A message from the Eocene; or, the ballad of WordPerfect

From time to time, I look back fondly on the years when I ran Windows. It doesn’t last; my wife’s computer has XP on it, and XP needs some periodic adjusting, and then it all seems like just a bad dream.

Are there some things about Windows that I miss, though? Well, I always liked PocoMail. When I moved over to Linux, I got used to Evolution (which bears traces of its Groupwise roots; Groupwise was a staple at one of my better jobs). I never loved Evolution, and when I started experimenting with Xfce I gave Claws Mail another try, even though it bills itself as “the email client that bites!”, and this time (a) it worked, and (b) I liked it. I’m not saying it beats PocoMail, but I’m very happy with it. Pretty Good Solitaire is neat, and I especially miss Demons and Thieves, which as far as I know hasn’t been duplicated in the Open Source world. But for me, solitaire is something to do while I’m waiting for the return calls to start pouring in; I don’t take it that seriously. I did not find PySol adequate for my solitaire needs, but I looked at its fork/continuation, PySolFC (Python Solitaire Fan Club Edition), for the first time in a year or more, and it’s just fine now, grotty X11 graphics and backwards mouse pointer and all. It keeps track of the number of games I’ve won, which for some reason seems important. It also keeps track of the number of games I’ve lost, information which of course is of no use to anybody.

But the other day I opened up LibreOffice Writer in my Mageia installation on the laptop. It opened up in about ⅔ of a window, as it always does (it must be a KDE thing, because it does the same thing in my Kubuntu) (or it was transient; weeks later, sometimes it opens up in a full window), and I maximized it, and I realized that I’m really never going to love LibreOffice Writer.

Friends, there is nothing like WordPerfect. And my weltanschauung is so full of weltschmerz that I’ll say there never will be anything like WordPerfect.

This isn’t Windows nostalgia, not strictly. For WordPerfect 5.1 (WP51DOS) was fabulous, and WordPerfect 6.2—the last DOS version—was almost an office suite in itself (“Tables” and “Math” had evolved to a point where they could reasonably do many routine functions that in the Windows suites were offloaded to Quattro Pro). Sometimes it seemed like it was a whole operating system.

WordPerfect is still around. But it lost market share, catastrophically, in the mid-1990s. If it was so good, why did that happen?

Let’s look at the theories. I know the name of this blog is “Linux is my Life”, not “WordPerfect is my Life”. But bear with me. Partisans of Open Source may learn from the stunning rise and complex decline of WordPerfect. What can the Open Source community do? And what can’t it do—or, maybe, what won’t it do or what hasn’t it done?

Before we proceed, allow me to introduce some general sources. This article, from the aptly-named Computer Nostalgia site, offers what seems to me a concise and judiciously curated general history. For the armchair historian, the memoirs/apologia of W. E. Peterson will certainly be of interest. The fact that he chose to call his book Almost Perfect may or may not be relevant.

Theory 1: Bill Gates is the Antichrist
Everybody likes this theory, and so do I. A court case (Novell Inc v Microsoft Corp, number 10-1482) in which Novell alleges anti-competitive business practice on Microsoft’s part has been droning on at Bleak Housian length. In business terms, this seems to have to do with Microsoft’s penchant for “forcing” hardware manufacturers to buy Microsoft licenses for every computer they make, not just the ones on which Microsoft products are actually installed. This case was dismissed in 2010 (a Groklaw analysis of that dismissal is here), but another judge allowed the same case to continue. (Ironically, the judge in the 2010 decision did appear to be unclear about the difference between a word processing application and an operating system. I told you WordPerfect is good!)

