Word turns 40: Five anecdotes about Microsoft’s iconic software – Tech & Co

Word processing software, developed by Microsoft in 1983, has established itself in the digital landscape. Not without a few detours.

On October 25, 1983, Word was born. The software, then released on the Xenix and MS-DOS operating systems, after a few years of struggle established itself in the Windows family for which it was calibrated.

Microsoft Office holds almost half of the market share in the productivity software category. That’s not enough for Microsoft: Word still has to grow on the web, and the Redmont company wants to develop applications linked to artificial intelligence with its Copilot tool, an intelligent assistant for the word processing software that launched in September. But before these features, Word went through long and slow developments, sometimes atypical, sometimes unsuccessful. Tech & Co paints the portrait of the leader of the text in five stories.

Late but WYSIWYG winner

“WYSIWYG”. Behind this shiny acronym lies one of the founding characteristics of Microsoft Word. Word processing software is based on the principle of “what you see is what you get,” a technological feature popular in the 1980s that allows software to display data as it appears in print or in its final version.

Microsoft Word did not invent this function, because as early as 1974, the document preparation software Bravo, developed by Xerox, managed to display text with realistic formatting. MicroPro, which publishes WordStar, Word’s main competitor, managed to display italics and boldface in 1981. However, upon its release in 1983, Microsoft gained the upper hand: Word was not only the first software distributed on floppy disks (in the PC world), but also popularized WYSIWYG by applying its principles to IBM and PC devices.

The first version of Word, released in 1983. – Microsoft

The tourist and the spiritual

It is precisely from Xerox (now specialized in printers) that Microsoft will get its two key figures who will develop Microsoft Word. Charles Simonyi was commissioned by Bill Gates in 1981 to develop WYSIWYG text editing software. The engineer who left Hungary at 17, emigrated to Denmark, then studied at Berkeley, supervised the project and, in particular, made the crucial decision for a highly portable software adaptable to many machines.

Simonyi left Microsoft in 2002 and began an atypical journey: In addition to his philanthropic activities, the man also became one of the first space tourists in 2007: he spent two weeks on the International Space Station (ISS) on a rocket launched by Soyuz. In particular, during the trip and during his second flight of similar duration in 2009, he broadcast an amateur radio.

Word’s other “brain” has an equally atypical profile: Richard Brodie is only a brilliant American engineer at Xerox when he takes control of the Word program. Simonyi hired him as soon as he arrived at Microsoft in 1981. It didn’t take long for Brodie to shine: it took him seven months to create an initial version of Word. He then invented the software taskbar or even a combined panel (a drop-down list that is widely used today).

Brodie took a very different path than Simonyi after his departure in 1994: after several spiritual retreats, he wrote a personal development book to understand “why money and success didn’t make him happy,” and then began a career as… . professional poker player.

Threatening message

The early 90s marked a turning point for Microsoft Word. With the second version, Word 2.0, sales increased and made Microsoft the market leader in word processing. The decisive factor for the change is compatibility with Windows: from the first version, Microsoft calibrates its software for Windows 3.0, and WordPerfect, its competitor, then fails to produce a Windows-compatible version, confirming Word’s dominant position.

Microsoft is keenly aware of its interest in protecting its software: in early versions, Word includes an anti-fraud feature that attempts to detect copied software. When an attempt is detected, Word displays a less than reassuring message: “The tree of evil bears bitter fruit. Only the shadow knows. Now the program disk will be destroyed.” “The shadow knows. Now destroy the program”).

Word then proceeded to shut down the inserted disk – without actually destroying the data. The message refers to the fictional character “The Shadow”, a character from 1930s American pulp magazines who was featured in a radio series by Orson Welles and adapted for the cinema in 1994.

Clippy, the unloved one

Word 97 marks a new era, characterized by a clear dominance of software that combines new functions. Convinced it was doing the right thing, Microsoft then added a virtual assistant shaped like a paper clip called Clippit. The group tries to be playful: Bill Gates had already launched Microsoft Bob in 1995, an interactive office that represents the interior of a house in which each object corresponds to a program. The pen and notebook made it possible to open a word processing program by clicking on it.

If Bob had had a passing interest before he was completely eclipsed by Windows 95, Clippit (quickly nicknamed Clippy) would have continued the tradition of leading figures. Except that its appearance, like a faded paper clip, as well as its irritating ability to randomly appear on the screen, quickly becomes annoying: when it’s useful for writing your first document, Clippy doesn’t learn the user’s preferences and tirelessly advises them the same tips.

Microsoft is aware of this hatred and will stage Clippy’s dismissal on a fake website, mocking its own creation. It will take 10 years for the unloved to completely disappear: behind the scenes, some believe this is because Clippit was originally the idea of ​​Melinda French – the one who became Bill’s wife Gates in 1994.

Clippy, the annoying Word 1997 assistant. -Microsoft

The rise and fall of Calibri

In 2007, Microsoft launched Office Word 2007, a more modern version marked by a change: abandon Times New Roman as the default font, welcome to Calibri. The choice of the new font is made from a digital perspective: the group assumes that more and more documents are not designed for print, but for online consumption. In contrast to Times New Roman, Calibri, with its curves and small serifs, remains easy to read even in a very small font.

This change has serious consequences: it allows legal scandals to erupt by classifying certain documents as fraudulent. In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was accused in 2017 of having ties to offshore companies. In particular, his daughter Maryam is named as the head of an offshore company carrying out fraudulent real estate transactions in London.

The Sharifs attempt a defense and produce a document showing that she is only a beneficiary and not the director. However, the document in question is written in Calibri and therefore could not have existed at the time of the transactions in question. So it is a fake. The affair ended with the family condemned and a ban on any exercise of power.

After sixteen years of service, Calibri is now taking a well-deserved break: the Aptos police will take his place. Round, sans serif, it is considered more serious than Calibri. Its sophisticated characters feature a more modern style and are designed to be read anywhere in the world. A sign of the times and the globalization of Microsoft Word, which has become cosmopolitan forty years old this year.

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