users to view an entire page as they typed, to make edits and print the results. In 1977 Apple produced the first PC with IBM following fast on its heels in 1981. Soon after word processing became one of the most popular applications for these new devices.

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Word versus Google Docs

Microsoft Word has been around since 1983. Designed to be used at a desk, users still need to install the program on computers today. Microsoft has now launched Word Online as part of its Microsoft 365 package, however, it is not the full version of Word, with functionality being removed to help it load and run faster, meaning it is unable to handle large or complex documents.

Google Docs on the other hand is cloud based meaning it is accessible from any device and works entirely online. Part of a collection of cloud computing tools, software and products known as Google Workspace, all updates are automatic and you don’t have to download any software or programs to use it. Google Docs is available on any desktop platform with a modern browser and is available for both iOS and Android devices. However an internet connection is required and you need a Google account to log in and create documents.

Editing and collaboration

Word has many options and features when it comes to editing, however options for viewing your edit history or reverting back to a previous version of a Word document are limited.

Both Word and Google allow you to track changes made by people you have shared a document with, however with Word, unless you are using the Microsoft 365 online app, sharing requires you to email the document. You also need an account or subscription for Word online which your collaborators might not have. Other factors such as the device a user is working on, whether users are part of the same organisation and where a document is stored also need to be considered.

With Google Docs, versioning is automatic. By going to File > Version history you can see all edits and restore previous document versions with a click. Google Docs also has a more simplified layout, with all the frequently used buttons found in an easy to access toolbar, while everything else, such as inserting images or tables, is found in a dropdown menu.

With Google docs you can invite collaborators directly from the document or send them a link to access this. Google refers to this as ‘co-authoring’.  You can watch your collaborators mark up your document or open up the Google Docs messenger feature and chat with them in the document, about the changes you want to make, while Google tracks the changes, along with who was responsible.

I can vouch for the usefulness of co-authoring — as a student on an online course in early 2022 I was introduced to Google Docs for the first time. Students in different locations across the UK, were tasked as a group with writing a marketing strategy. It was a massive task and Google Docs enabled us all to contribute and edit the strategy at the same time in real-time. It did not matter where the file was stored or on which device or browser a user was working from.

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Image by Esther Hildebrandt on Adobe Stock.


Microsoft documents can be uploaded or copied and pasted into Google Drive for editing and collaboration in Google Docs. Conversely. documents can be created in Google Docs and converted into other formats, including Word, PDF or plain text. Both  Microsoft documents and Google Docs are compatible with commonly used word processing formats such as  PDF and rich text format.

Saving your work

So far it can be seen that Google Docs has a lot going for it but what happens when your internet connection goes down, there is a power cut or the Google servers go down? With Google you may feel the need to download or email yourself copies of your documents for times you are unable to connect to the internet, whereas with Microsoft you are not reliant on an internet connection as your documents are saved locally on your computer.

Microsoft documents however need to be saved manually whereas with Google Docs, autosave is automatic and all files are automatically stored in Google Drive meaning users can always access their files, regardless of which device they are logging in from. In addition it backs up your saved files to Google Drive instead of your local hard drive.

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Google Docs is free to access with a business version of Google Workspace available for a fee. Most Word users will need to pay at least something for Word and it can be costly if you want to use it on more than one device. Google on the other hand allows users to access Google Docs and the rest of Google Workspace on an unlimited number of devices.

Storage space

When included in Microsoft 365, Word provides the most storage space, so if you are working with large files, you will want this option. Google Docs is limited to 15GB of storage, so if you do not have a lot of documents or many large documents, this may be a better option for you.

Best for mobile

Google Docs was always designed to be used online, meaning you can write and edit documents on the go. Microsoft’s mobile based Word app is not as comprehensive as either their desktop program or what Google offers their mobile users, however users of Word Online have their documents saved to OneDrive, so working remotely is just as secure as when you are in the office.

Luke Skywalker and Storm Trooper mini figures.
Image by Esther Hildebrandt on Adobe Stock.

Which word processor is best for you?

Microsoft Word has been the industry standard for many years now and after years of using, it can be hard to give up but hopefully this blog post has shed some light on the two programs now fighting for dominance, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of both.

Which program is best for you depends entirely on what you need from your word processor. Most of the essential Word tools are available in Google Docs too but if you care about layout and presentation, you may not get on with it. If you want to share files, work collaboratively with others, or work in the cloud, you may prefer Google Docs but remember it is reliant on a functioning internet connection, power supply and servers.

If you have never seen Google Docs don’t be afraid to take a look but don’t feel like you have to use it, there are plenty of people who still like Word and plenty of reasons still to use it.

Word processing not your bag? If you need a hand creating and formatting documents, do not hesitate to get in touch to learn how I can help.

Sources and further information

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