WordPerfect partisans point to things like the mysterious removal of Windows Messaging (a precursor of, among other things, Outlook Express) in Windows 98 as evidence that Microsoft went out of its way to sabotage WordPerfect. It does seem clear that Microsoft never let any other software developers know everything about Windows. Did Microsoft do things specifically to break WordPerfect, or was WordPerfect more prone to breakage simply because it was one of the most complex third-party applications in the world of Windows? (WordPerfect 8, which was the current version in 1998, had no fewer than seven service packs in its lifetime.) I don’t know that anybody could claim it’s solely one or the other. (What are some really, really complicated third-party applications that run well on Windows? Probably some stuff by Adobe, but I am not a graphics person and I don’t know anything about the prowess or the stability of Photoshop or InDesign.)

Theory 2: The WordPerfect Corporation was a bunch of losers
For one thing, it’s not always smart to be snotty with the press. More generally, I referred above to the autobiography of W. E. “Pete” Peterson. The fabulous WPUniverse support group (in, yes, all its various meanings) has occasionally had refugees from the Orem days drop in to reminisce, and I found an alternate-universe view of Pete by some relatively unhappy campers. The software-mogul-as-north-end-of-a-southbound-horse phenomenon is hardly confined to WordPerfect. Long ago, I read a book called Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, by one “Robert X. Cringely” (he blogs, meaning he’s probably a lot like me), which left me with the impression that software pioneers have the personalities of Phillies fans, though I think they are expected to be smarter, most of the time.

But that aside, the history of WordPerfect’s corporate ownership is a microcosm of sorts of everything that is wrong with the M&A lifestyle. The owners of the WordPerfect Corporation probably did have to do something drastic; the company had outgrown their visions and their management styles. Novell purchased it, and the amount of money they lost became the stuff of business legend. This WPUniverse thread gets into some of the culture clashes that plagued the Novell/WordPerfect union. (Here is more about Novell.)

A year and a half later, the hitherto fairly obscure Canadian company Corel purchased most of the remains of the WordPerfect Corporation from the remains of Novell. Like Ray Noorda at Novell had, the then-CEO of Corel, Michael Cowpland, wanted to diversify his company’s offerings by challenging Microsoft in the office-applications world. And as there had been at Novell, there was another rough merger, exacerbated by the fact that Orem and Ottawa are separated by a national border and some 3,000 kilometers. And since Cowpland gave up, Corel has had a series of CEOs and owners; it has not been a stable environment.

Theory 3: WordPerfect didn’t change with the times
Much ink has been spilled on WordPerfect’s decision to bank everything on OS/2, and its last-minute reversal when Microsoft’s ambitions for Windows, and its blindsiding of IBM, became apparent. Whatever the cause, WordPerfect careened into the world of Windows haphazardly. The first Windows version, 5.1, sold a lot of copies at first, but pleased nobody and was soon replaced with 5.2. I was never very familiar with them. I did purchase WordPerfect 6.0 when it was part of a short-lived endeavor called “Borland Office”, which included Quattro Pro and Paradox. (It may have had WordPerfect Presentations, but I honestly don’t remember it being there.) Anyway, I can attest that WPWin 6.0 was pretty awful: slow, buggy, crash-prone, and apt to create unmanageably large files (sometimes up to 10 times the size of an equivalent file in WPDOS).

(Here follows some version history. You can skip down to “end reminiscing” if you want.)

WordPerfect 6.1—the first release from Novell—was altogether a much better piece of work, and I used it for years. It did have one quirk: customizations were kept in a binary file, wpcset.bif, which personally never gave me a moment of trouble but which gave other people conniption fits. I recall that the binary was especially vulnerable on networks (odd, given Novell’s heritage); for instance, it got really upset if your network drive letters changed. You could always delete wpset.bif and let the program create another one for you, but for some obscure reason, certain unique data like label definitions were kept there, and you’d lose a lot of work. Still, it was a fine program.

