word processor history -- interesting article (Evan Koblentz)

Swift Griggs swiftgriggs at gmail.com
Fri Jul 8 11:15:00 CDT 2016

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.

> 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.

> WordPerfect replaced WordStar on DOS. It was a lot more capable and it 
> had superb printer-driver support.

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.

> Then Windows (and MacOS and GUIs in general) swept WordPerfect away.

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 

> The printer drivers issue became irrelevant when the OS handled the 
> printers and font rendering etc.

... 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.

> and most users much preferred the GUI model of text-editing to the 
> WordPerfect embedded-control-codes model.

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. 

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 

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 (?!).

> Interestingly, more things seem to understand the Vi keystrokes now, at 
> least on Unix.

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). 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. 

> I cordially dislike both Vi & Emacs: I grew up with keyboards with 
> cursor and delete keys, but they didn't have META or SUPER or any of 
> that guff.

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.

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 disliked WordStar (which I found arcane and clunky even when it was 
> still current and on retail sale), WordPerfect (all function-keys all 
> the time, needed a keyboard template or eidetic memory). I also knew and 
> supported MultiMate, DisplayWrite, MS Word for DOS and others. I used 
> LocoScript at home, which replaced The Last Word on my ZX Spectrum.

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).


More information about the cctalk mailing list