Microsoft Word Turns 25

A look back at the changes and challenges Microsoft's flagship word-processing program has been through during its first quarter-century.

From Upstart to Market King

If you've been using Microsoft Word for the past quarter of a century, it can seem like Word has always been the top dog of the word-processing world--and for years, it's been incorporated into Microsoft's Office suite. Today, Microsoft's domination is so complete that, from the public's point of view, there is almost no "word-processor market." (Does anyone remember Lotus Manuscript?)

In fact, Microsoft's word processing program got off to a shaky and awkward start in October 1983, and it didn't become all-consuming until at least five years later. Even as Word adopted the market-leading position, it suffered its share of stinging criticisms and setbacks. This is the story, briefly, of how Microsoft Word evolved on its 25-year journey from obscure upstart to Absolute King of the (Software) World.

(Benj Edwards is the founder and editor in chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming.)

The First WYSIWYG Word Processor: Xerox Bravo

Before there was Word, there was Bravo (right), the world's first WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") word processor. Charles Simonyi and Butler Lampson developed the revolutionary program at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1974 for an amazing machine called the Xerox Alto (left). The Alto holds the distinction of being the first computer to use a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI). Although Xerox never sold the Alto commercially, its long-lasting influence can be felt today in all modern computers and operating systems, including a little application called Microsoft Word.

(Photos courtesy of Xerox and Digibarn)

Enter Microsoft--and Xenix

Charles Simonyi (at left of inset photo), developer of Xerox Bravo, joined up with Microsoft after he received an offer from Bill Gates in 1981. On day one of his long tenure, Gates, Paul Allen, and Simonyi decided to produce database, spreadsheet, and word processor applications. Simonyi soon hired a former Xerox intern named Richard Brodie (at right in photo) and began work on "Multi-Tool Word." With Brodie doing most of the programming, they developed version 1.0 (seen here) in Microsoft's Xenix (a UNIX-like operating system, now defunct). Not long after, marketing scrapped the "Multi-Tool" part of the name as being too cumbersome, and "Microsoft Word" was born.

(Photos courtesy of Antoni Sawicki and Richard Brodie)

The Early DOS Days

Word 1.0 was first released for Xenix and MS-DOS in October 1983. DOS versions 1.0 through 5.0 looked nearly identical to the screen shot seen here. (If you're interested in a trip down DOS's memory lane, check into PC World's "Save DOS" campaign, which launched on April Fool's Day 2008. It includes a slide show featuring great moments in PC World's DOS coverage.) These early versions of Word featured a sometimes confusing "moded" interface (the same keys could perform different tasks in different modes, or submenus) that harkened back to its Bravo roots (see slide 2).

It was a step up from competitor Corel WordPerfect's arcane function-key combinations, but a better interface was on the horizon--although it would take a different computer entirely to bring it to Word.

Meanwhile, on the Mac...

At the urging of Bill Gates, Jeffery Harbers led a team at Microsoft to port Word to Apple's fledgling Macintosh in 1985. Among innovations such as the ability to display different font types, sizes, and weights (previously found in other software but new to Word), Word 1.0 for Mac featured a full mouse-driven GUI with drop-down menus.

These exciting new attributes fueled strong sales of the Mac version, which topped sales of MS-DOS Word for at least four years. To this day, sales of Microsoft Word for the Mac are still going strong.

Welcome to Windows

Back on the home front, Microsoft's Windows environment was steadily growing in capability. With the increased success of the Mac version, it made sense that Microsoft would create a version of Word for its own GUI environment.

The company released Word 1.0 for Windows (seen here) in 1989, which featured a Mac-like, full mouse-driven interface with drop-down menus and true WYSIWYG display features--and a price tag of $500. With the launch of Windows 3.0 in 1990 ($149.95; upgrade $79.95), sales of Word for Windows took off, and, over the following few years, Microsoft solidified its control of the PC-compatible word-processor market.