WordPerfect 7 was available for both Windows 3.1 and (somewhat belatedly) Windows 95. I actually never saw it, except once at an interview for a job I didn’t get. (If I remember correctly, some editions had the Novell splash screen, while later ones had Corel’s. But I’m not sure.) I don’t remember a lot about WordPerfect 8, except that it may have been the most beautiful of them all; the splash screen was a fountain pen, and the editing screen almost shimmered; by the standards of 1999 graphics, it looked positively opulent. Despite its myriad patches (and this was a time when 56k modems were all the rage, making the service packs a bit of a bother to attain), it was one of the more well-loved versions. I kept using Quattro Pro 8 for a while even after I moved my writing over to WordPerfect 9. But many a WordPerfectionist had trouble running it on Windows XP, and it fell into obsolescence before it really should have.

WordPerfect 9 (part of the imaginatively named WordPerfect Office 2000 suite) had the unique property of running better after it had been on your computer for a few weeks. That is so unWindowsy it staggers the imagination, but I wasn’t the only one to experience it. I don’t know if anybody ever figured out why.

With WordPerfect 10 (or WordPerfect Office 2002; long gone were the days when you could buy a copy of WordPerfect without Quattro Pro and Presentations), Corel tried again to introduce a PIM (parts of which were pretty good) and an email client (which, shall we say, failed to win me away from PocoMail). Overall, I found 10/2002 to be slow and unresponsive, and I ended up going back to 9/2000.

Since Corel acquired WordPerfect, improvements have been few and far between. WordPerfect 11 offered “classic mode”, which replicated the look and some of the feel of WordPerfect 5.1. (5.1 is the Dark Side of the Moon of software. A surprising number of transcriptionists—legal and medical—go to extraordinary lengths to keep it running on modern machines, and Edward Mendelsohn, a professor at Columbia University, has an extensive Web site devoted to the care and feeding of DOS WordPerfect.) What they didn’t, and couldn’t, do is replicate the 5.1 macro language, which I’ll get to shortly.

But “classic mode” was the type of innovation that would barely have rated a .point release in the old days. (There were actually a multiplicity of 5.1 versions, identifiable by their release dates. Some macro commands, some print drivers, and even a couple of formatting options were only available on versions released after such-and-such. Most of these were pretty obscure, but once in a while the discrepancies would crop up, and somebody on the Prodigy WordPerfect board wouldn’t quite know what somebody else was talking about.)

WordPerfect 12 was masterful; I used it exclusively until I moved over to Linux, and my wife still runs it on XP. I think that we’ve managed to crash it half a dozen times between us, and that’s in almost seven years. I don’t remember a lot of features that weren’t actually in WordPerfect 9; there is a “preview mode” which if, say, you choose a new default font from the pull-down menu, the editing screen changes temporarily to show you what your document will look like. It wasn’t life-changing, but it was fun and useful.

(End reminiscing.)

More recently, look at the What’s New in WordPerfect 15 page. Almost everything in there is about working better with Windows 7 and the Office 2007 file formats. It has been argued that new WordPerfect releases are cash cows, having no purpose but to be sold to unwary WordPerfect addicts. I don’t think that’s quite fair. When your product is:

  • very complex;
  • used by a demanding audience (lawyers and freelance writers);
  • otherwise marginalized;
  • designed to be run on an operating system whose inner workings change from time to time and are never completely known to you, and which is owned by a company with a rival product;

you’re going to spend a lot of programming time just trying to get things to work. Always crashing in the same car.

WordPerfect doesn’t support Unicode. There is limited and partial support in recent versions, but it is very hard to recommend WordPerfect to anybody who routinely has to work in multiple languages—especially if some of those languages are non-Latin. Unicode is a victim of WordPerfect’s backwards compatibility, which (with the exception of macros, which I promise I’ll get to) is exceptional. DOS WordPerfects (at least 5.1+, an enhanced version released in 1993, and 6.x) can open documents created in WordPerfect 12; not all the formatting might survive, but the DOS WordPerfects are smart enough to know when they don’t understand a formatting code, and they’ll just ignore it rather than ruin all the formatting they do understand. The downside is that WordPerfect uses a different method of interpreting and displaying characters above and beyond the plain-chocolate ASCII set (I have researched the difference, but I don’t feel competent to explain it; if you are competent, reader, this link might help you), and to realign it with the world would cost a lot of money that Corel probably doesn’t have (or its owners don’t want to spend), and break a large part of its WordPerfectness.

