word processor history -- interesting article (Evan Koblentz)

Liam Proven lproven at gmail.com
Fri Jul 8 11:55:34 CDT 2016

On 8 July 2016 at 18:15, Swift Griggs <swiftgriggs at gmail.com> wrote:
> On Fri, 8 Jul 2016, Liam Proven wrote:
>> WordStar commands are still used in some things, such as JOE.
> You are right and I use Joe daily, hmm, more like hourly. I'm typing this
> message in it, right now, in fact. It's my $EDITOR and default composition
> editor in Alpine, my go-to mail client.

Gmail on the web, these days. Sometimes on Mac OS X, or should I now
say macOS... :-(
... and sometimes on Linux. Dedicated client on Android.

I keep Thunderbird around, but only for backup purposes.

I don't have a favourite Linux console-mode text editor. Normally I
just use vi, with a faint grimace of distaste. I only know _very_
simple commands -- insert, append, delete, save/exit or quit. I never
even learned how to copy/paste in it. Something bizarre involving
'yank' is all I recall and I don't know how to do it.

On my own boxes, I sometimes install Tilde, but normally use whatever
the GUI's editor is -- Gedit on Unity, Leafpad on Lxde, Geany on XFCE.

If I don't have a GUI, though, plain old vi. I dislike both Nano and
Joe, although I'm perfectly able to use either, so there's no point
installing them if they're not there.

I really _really_ wish there was something like SetEdit or Tilde in
the default repos for Debian/*buntu/CentOS. EFTE is sometimes there
but it has issues, IIRC.

>> However, they went away before the GUI era and are mostly now forgotten.
>> Including by you! ;-)
> Some of us perhaps, but after writing a few hundred thousand lines of code
> in Borland IDEs in the 1990s, I couldn't forget the keystrokes if I wanted
> to, I think.

I can remember more functionality via WordStar keystrokes than I can
via vi ones! :-)

> I liked both of them. The coolest thing about Wordperfect was how they
> actually paid attention to the fact that white text on a blue background
> was supposedly easier on ones eyes. I believe there was some kind of
> research into this, but I'm not sure if it was the by Wordperfect Corp.

Yes, it did look better, true.

But all those arcane Ctrl-shift F5, shift-F7, alt-F11, F3, ctrl-F1
patterns -- eeuw.

When WP 5.1 caught on, at least I could use drop-downs for the stuff I
couldn't remember the f-key combos for.

I have a download of WP 6 for DOS here, waiting for me to try in a VM.

I have Word 5.5 and 6 for DOS, but they can readily and repeatably
crash DOSemu. :-(

> My recollection of that time was that, as soon as the unwashed masses saw
> that GUIs were going to be the norm on microcomputers, they were
> well-past-done with anything character based. I don't actually see that as
> 100% positive progress, though. I see it as emblematic of how "users" see
> computers, with both good and bad implications. Greater accessibility
> means more overall benefit to more people, and that's a good thing.
> However, too much over-simplification leads to a form of learned
> helplessness and a bigger chasm between the technical, and non-technical
> users.

Definitely, on all points. Yes, GUIs swept away the console stuff, and
with good reason -- there was so little standardisation among
text-mode apps. I had to memorise dozens and dozens of totally
different UIs, and almost all of them were nasty.

But, yes, it certainly contributed to the dumbing-down of software and
users both.

> ... not that M$ didn't simply co-opt the lesson from others who'd been
> doing it for a very long time. However, it's not such a bad thing to learn
> from others. They certainly "learned" plenty from MacOS.

True! But then, MacOS learned from the Lisa, and the Lisa learned from
the Xerox Star. Sadly, only the surface appearance, though -- not the
ubiquitous networking, not the OOPS dev tools.

> You are right, most did prefer it. However, at the time, I remember much
> wailing and gnashing of teeth as people who had mastered WP screamed at
> Word for trying to outsmart them and they couldn't simply delete the
> offending control character to reverse the automagically-helpy "features"
> they are always trying to shovel into Word/Office.

Yep. Me too. Both remembered, and occasionally, cursed it.

I am fully aware that my feelings towards MS Word are a form of
Stockholm Syndrome. I don't think it's a good app, just the one I now
know best.

It's for good reasons that I use the oldest versions I can.

> I personally still find Word to be an infuriating abomination no matter
> how many Paper Clips, ribbon-interfaces, or hollywood-squares-metro GUIs
> they put on it. A slime mold in a dress is still just a greasy disgusting
> fungus.

It's been decaying since Office 2007 for me. I won't use Windows
versions after 2003. On Windows, I use Word97 now, or LibreOffice.

> Boy did Wordperfect go down in flames quick, though. I won't argue that M$
> cleaned their clock in record time. It seemed like in only a couple of
> years they went from total-domination to being bought by... Corel (?!).

Yes indeed!

They missed the Windows boat, and it doomed them.

Shame -- WP for Mac was a good app. They made it freeware and I used
it occasionally.

WordPerfect for Windows _today_ is a lovely app. Very fast and a nice
clean UI. It'd be my Windows WP of choice _if_ I voluntarily used
Windows, which I don't, and if I ran commercial paid apps, which I

WinWord matured into a decent app, then got bloaty and slow, then got
a crappy new UI.

WP4W started out bloaty and slow, and matured into a sleek, fast,
efficient app. But too late.

Odd how things can reverse.

> Hmm, IMHO, I'd say that it's still pretty equal and if there was any edge,
> it'd go to EMACS editing mode and keystrokes (especially ctrl-a and
> ctrl-e).

Conceded. I never mastered Emacs.

