Recently by Gary North: Big Mouth Dolts at the Tea Party
The story of WordPerfect illustrates the history of microcomputing, and how a dominant company that fails to keep up with technology fades into the sunset. Price competition erodes its profitability. Rival products keep getting more powerful and cheaper — even free. A younger generation of users ignores the old brand, and existing users either die off or switch when a new generation of cheaper, better software appears.
My story illustrates this relentless process. I held out longer than anyone else.
I began using WordPerfect 1.0 in late 1980, within a month or two of its release. The program was produced by Satellite Software International (S.S.I.). The last time that I used a typewriter to write a book was in July 1980. Since then, I have written over 40 volumes. I have also written something in the range of 2,000 newsletters and articles using WordPerfect. (The 7,000+ articles on GaryNorth.com I wrote mainly with my site’s program.)
For my books, I was still using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS until late last year, when my 1995 Dell computer finally died.
I did my own book typesetting after 1989. I used WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS until 1999, and WordPerfect 8 for Windows thereafter.
When I began, WordPerfect 1.0 sold for 7,500 1980 U.S. dollars, or so I recall – in the range of $19,000 today. I still have the manual. It is under 40 pages, printed out in dot matrix. The program ran on a used $25,000 Data General minicomputer, which required a $600 a month service contract. Multiply these figures by 2.5.
I typed in my office. The wires to the computer ran across the street alongside the city’s electrical wires (illegal, I suppose) to a house where the computer was. Primitive? You bet!
The typewriter was far cheaper. Early adapters overpay. But I got used to using WordPerfect, and that shaped the next 30 years of my career.
The I.B.M. PC appeared in August 1981. It sold for under $2,000. I did not buy one until late 1982, as soon as WordPerfect 2.20 was made available for the IBM PC. It sold for $495. I immediately bought an IBM PC and a copy of WordPerfect. It was better than S.S.I., though basically the same.
I got rid of the Data General. So did everyone else. The era of the minicomputer was ending.
The big breakthrough in version 2.20 was the use of the IBM function keys. That made the program a writer’s delight. It was designed for function keys down the left, where they belong. I became addicted to WordPerfect and the clickety-clack keyboard. When the industry shifted to function keys across the top, I dug in. I have collected nine PC AT keyboards. I hope at least one will outlast me.
WordPerfect was the dominant word processor in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Word for Windows overtook it. In this century, WordPerfect became a niche product.
It has one overwhelming advantage. On request, it lets you see the control codes on a page. You can repair things that don’t look right or act right. That feature keeps Corel’s WordPerfect X5 in the running. But at $55 from Amazon, it is not a very profitable product.
In the 1980s, there was a cottage industry: publishing 600-page manuals on popular programs. The Dummies books empire began with DOS for Dummies. Today, there are few such manuals. The software firms offer a short PDF file to print out.
Everything relies on the Help files. These are incomplete. They are not a major focus of attention by the companies. Techies are not committed to producing beta-tested Help files and then making continual revisions.