The ancillary programs in WordPerfect Office—the Quattro Pro spreadsheet, Presentations, and (in the more expensive varieties) the Paradox database—suffer from neglect. Quattro Pro has had bugs for years; the file format was changed around version 9, and if you ask me it was never the same. As for Paradox, Corel doesn’t even pretend that it’s under active development; they put a new splash screen on it with every release, and that’s about it.

Theory 4: WordPerfect did change with the times, and shouldn’t have
With WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS, and the concurrent Windows versions, a new macro language was introduced. On the surface—and underneath—it offered some substantial improvements. For one, you could issue commands in a less literal manner; they weren’t quite as dependent as the 5.1 ones were on certain transient conditions. (I noticed that applying font commands was a lot easier.) For another, the macros could be edited as regular WordPerfect documents; once you were familiar with the language, they were a lot more legible. An excellent history, written by J. Dan Broadhead, the lead developer of the PerfectScript cross-application language, is here.

I found some annoyances. There was a 5.1-to-6.x converter, but it injected a lot of spuzzy code—things that you’d probably never use in a macro, any macro, that you built from the ground up—and the more complex the macro, the greater were the chances that the converted version wouldn’t run at all. Some shareware macros I had accumulated (from, among others, the revered Alan Kaplan) became slow or buggy in their converted incarnations. Ones I had done myself, I found, I was better off just doing over. That was easy for me; I couldn’t program my way out of a bowl of overcooked linguine, so most of my macros were ones I’d recorded directly as keystrokes anyway.

I could never make heads nor tails of the 5.1 language. I decided to give the 6.x language a try; I purchased the books from the nice man who answered the phone at the WordPerfect Corporation (who also told me that the DOS and Windows languages had enough dissimilarity that I should get both, which I obediently did). The books were, essentially, lists of commands, with very little in the way of conceptual information. The first third-party book I bought made me sad because it was another bunch of stupid lists and boring prose that taught me nothing; other third-party books glided past macros.

I didn’t really know it at the time, but quite a few of WordPerfect’s loyal customers were enraged. These were people who had invested a lot of time, self-education, and/or consultancy fees into using the 5.1 macro language as a productivity aid, and didn’t want to have to go through it all again.

Theory 5: Microsoft just did a better job of marketing
Certainly, Microsoft did a better job of building a loyal cadre of experts. I became a Certified WordPerfect Expert, and I got a certificate, and that was about it. I never really heard from the company again. I still have the certificate; it’s in a file folder in the basement, but I can’t bear to toss it with the way I toss matchbook covers from forgotten restaurants. I may have forgotten who I went to the restaurant with, but I’ve never forgotten passing that exam at the Sylvan Learning Center office in Toms River, New Jersey.

It is documented (not least in some of the links I supplied above) that Microsoft did a much better job massaging the computer press and corporate purchasing agents than WordPerfect Corp., whose stroking efforts could be boorish. The question is: how did Microsoft get away with conquering the world with an inferior product? One of the first times I ever used Word, I hit [Ctrl-I], assuming—with some justification, I think—that the next characters I typed would look like this.

Wrong again. The whole damn paragraph looked like this.

To me, the very definition of an inferior product is one that takes something self-evidently easy (hitting [Ctrl-I]) and makes it something self-evidently Baroque (rolling back the cursor, highlighting the word you want to italicize, selecting [Italic] from the handy-dandy menu bar at the top of the screen). It was only years later, after I had actually used spreadsheets in a (tee, hee!) professional, productive way, that I figured it out. Word was the most commonly used part of the Microsoft Office empire, but it wasn’t the most important. Microsoft Office was built around Excel. And Word acted a bit like Excel; the paragraph, not the character, was the essential unit in Word, because paragraphs were containers. Like cells.

