word processor history -- interesting article (Evan Koblentz)

Swift Griggs swiftgriggs at gmail.com
Fri Jul 8 22:00:16 CDT 2016

On Fri, 8 Jul 2016, Liam Proven wrote:
> I can remember more functionality via WordStar keystrokes than I can via 
> vi ones! :-)

That's the very reason I teach Vi in classes but privately still use Joe 
extensively. I prefer muscle-memory-macro-keystrokes over what I'd call 
"conscious modes". I respect the ideas in Vi, and occasionally I dwell in 
it a lot and code there etc... I play some musical editor games. I even 
occasionally use the Motif-based "nedit" (esp on SGI boxen, it just ... 
feels... right). However, I feel most natural in Joe. I think it's simply 
just a "style" or taste issue based on past comfort with the WS and 
descendants. Familiarity that I'm not trying to pass off as any superiority 
in WS-family editors. I tell folks that Vi is still essential if you want 
to be a Unix bad-ass. Knowing even it's most primitive forms is helpful if 
you dive into ancient platforms and want to fix old code or impress girls 
with your regex acumen and flawless command-mode incantations. I figure 
if politicians can mix truth with lies, I can dabble, too.

> Yes, it did look better, true.

Do you happen to know that backstory about the color research? I remember 
that, but only vaguely.

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

Clerks, admins, secretaries, receptionists, record hounds, and many others 
were freakin' ninjas with them. My mom was a Q&A Write disciple, still 
uses it in DOSBox, and still can do things with it I can't reproduce 
without coding. I know they were sorta arcane, and I won't lie and say I 
was a WP badass, but I witnessed some word processing badassery in 
conjunction with it by the aforementioned tradeswomen and men.

Remember that scene in one of the Star Trek movies where he firsts 
exclaims "You mean it's a MANUAL!" when he's told the computer he's 
attempting to voice command won't respond ? You think he's going to fumble 
with the keyboard then he starts typing so fast you think he's about the 
smoke the model M or whatever he's bangin' on at lightspeed. Some folks 
are like that with their word processing skills... My awesome grandma was.  
Maybe you are one! You definitely seem to have written extensively and 
from some obvious experience and authority with word processing in 

> 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.

Ah yes, I remember discovering that to my delight as well.

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

Yeah, I have a massive DOS collection o' piracy and purchases that are 
slowly coalescing over the years into a few organized VMs and DOSBox 
instances I've been nurturing.

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

I'll take your *Word* for it (ugh, sorry). I do remember it had a spiffy 
B&W graphical splash screen with someone writing with a pen, IIRC. Maybe 
that was 5.5. I think I have it around somewhere too, blaspheming some 
bits in one of my archives. :-P 

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

Well, I think also that when commercial software puts effort into simply 
giving people what the want. It's like that old saying about people in 
democracies getting the government they deserve. In commercial software 
money = voting. People appear to *want* some of the garbage we have these 
days. Either that, or corporations are so powerful they can afford to be 
tone-deaf and full of hubris toward their customers. Hmm, wait I just 
remembered I'm a Comcast customer: my only option for fast Internet 
access. They rape me for vulgar sums and I just suck it up quietly; no 

> Sadly, only the surface appearance, though -- not the ubiquitous 
> networking, not the OOPS dev tools.

I hear ya. I've been doing a lot of fiddlin' with old 68k Macs and 
anything before Open Transport was, uhm, not so great. Even then, it's 
damn fragile and I feel like it's going to lock up at any time or this guy 
is going to show up and lecture me:

GI: Joe PSA - "Stop all the DOWNLOADIN!" 
> 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.

Hehe, nice. At least you have a sense of humor about your heresy. :-)

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

I can't even stand *trying* it now. 2003 is the last one I could even sit 
in front of. When recruiters or HR folks *DEMAND* my resume in Word, 
that's what I reach for. Been burned too many times by trying to export 
from Abiword or Libre/Open/Star Office. *claps weakly* Thanks guys, I know 
you tried. Most of the time they will grudgingly accept PDFs. I imagine 
myself smoldering and shaking with tremors the whole time spent in that 
shameful act of kowtowing to the man, though. :-> At least I have the 
decency to run it in CrossOver. That's my only defense.

