Celebrating 30+ years of MS Word

This is part one of a series celebrating the 30+ year history of Microsoft Word, one of the most popular software products of all time. Here we look at the early days, from DOS to “Clippy”, the dreaded paperclip…

Almost everyone who has used a computer has used Microsoft Word. The program is a veritable software dinosaur, now over 30 years old, but how did it come to dominate word processing?

To answer this let’s go back to the early 1980s when the battle to become the leading word processing program began, a battle Microsoft initially seemed destined to lose.

The Early Years

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An early example of word processor commands

If you were lucky enough to have a personal computer back in the 1970s the word processor looked a little different to now.

Users embedded formatting commands directly with text they were writing. They often didn’t know if what they had written would appear correctly as it was only possible to check the end result by ‘compiling’ and then printing a document. Once they the printout was in their hands it might be littered with formatting errors that would need correcting.

The birth of WYSIWYG

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Charles Simonyi at Xerox in 1980

This all changed when the WYSIWYG (“What You See Is What You Get“) word processor was created. Instead of the laborious formatting process, a user could instead type letters onto a screen and that screen would show exactly what the final document looked like, no “compilation” necessary.

The catalyst for these new WYSIWYG Word Processors was a program called BRAVO, created in 1974 at Xerox by Butler Lampson and Charles Simonyi.

When asked about BRAVO, Simonyi commented years later:

“It was clear that quite a beautiful editor could be written for the Alto. Remember, the Alto had a black and white bitmap display. It had a mouse. It had an un-decoded keyboard. It had all the ingredients that are necessary for WYSIWYG. And, of course, then the network came around. The laser printer was coming alive. So all the components were there, except for the software…. We set out to write an editor and we finished it about three months.”

However, the powers that be at Xerox were less convinced by the potential of BRAVO. In fact, shortly after it had been developed Xerox decided to abandon it and a new production product was to be started from scratch.

This irked Simonyi. This, in his view, was yet another example of Xerox failing to turn great ideas into products. In 1981, frustrated at Xerox, Simonyi left and joined Microsoft to head up a team creating application programs.

Word Processing at Microsoft

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An early version of WordStar for DOS

Microsoft was keen to muscle in on the Word processing market; it was growing rapidly with the rise of processors such as WordPerfect and WordStar. Simonyi was confident he could build a better app but needed help to achieve this aspiration. Cue the call to Richard Brodie.

Richard Brodie was a developer at Xerox and had worked on BRAVO with Simonyi. Brodie too was frustrated with abandonment of Bravo and was lured to Microsoft. Bill Gates took Brodie on as a technical assistant, a role that exposed him to leading industry players such as Steve Jobs and Mitch Kapor. By the summer of 1982 Brodie’s time time in the role reached a natural end, he and Simonyi began work on a word processor for Microsoft.

By October 1983 that word processor had been built.

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Simonyi (left) and Brodie (right) with version 1.0 of Word

The Birth of Microsoft Word

Recently Brodie commented on the process of creating Word:

“I sat in an office and wrote code myself, bouncing ideas off Charles every now and then, for maybe nine months. I started from scratch, but of course worked from the philosophy of Charles’s project Bravo from Xerox. So Charles didn’t write any actual code for V1 … yet it would never have existed without Charles.”

Some innovative features helped Word stand out from the crowd – support for style sheets, footnotes, the ability to undo and mail-merge. The team also paid attention to getting fonts right so they could be used by increasingly popular laser printers.

This, coupled with the speed of development, caught Gates’ attention: “One thing that just blew Bill away was an optimization of the display speed. We actually formatted as you typed. Every time you inserted one character, the screen would update to show exactly what was going to be printed.”

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Whilst Gates was impressed, PC World Magazine readers were less so. Demonstration copies of Microsoft Word for MS-DOS had been included in the 1983 issue but users were overwhelmed with the program.

What had been created was so different to anything that was already in the marketplace that users struggled to understand how to use it.

word 4.pngByte Magazine ran a review which said it was “clever, put together well, and performs some extraordinary feats” but “extremely frustrating to learn and operate efficiently. …Word’s developers seem to be trying to completely reinvent word processing.

That last line was prophetic. Brodie and Simonyi both had predicted their product “would naturally rise to the top once graphical user-interfaces and laser printers became popular“.

They knew once WYSIWYG was presented to the masses, people would not go back.

New features followed quickly; autocorrect, the red underline for incorrectly spelt words, the ‘combo box’, redo and further font options such as making words bold or different sizes.

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Word 3.0 for DOS

Word 3.0 for DOS, released in 1986, added search/replace and macros stored as key stroke sequences. Richard Brodie left Microsoft shortly after, his appetite for corporate politics diminished.

There were 3 more versions of Windows for DOS released after he left, before Simonyi ushered in the “Word for Windows” era.

Word for Windows

word 5Crucially, Word for Windows was released in 1989, two years before WordStar and WordPerfect arrived on Windows.

This two year start pegged back WordPerfect’s market share, which at the time accounted for 50%. Word blew its competitors out of the water and by 1994 accounted for 90% of the word-processing market.

word 7 Part of the reason for Word’s dominance was Microsoft VP Peter Pathe, legal guardian to Word throughout the Windows Era. Under Pathe, Word’s turnover tripled to $2 billion+ annually. He was responsible for introducing key innovations to Word. In 1994 he oversaw the project that made Word the first processor capable of browsing and editing documents directly from the Web.

Equally important, was the work Pathe and his team oversaw in 1995 to introduce a single version of Word, replacing the many individual language versions previously shipped. This, coupled with with native support for UNICODE and device-independent page layout, enabled users to share documents online around the world, which would prove to be game changing.

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The evolution of Word

Under Pathe, Word for Windows saw releases as part of Windows 95, 97, 98 and 2000. These releases were not trouble free though.

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The much maligned ‘Clippy’

It was in 1997 that perhaps that most hated of all Microsoft Word features appeared – “Clippy“. It was an “office assistant”, a talking, moving, paper-clip with ‘boggle’ eyes, tracking your every move. Brodie was once asked what he made of Clippy and commented “like a cat feels like a bath“.

Clippy was emblematic of a product losing it’s way – Word became bloated with features and increasingly difficult to use.

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Click the correct button … if you can find it.

By the year 2000 Microsoft faced a battle to rescue Word from “feature bloat” and make it usable once again. Stay tuned for part 2 of our series to find out how they got on …


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Written by The Zamzar Team

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