There is a good business reason for this. First, the competition in spreadsheets was less rigorous; instead of WordPerfect, you basically had Lotus 1-2-3, which was floundering in the wake of some of its own dubious decisions. Second, people who use spreadsheets are in general higher in the corporate structure; they deal with finances, statistics, finances, and money. Much of the word processing in a corporation is done by administrative assistants, secretaries, typists, and who cares what they think? Offer the higher-ups (most of would consider the ability to type 62 WPM about as attractive on their résumé as four years of migrant farm work) a superior spreadsheet in a bundled suite, and you will get sales.

This doesn’t explain the loyalty that Microsoft products have retained through Word macro viruses, the infamous metadata affair, Clippy, master documents that eat their children, the inability to do an acceptable pleading paper, and the other crimes against common sense that Microsoft Office has imposed upon the modern world. But once Microsoft put its mind to making Office its franchise, it became very successful very quickly, and Office and its file formats became the standard at a time when companies throughout the United States and the world were investing unbelievable amounts of money into “Information Technology”. It was a lot harder to get away from Microsoft in 1998 than it was to ditch WordPerfect in 1994. And, frankly, WordPerfect’s revolving-door ownership and its perceived missteps didn’t inspire a lot of confidence then, and they don’t now.

Okay…so what does all this have to do with Open Source?

Well, an open source operating system levels the playing field. No undocumented APIs. No struggling with an operating system owned by people who hate you and has inscrutable varieties. Bribery doesn’t work. (Maybe it does, but I don’t know how.) If Windows had been open, maybe WordPerfect would have been saved from itself.

But the fact remains that Open Source has yet to develop its own office components. Gnumeric is one exception: it is a very capable spreadsheet that has been Open Source from the git-go. Its interface isn’t especially modern, so to speak, and it lacks a few modern amenities, but it is robust as hell, blindingly fast, and has formula capabilities Warren Buffett couldn’t wear out. AbiWord started under corporate aegis, but has been community-driven most of its life. However, AbiWord has never been as featureful as Writer—never mind WordPerfect—and, unhappily, its development has sputtered; version 2.8 is more than two years old now. (After I started writing this article, I discovered Kexi, which will be briefly discussed below.)

PostgreSQL is a massive Open Source project, and from all I’ve ever heard a great one; but it isn’t comparable to Access or Paradox, and it isn’t something you’d be likely to find in a SOHO environment, or in general deployment in most corporations. Really, what I’d absolutely love is a flat-file database: say, a Linux version of PC-File or Q&A. (I never even saw DataPerfect. None of WordPerfect Corporation’s other products—there was a spreadsheet called PlanPerfect—ever developed very significant market share. The failure of the WordPerfect cachet to transmit itself over to other Perfects is worth a case study in itself.) The fact is, though, that there has never been a commercial successor to Q&A; that tells me that the demand isn’t screamingly huge, or whatever demand there is has been met by the database module in Microsoft Works.

OpenOffice, of course, started as a commercial, proprietary product called StarOffice; it was acquired from a small German company, Star Division, and (mostly) open-sourced by Scott McNealy at Sun Microsystems. OpenOffice is greatly, vastly improved over its beginnings as a clunky and rather nasty office suite; but it has had a contentious history, with two forks: Go-OO, sponsored by—of all people!—Novell; and the more recent LibreOffice, which has become the default in the majority of Linux distributions. Although it is genuinely Open Source, it has been dependent on considerable corporate sponsorship, and it wouldn’t have progressed to today’s level without the generosity of Sun, Novell, and Red Hat. (Ten years later, the custodians of LibreOffice are still removing leftover StarOffice code.) (More recently, I saw this history of the Open/LibreOffice schism. I doubt that we’ll ever know everything about what really happened, but it does muster some evidence that the corporate underpinnings of OpenOffice could be as much a hindrance as a help.)

