In a special series for Zamzar we are interviewing key players behind the technology we all use today. We’ve heard from Robert Gaskins, the creator of PowerPoint and are now excited to interview Richard Brodie, one of the creators of Microsoft Word.
Back in the early 1980’s Microsoft were keen to muscle in on the word processing market; it was growing rapidly with the rise of processors such as WordPerfect and WordStar. Charles Simonyi, who had worked at Xerox before joining Microsoft, was confident he could build a better app but needed help to achieve this aspiration. Cue the call to Richard Brodie, a former colleague at Xerox. Richard helped to write that very first version of the world’s most popular word processing software.
How did you get into coding, specifically word processing software?
“I started coding when I was seven on a plastic toy computer called Digi-Comp I. I remember writing a program to simulate traffic lights. Word processing I started at Xerox under Charles Simonyi helping with project Bravo, an advanced word processor running on the Alto personal computer. It was never brought to market although I believe Jimmy Carter had one in the White House.”
What was working for Xerox in Silicon Valley like in the 70s?
“It was a totally first-class operation from an employee standpoint. I had a private office even as a summer intern. We were some of the few people then who had access to email and the Arpanet, predecessor to the Internet. It was incredibly exciting to be working on changing the world by bringing this technology to people who didn’t dream what was coming.”
After Xerox, you moved to Microsoft. How did that move come about and what were your impressions of the company?
“Charles brought me up right after he joined Microsoft to head up the applications division. It was very exciting but in a different way…we all worked in one big room with off-the-shelf computer terminals and Unix rather than the cool proprietary stuff we had at Xerox. Still, I could tell these were brilliant, driven people who were doing amazing things and was happy to be part of it.”
How did the project for Microsoft Word come about and what was your involvement in that?
“Our first product was Multiplan, the spreadsheet that was the predecessor to Excel. I didn’t work on that directly but I did write the p-code compiler that first summer that was used with all our applications to make them run across different machines. I went back to school then started working on Word in 1982. The idea was to have a whole suite of applications that later became Microsoft Office. I wrote a lot of Word by myself, with input from Charles and the late Jeff Harbers, and then we brought on several other developers to finish the project.”
Why do you think Word for Windows beat off all the competition including WordPerfect?
“We designed it from the ground up for hardware that didn’t exist yet: high-resolution displays and laser printers. I remember when the guys from HP came in to get us to support their groundbreaking Laserjet. I said we’ve been waiting for you! It already works! So we had the future in mind, and then Jeff Raikes and his marketing team did an amazing job telling our story to the world. When the future came, WordPerfect wasn’t ready for it, so we passed them. But in the beginning, people grumbled at us all day long about how Word didn’t have the embedded codes and so on they were used to.”
What was it like working with Bill Gates?
“We always got along great. Bill didn’t mind if you disagreed with him as long as you had an intelligent reason. He was focused on solving hard technological problems and I was focused on making it easy for users to do their tasks so it was very complementary. He is truly an amazing human being, so smart and focused with seemingly infinite determination.”
We have seen you are now a professional poker player? Did you ever play poker with Bill Gates? Was he good?
“I did go through that phase but now that online poker is banned in my state I don’t play. I did play with Bill for tiny stakes at the kitchen table. He was really good at reading people.”
Did you think Word would be as popular as it ended up being?
“I don’t think I could have begun to imagine. I was so happy to walk into a computer store and see it on the shelf! We did have lots of confidence in what we were doing but who could have predicted how different the world would become with the Internet.”
If you could turn back the clock and do anything differently with Word what would that be?
“We didn’t understand how lawyers used line numbers and that kept us from being adopted in that business for years. Probably should have researched that a little more and done it better.”
What would you change about Word today?
“I can never find anything in the damn ribbon. I liked the old menus. But I’m old.”
What companies, software or technologies do you love right now?
“I agree with Warren Buffett that Apple may be the best company in the world. Their user experience is so incredible. I love my iPhone and AirPods.”
Do you have any predictions for the future of tech?
“I think medical technology is going to be a huge area of advance in the near future. The current pandemic illuminates a number of areas of testing, screening, and diagnosis that have tremendous potential for advance.”
Word blew its competitors out of the water and by 1994 accounted for 90% of the word-processing market.
In 1995 a single version of Word was introduced, 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.
Even today, Word dominates the market. Perhaps not as greatly as it once did but you can’t imagine a future without Microsoft Word and Richard Brodie’s legacy will be his work in helping to create an application that changed the world.
A huge thank you to Richard for taking the time to interview with us.
[Cover photo by Ashkan Forouzani]