Long gone are the days I could send my resume over to an engineering 
manager as a man-page and someone would actually think it was cool.

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

I'll have to dig it up while I have my two 68k's out.

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

I've seen other with the same despairing praise. Kinda sad. 

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

I've used it off and on over the years, but it's too heavy for me. I know 
what it's about, and it's cool that some folks get all zealous about it, 
but I never really caught the bug for it. 

> 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.

Actually, FreeBSD does that quite nicely for me on PCs. It's just that 
almost *nothing* takes advantage of it by default because UNIX coders like 
to target the lowest common denominator that still has screen control: 
vt100. Unfortunately, it's colorless. However bold underline and several 
other attributes are, available and somewhat underused, IMO.

> The keyboard behaves sanely -- all the keys work and do what I expect.

I assume you are speaking of using modern Linux with the framebuffer 
console. It does perform nicely and has always been a joy, I agree. 
However, even DOS ANSI color sequences are still a bit more visually 

> But old Unix hands say that it feels like a lash-up and FreeBSD feels 
> like Real Unix.

I'd be with them on that. Experience has definitely given me that 

> 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.

Hehe. Okay, let me come to FreeBSD's defense a bit on this one. It's 
really really popular as a server OS in some industries. To this day, a 
lot of the datacenters I've worked in (and still do quite a bit) still 
have more available serial access (via big-az concentrators that run on 
Cat5-to-RS232 mostly) than they have fancy IP-KVMs or similar. Just about 
all serious servers have serial-rendering modes for the BIOS, the setup 
tools, everything... So, FreeBSD runs in these places and they keep the 
console at the rough level you describe because it makes it WAY more 
convenient to run/install FreeBSD on either these types of environments or 
virutalized ones that want to have a virtual serial console you can 
multiplex into some big management tool et al.

Soooo, the point of describing that is that it might really piss some 
people off that FreeBSD doesn't install with graphical options (but PC-BSD 
does) and doesn't automatically flip into a framebuffer console when it 
can clearly see that you have VESA capable hardware attached. They assume 
you're more likely to be trying to get something done on a crappy DRAC/ILO 
virtual console or via serial etc... When linux flips into 1920x1080 on 
one of those out-of-band access devices it's a huge pain to manage the 
window. Not to mention that you can use the serial remote console on most 
HP ILOs for free, but if you want a graphical console (like Linux FBcon 
will require) then you pay $$$ for an "ILO Advanced" license. Lawyering 
bastiches. So, FreeBSD just gives friendly nods to folks buried deep in 
IT, too. It's not all nostalgia and curmudgeons throwing poop at new 

Also, NetBSD has a framebuffer console a lot like Linux's. However, it 
doesn't play well with 'fbset' (from Linux land) which is quite nice for 
folks doing things like arcade cabinet timing adjustment and the like. 
Nonetheless, it's quite capable, but you do need to compile it into your 
kernel which sets the bar a bit high for newcomers to easily use it. Most 
folks just dive straight to an X display manager anyhow (like KDM, GDM, or 

> 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.

Disklabels are finally going out of fashion, even for BSD folks. We're 
moving to "wedges", GPT partitions, ZFS metadata labels, and all that 
happy stuff. Unless of course you are using DragonFly BSD and playing with 
HAMMER which is also quite advanced feature-wise, resembling a cross 
between WAFL, CXFS, and ZFS. Coming from DOS, I had some of those feelings 
way back when I first encountered SunOS. However, I got over it quickly 
when I saw the brighter spots in the OS and understood the logic once I 
dove into volume management schemes of the day and now. Early disk 
management wasn't one of BSD's strongest points. There was no GEOM, no 
RAIDFrame, no LVM, and for sure no ZFS. 

