Microsoft Word turns 25

A look back at the changes and challenges Microsoft's flagship word-processing program has been through during its first quarter-century

Enter Microsoft -- and Xenix: Simonyi (at left of inset photo), developer of Xerox Bravo, joined up with Microsoft after he received an offer from Bill Gates in 1981.

Enter Microsoft -- and Xenix: Simonyi (at left of inset photo), developer of Xerox Bravo, joined up with Microsoft after he received an offer from Bill Gates in 1981.

If you've been using Microsoft Word for the past quarter of a century, it can seem like Word has always been the top dog of the word-processing world--and for years, it's been incorporated into Microsoft's Office suite. Today, Microsoft's domination is so complete that, from the public's point of view, there is almost no "word-processor market." (Does anyone remember Lotus Manuscript?)

In fact, Microsoft's word processing program got off to a shaky and awkward start in October 1983, and it didn't become all-consuming until at least five years later. Even as Word adopted the market-leading position, it suffered its share of stinging criticisms and setbacks. This is the story, briefly, of how Microsoft Word evolved on its 25-year journey from obscure upstart to Absolute King of the (Software) World.

The First WYSIWYG Word Processor: Xerox Bravo

Before there was Word, there was Bravo, the world's first WYSIWYG ("what you see is what you get") word processor. Charles Simonyi and Butler Lampson developed the revolutionary program at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1974 for an amazing machine called the Xerox Alto. The Alto holds the distinction of being the first computer to use a mouse and a graphical user interface (GUI). Although Xerox never sold the Alto commercially, its long-lasting influence can be felt today in all modern computers and operating systems, including a little application called Microsoft Word.

Enter Microsoft--and Xenix

Charles Simonyi, developer of Xerox Bravo, joined up with Microsoft after he received an offer from Bill Gates in 1981. On day one of his long tenure, Gates, Paul Allen, and Simonyi decided to produce database, spreadsheet, and word processor applications. Simonyi soon hired a former Xerox intern named Richard Brodie and began work on "Multi-Tool Word." With Brodie doing most of the programming, they developed version 1.0 in Microsoft's Xenix (a UNIX-like operating system, now defunct). Not long after, marketing scrapped the "Multi-Tool" part of the name as being too cumbersome, and "Microsoft Word" was born.

The Early DOS Days

Word 1.0 was first released for Xenix and MS-DOS in October 1983. DOS versions 1.0 through 5.0 looked nearly identical to the screen shot seen here. These early versions of Word featured a sometimes confusing "moded" interface (the same keys could perform different tasks in different modes, or submenus) that harkened back to its Bravo roots.

It was a step up from competitor Corel WordPerfect's arcane function-key combinations, but a better interface was on the horizon--although it would take a different computer entirely to bring it to Word.

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Benj Edwards

Benj Edwards

PC World
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