All the pain of weird old pre-GUI UIs, plus all the pain of Unix
terminal support etc., _and_ the pain of an app which has its own
vocabulary for things which now have standard terminology. So,
"buffers" and whatnot, not files and windows. And terms from a type of
keyboard that hasn't been manufactured since before I grew my first
pubic hairs -- "meta" and "super" and all that, when the IBM Extended
layout has been the industry standard, on PC, Mac, Amiga, ST, Acorn,
even DEC terminals, for 30 years.

I will give Emacs a try once it is dragged kicking and screaming into 1985.

Xah Lee's ErgoEmacs tried, but it's faltered and stagnated.


> It has a lot to do with what things like libreadline supports by
> default and what editing mode your shell defaults to. I don't personally
> like dealing with any kind of termdef/termcap/terminal-control and so I
> nearly always go looking for someone else's code who's already slogged
> through editing modes and UTF-8.

OMG yes!

This is one of the weird things. I actively like Linux because it's a
PC-native OS. Its commands understand PC keyboards and can display
bold and underline and colours on the console. The keyboard behaves
sanely -- all the keys work and do what I expect.

But old Unix hands say that it feels like a lash-up and FreeBSD feels
like Real Unix. Which to me means that FreeBSD can't handle PC
extended screen modes -- the console always boots up in 80*25. If I
want a Linux box with a text console, I can set it to 132*50 and see
lots of lovely status messages. Not on FreeBSD, oh no. No VGA support
here: you get MDA and like it, punk.

It doesn't even understand PC partitioning. Oh no. I can't put it in a
logical drive like a grown-up PC OS; oh no, it needs a primary and
then in that it makes it own weird alien non-PC disk format.

For me, "real Unix feel" means my keyboard doesn't behave, the
utilities don't use PC features from 1981 such as bold, underline,
flash, italics or colour, cursor keys may not work.

The stuff that makes Real Unix People feel at home, apparently, means
I feel like I'm using an alien OS from the bad old days.

> Well, I do understand were this comes from. UNIX folks were dealing with a
> sort of multi-culturalism problem. Since it runs on so many hardware
> platforms and interoperates with tons of terminal types (and DOS or
> Windows either didn't exist yet, or didn't run on those platforms), folks
> are (even still) hand-wringing a lot about terminals that have different
> cursor key mappings et al. That's always the explanation you hear around
> why VI cursor movement keys aren't (just) arrow keys, and also include
> 'h', 'j', 'k', and 'l'.
> So, I don't understand why, after x86 has absolutely dominated the
> computing scene for a few decades, that there is any excuse left for
> editors or terminal emulators that screw up the cursor movement keys right
> outta the box. It's not like there are that many types of keyboard
> scancodes for cursor keys on PeeCees (and heck, even non-PC UNIX hardware
> that uses PS/2 or USB keyboards). I don't accept the excuses about 100's
> of terminal types in the 1980's. That was just too long ago to still be
> moaning about today. Most of those terminals are in landfills, too. A few
> hobbyists like me might have some or play with them, but if you are
> pimping a UNIX variant today and you can't deal (by default out of the
> box) with cursor keys: your vendor or project needs a reality check. Lame
> excuses about old terminals making it "hard" are totally worn out and only
> sound laughable in 2016.

Exactly! Yes! This!

Linux just shrugged and adopted native practices: it uses DOS disk
partitioning, DOS keyboard layouts, DOS screen formatting, DOS screen
modes, etc.

*BSD flips you the finger and is extremely reluctant to use anything
that didn't work on a PDP-11 before I was born.

> However, to be fair, most of those cursor-keys-don't-work issues come from
> terminal mismatches as folks move between systems on a single terminal
> session, not ill-maintained PC keyboard + VGA console terminal code.

I defer to your superiour knowledge!

> Sounds like you have a much broader experience with word processors than I
> do, then. I remember some of those, but I wasn't a user of any besides the
> first two (Wordstar and Wordperfect).

Oh, there were many more. I collected them for a while.

A British PC mag ran a cover disk with a crippled copy of VolksWriter
on it. They crippled it by deleting a bunch of files, so it couldn't
print, do import/export, had no help, etc. Then they duplicated the

This meant that with a simple Norton Undelete and a table of the
missing first letters of the filenames, you could restore it to full
functionality. :-)

So I did that and explored a new & unfamiliar WP, different from the
ones my customers used: MultiMate, WordStar/NewWord/WordStar
1512/WordStar 2000 [all different, of course], WordPerfect,
DisplayWrite, etc.

My mind was thus opened and I went looking for others -- shareware
classics which were "big in America" such as XyWrite & PC-Write;
less-common commercial tools, such as Lotus Symphony, Microsoft Works,
LocoScript PC, Q&A Writer. I liked outliners a lot too.

So I learned about 20 DOS wordprocessors -- plus at least half a dozen
classic Mac ones: MacWrite, MacAuthor, WriteNow, Nisus Writer, etc.
(I've already mentioned MS Word -- the Mac versions were great
pre-version-6. MacWord 5.1a was _the_ classic. And Mac WordPerfect,
later freeware.)

So, yes, when I say that the diversity of UIs in the DOS era was
horrid, I really meant it, from extensive personal experience.

*The* nastiest was Samna Executive. It was meant for bosses and was
supposed to be super easy. I couldn't work it at all.

Odd, really, as Samna Amí was the first serious WP for Windows 3, and
it was a lovely program. Later became Lotus WordPro. Still a good app,
but long dead.

Liam Proven • Profile: http://lproven.livejournal.com/profile
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