It is not impossible that a bunch of volunteer programmers could get together and develop good office applications. These programmers would have to be independently wealthy (or have significant others as well-recompensed as they are understanding). They would also have to get along, which does not always happen, as KOffice found out. In one of the WPUniverse posts I linked to way back when, the developer of the PerfectScript language talked about sleeping in his office for nights at a time. Putting in those kinds of hours because you are committed to a project is at least slightly different, and sometimes a lot different, from putting in those kinds of hours because your income depends on it.

To some extent, we get what Free/Libre/Open Source Software programmers want to develop. This means myriad cool distros and more desktop environments/window managers than you can shake a stick at. In application terms, it means text editors that’ll knock your socks off, some awesome multimedia utilities, GIMP and Inkscape, and Internet-related programs that should please almost everyone. So far, it hasn’t meant a tremendous amount of activity in traditional SO/HO applications. However, two months or more after I started writing this essay, I started fooling around with Kexi, the database component of Calligra Office. I don’t know how stable it is yet—very, I hope, because I’ve got two big honkin’ music databases in it already!—but I like it, and it’s real easy to use; it can be either a Paradox or a Q&A, it seems like, depending upon your needs. I will try to write more about it in the future.

Corporate environments are certainly not immune to blood feuds, backstabbing (I knew some backchewers once, but not in a workplace environment), consternation, and slander. But schisms such as those which befell KOffice are sometimes contained. WordPerfect was part of one of the most Hatfield/McCoy mergers I can think of, but it survived; the cost was immense, but it survived. Would we be better off today had a group of disgruntled (did you know that “gruntled” really is a word, even if nobody ever says it?) WordPerfect programmers started a rival (WordFabulous? Ooh, I like it!) in 1992?

If I happened to have the money—and I don’t, and I won’t—I would pry the shells and shards of WordPerfect from the stiff but grasping fingers of Corel, and copyleft the code, and release it into the wild like a kestrel. I wonder if the 5.1 code could be had for cheap, and I wonder how much work would it be to Linuxize it. I don’t know what would happen, but I would love to find out!

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5 Responses to A message from the Eocene; or, the ballad of WordPerfect

  1. Pingback: Links 11/10/2011: Wine 1.3.30, Sabayon 7 is Coming | Techrights

  2. Jamila says:

    It is actually hard to find informed persons with this topic, however you seem like you are aware of what you are sharing! Appreciate it

  3. cwsnyder says:

    I was dragged, kicking and screaming from WordStar, which I had used since 1982 on CP/M-80 to WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS in 1989, because that was what my employer used, and from dBase to Paradox for the same reason (I even purchased a dBase compiler!) After I got used to WordPerfect, when I had to regress to Microsoft Word on Windows 3.1, I also complained that the interface slowed down production of actual usable words, but since that was about the 5th word-processor, I had to live with it.

    I now use LibreOffice (although I am not producing as much technical writing as back then). Unless I absolutely NEED to control formatting, I am happier with a text editor, such as JOE or gedit.

    • Eddie says:

      Thanks for that. Probably I never had enough sympathy for people who felt left behind when WordStar went into eclipse, and was setting myself up for a karmic sucker-punch all along. I remember one of my friends fuming when WordStar released a version (was it 5.5? something.5, anyway, not even a full version number) in which a slew of keystrokes were changed into something unWordStarry. I never used the product myself, though. My first word processing was on a Lanier standalone machine, then on PFS:Professional Write, which I remember liking, though that was at work and I never got my own copy.

  4. xpclient says:

    Nice to read about the history and know more about the various WordPerfect versions over time. Do you have a copy of WordPerfect 9 (or WordPerfect Office 2000). I am looking for one.

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