The GUI Goes DOS

Taking a hint from its Windows-based cousin, Word for MS-DOS reached its height with versions 5.5 (1991, seen here) and 6.0 (1993), both of which featured a Windows-like mouse-driven interface with drop-down menus, other then-advanced features, and WYSIWYG graphical modes that displayed fonts in bold, underline, and italics.

Like the rest of PC-kind, Word's future lay in Windows. But not before we take a small detour...

The Other OS

In 1992, Microsoft produced a version of Word for IBM OS/2 (1.1B is seen here) that, like its host environment, was nearly identical to its Microsoft Windows counterpart.

Curiously, Microsoft also maintained versions of Word up to 5.1 for SCO Unix (formerly Xenix) with features similar to its MS-DOS version-numbered equivalents.

The Version Diversion

After launching its Windows Word as version 1.0, Microsoft naturally followed with Word 2.0 (1991). Then something odd happened. WordPerfect released version 6.0 of its highly successful WordPerfect software, and it proved to be Microsoft Word's main competitor of the time. To stay afloat in the version-number race, Microsoft decided to align its Windows version numbers with its MS-DOS and Mac version numbers, producing Word for Windows 6.0 in 1993.

Later, Microsoft sought an exit to the version-number game entirely: Its next Windows Word release switched to year-based branding (Word 95) that matched the launch of Windows 95. But once Microsoft gained full control of the word-processing market, weird things began to happen to its most important office application.

The Birth of Clippy

Word 97 (1997) launched the one feature Word users generally loathe the most: The Office Assistant. By default, the assistant was "Clippit" (often called "Clippy"), a talking, dancing paperclip with slanted eyes, who spied on your progress and insisted on telling you what you were doing. Like a well-intentioned child offering assistance with a complicated task, instead of helping, Clippy just got in the way.

Certain Microsoft veterans seemed to agree: When asked how he felt about Clippy, Word 1.0 author Richard Brodie replied, "Like a cat feels about a bath." Simonyi expressed a similar sentiment.

Drop-Down Shenanigans

In Word 2000 for Windows, Microsoft included a questionable interface design change. Called "personalized menus," the feature ideally made Word easier to use (key word: "ideally"). It worked by keeping track of your most-used menu items and showing only those by default, while hiding the rest of your drop-down menu choices. To see those, one had to click on a tiny arrow to expand the drop-down menu.

Thankfully, users could turn this feature off, but figuring out how was not as obvious as it should have been. Clippy should have told us.

Features Overload

One of the most common criticisms of Word is how the application has become bloated with features over the years, as it tries to be all things to all people. This trend couldn't be more vividly illustrated anywhere than in a zealous, all-out activation of every toolbar in Word 2000 (shown here).

The icons on these toolbars do things that most of us don't need and don't understand, and yet those options (and the features they represent) persist, allowing Microsoft to continue its full-spectrum domination of the word-processor marketplace. Were you ever crazy enough to have all these toolbars up at once?

Farewell, Clippy

In Word 2002 (released with Office XP in 2001), Microsoft seized the anti-Clippy mania by the horns and turned it into a marketing tool. Their marketing message: The ease of use in Word 2002 rendered Clippy obsolete.

Microsoft created Clippy's personal Web site featuring humorous videos of Clippy--voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried--that extolled the virtues of Office XP (and promised to "put Clippy's skinny metal butt in the digital dustbin"). In Clippy's stead, Microsoft introduced task panes--menus that stretched down the right side of the screen--to help users in a much less intrusive and annoying fashion.

Microsoft Word: The Next Generation

These days, Word faces renewed competition from free, open-source alternatives like Sun's (and even online threats from Google with Google Docs).

In its latest Windows release, Office Word 2007, our familiar word cruncher has undergone a dramatic facelift. Gone are the traditional menu bar and toolbars: Both have been replaced by the "Ribbon"--an interface strip that places related functions in the same, easy-to-find place. Clippy's gone for good, too, with nary an Office Assistant in sight.

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Review: Microsoft Office 2007

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