Software

Ancient word processors highlight the lack of modern software diversity

One of the claims of superiority that Microsoft claims with Windows over the Mac is the amount of software that's made to run under Windows. Even though there are thousands of programs available, the actual diversity of software seems to have diminished compared to the 80's. Word Processors are an excellent example.

One of the claims of superiority that Microsoft claims with Windows over the Mac is the amount of software that's made to run under Windows. Even though there are thousands of programs available, the actual diversity of software seems to have diminished compared to the 80s. Word processors are an excellent example.

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If you look at software running in the modern office, more often than not you'll find the same software on every machine. At a minimum, most machines run Windows (XP or Vista) with some version of Microsoft Office to do the mundane things like word processing and spreadsheets.

Even in shops that use Macs, more often than not the productivity software used is Mac Office. Office is so important to Apple that they've even made deals with Microsoft to make sure new versions come out. Arguably the lack of Microsoft Office for Linux is one of the things that keeps Linux from making greater inroads on the desktop.

It wasn't always that way. If you went from company to company, you'd find a great diversity of software. One shop would use Lotus 123, another SuperCalc, and another Quattro Pro. Same thing happens with WordPerfect, Word, and DiplayWrite.

The competition and diversity of software helped to make software better. Companies focused on features, stability, speed, and support.  In word processors, for example, you'd see comparisons between the number of seconds it would take to do search and replaces between Word and WordPerfect. WordPerfect in particular spent a lot of money on customer service and had one of the best support teams in the business.

Today, we get innovations like the Ribbon.

Word processors of olde

Word processors are a prime example of the lack of diversity in office software. Today your main choices are Microsoft Word, OpenOffice Writer, and to a lesser extent KWrite, Abi, and Lotus Symphony for Linux and iWork on the Mac. As I said before, Micrsosoft Word is by far and away the market leader.

In the late twienth century, however, Microsoft Word was barely a blip on the radar. Microsoft Office had less than a 10% market share in 1991. The market leader for word processing was WordPerfect, but it had nowhere near the dominance that Word has today.

Other choices for word processors included:

  • WordStar
  • XyWrite
  • PFS:Write
  • DisplayWrite

With the exception of WordPerfect, which is now owned by Corel, the old-time word processors are gone.

What went wrong?

What happened to software diversity and lead to the extinction of former market leaders? The short answer is Windows 3.0. Companies that dominated Microsoft applications in DOS almost universally missed the boat when Windows 3.0 shipped.

Part of the problem was that Microsoft was doing a bit of a head-fake with IBM and OS/2. As Microsoft was developing OS/2 with IBM, it was also working on Windows 3.0.  Software publishers were told by IBM, the then market leader in PCs, and Microsoft that the successor to DOS was going to be OS/2. So, companies like Lotus and WordPerfect Corp. created OS/2 versions of their applications and didn't initially create Windows versions.

Windows 3.0, followed by the wildly successful Windows 3.1, caught them (as well as IBM) flatfooted. Microsoft already had applications tuned for the operating environment when it shipped, and ISVs had to play catch up. It didn't help when Microsoft used hidden API calls in their applications, which made them much faster than competitors who used only official Windows APIs.

Finally, a string of bad business decisions drove the final nail in the coffin. Ashton-Tate messed up shipping new versions of dBase, which caused the leading database to disappear. Lotus got scooped up by IBM, primarily for Notes, and 123 disappeared. WordPerfect got bought by Novell, which had no idea what it was doing with desktop apps, and was turned around and sold to Corel for a massive loss. Corel couldn't compete with Microsoft's bottomless cash pit. One by one, competitors crashed and burned as Microsoft continued to gain market share.

What was your first word processor?

Unless you're running Linux, chances are the word processor you're using is some version of Microsoft Word. Although WordPerfect still exists as a shadow of its former self and there are alternatives like OpenOffice Writer, most folks use Word today.

What was the first word processor you used? Take the poll below and compare your results to other TechRepublic members. See just how far back you go!

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