Nowadays, with GPT and ZFS you can feel super-modern, have sky-high (well, 
zettabyte, literally) file system limits, too. Not to mention dominating 
performance, and tunability to anything else I've encountered using ZFS's 
tunables and taking advantage of ultra-fast block devices for L2ARC and 
ZIL caching (much better than with BTRFS volumes or LVM2 caching I've 
tried). You also can flip on deduplication or multiple compression types 
if you get bored. With block-level encryption, at the volume management 
level, you can also get as paranoid as you like. 

Anyhow, BSD is now, IMHO, a seriously powerful storage/server OS with 
awesome capabilities that mostly cost big money from commercial vendors 
and performs with panache'. Modern FreeBSD also has great network package 
management and dependency solving with the newish 'pkg' tool now poised to 
supersede the independent binaries such as pkg_info, pkg_add etc... 
without harming flexibility via it's clever CLI layering. If I were going 
to bust on FreeBSD it wouldn't be for storage/partitioning woes (though 
before ZFS the diskabel interface in the installer is a bit painful) or on 
it's really basic defaults for video and terminal settings. If I was going 
to pick on FreeBSD, it'd be for it's (soon to be over in v11) lagging X11 
driver efforts especially for Intel Haswell (out a long ways back in 
computer time fellas). 

> 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.

Damn, man you got mauled by some UNIX boxes. They *can* do all that, but 
I'll admit they do manage to screw those things up a heckuva lot more than 
I ever remember even ANSI + DOS doing. I blame the huge diversity, too, 
but I don't excuse the modern instances where I too am a saying "c'mon 
guys, is it really that hard to let me use the !#$@ing arrow keys?" If I 
can find and fix those bugs with my modest skills, then let's get busy. Of 
course, I have had some patches accepted for such annoyances before, so at 
least I'm not just slingin' mud at my precious UNIX variants. :-) I'm just 
trying to be clear eyed.

> 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.

Sadly, you aren't alone. I have some good (smart) friends who also 
complain that UNIX folks are mean to them in online forums and rude to the 
uninitiated acting as if they hold special power the rubes will never 
understand. I find that pretty frustrating. I want to teach people about 
the wonderful, beautiful, awesome parts of the blessed continuum of Unix 
goodness out there. I want them to behold with the same wonder my kick ass 
collection of gloriously Unixy things. So, I hate hearing my brothers are 
being rude to the noobs (as annoying as they are sometimes) who are just 
struggling to bring up their Ubuntu box or whatever. I guess when I've got 
my back up on some stuff like that it's because I feel like people won't 
work to learn like I did and the only way out is *through*. However, there 
isn't any real reason for being rude, so that's always a shame to hear.

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

BSD can use DOS disk partitions, too, but as you pointed out earlier they 
further complicate it with disklabels and don't give you the option to 
simply use the partitions "raw" without having to fiddle with a label. 
That's kind of the intention of "wedges" but with a lot more flexibility 
and less of the disklabel suck. BTRFS and ZFS go a completely different 
direction and suck up the whole disk making it none of your business what 
they are are doing with it, mostly. That has good and bad effects, but the 
overall feel for me has been positive. Though I still have some instances 
were it's easier just to deal with partitions and LVM.

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

Heh, well there is some "spunk" in the BSD spirit where folks get 
downright religious about leaving some things alone. I'm one of those 
dudes who sees BSD flip the finger, as you point out, but says "You go 
girl!" and applauds the raised-finger.

However, I do still get off the BSD bus at the corner of Termdef Ave and 
Colorblind Street fairly close to your place.

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

I read your other posts on the topic and skimmed the blog post. You ain't 
kiddin'. It sounds like it was a bit more than just collecting, too. I 
haven't heard of about 1/3rd of the ones you mention, at a minimum.

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

Hehehe. Now I have to go find it and try it! Your mini-"review" reminds me 
a bit of this wonderful (but terribly critical) video game review of "Big 
Rigs" that cracked me up:

"[...] The graphical problems don't stop there, either. Big Rigs is easily 
one of the worst-looking PC games released in years. The truck models are 
amazingly terrible," 

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