A Brief History of Microsoft Word

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Most successful tech innovations over the course of history start from humble beginnings. Microsoft Word's ascent from a far-off concept to the most popular word processing programme in the world was similarly improbable. 

In 1975, childhood friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded a small computer software company called "Micro-Soft" (it took them a few years to slash the hyphen). With big dreams and little funding, they started in Albuquerque, New Mexico before moving their headquarters up to their hometown of Bellevue, Washington in 1979.

At the time, electric typewriters were the most state-of-the-art word processing tool. Just a small handful of forward-thinking computer programmers were bold enough to dream of personal computers with word processing capabilities. While many secretaries were typing wizards with near 100% accuracy, the prospect of one mistyped key requiring typists to restart the page from scratch significantly impeded word processing efficiency.  

Hiring the best talent

Gates and Allen set out to hire the best programmers they could find. In 1981, their search led them to Charles Simonyi and Richard Brodie, two Xerox Bravo programmers who were instrumental in building Xerox's original word processing programme

Simonyi and Brodie worked tirelessly -- aiming to develop the world's best word processing tool to date. In 1983, Microsoft launched Word 1.0 in "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG) mode for Xenix and MS-DOS. 

Word 1.0 could run in graphics and text mode, but bold, italics, and underline features were only available in the text mode. Word 1.0 had plenty of kinks that needed to be worked out, but it served as a solid foundation to build upon in future editions. 

The next four editions -- Word 1.1 for DOS in 1984 through Word 4.0 for DOS in 1987 -- each included minor improvements but nothing revolutionary. 


First version of Microsoft Word released

The next big breakthrough began in 1989 when the first version of Word for Windows was released for $498 USD (equivalent to approximately £819 in 2020 with adjusted inflation rates). While this version itself didn't immediately take off as Gates and Allen hoped, Microsoft released WinWord 1.1 in 1990 with updates for the new operating system -- which ended up being the pivotal game-changer in the word processing world. 

Microsoft's primary competitor, WordPerfect, neglected to design a product for the Windows operating system which ultimately signaled their demise as a formidable foe. By 1991, Microsoft rolled out WinWord 2.0 and established themselves as the world's premier word processing tool.

Early 1990's versions of WinWord had mechanisms designed to catch viruses and coding errors. Instead of displaying a standard error message if a bug was found, the message "The tree of evil bears bitter fruit. Only the Shadow knows. Now trashing program disk" would flash across the screen. This would prompt the program to perform a zero seek operation on the floppy disk drive which would compensate for data reading and writing errors and reset the program.

In 1995, Microsoft decided to remarket their WinWord versions with new edition names. The Word 95 edition was the first of several new versions Microsoft released roughly every three years for the next two decades.


Word improved continuously, but most found Clippy annoying

Word 97 was the first edition to include Microsoft's Office Assistant, "Clippit" -- an animated character that served as an early "help desk" server programmed to answer common user questions. Informally nicknamed "Clippy", the personal office assistant resided in the corner of the Word doc and attempted to answer user questions. 

While some people found Clippy's support genuinely helpful, the majority found the Office Assistant feature annoying -- leading Microsoft to discontinue the controversial character in 2003. They even went so far as to create a mock website that symbolised Clippy's pink slip.

Microsoft Office 1997

Source: Wikipedia, image of Office 97 on Windows NT, used with permission from Microsoft


In 2002, Microsoft rolled out Office XP which included "Task Panes" to expedite control features that were only available in dialogue boxes in previous versions. Word 2003 was the first version to include colours and visual styles.

Word 2007 was Microsoft's first edition to use a new file saving format called docx. A simple download for Word 2003 converted file types documents from "doc" to "docx" without any major issues.


While Microsoft improved Word, Adobe built Acrobat

As Microsoft was solidifying themselves atop the word processing marketplace, Adobe was hard at work developing its first several editions of their Portable Digital Format file (PDF). Converting early versions of Word and PDF documents to other formats was complicated. All too often, conversion attempts were greeted with error messages and ultimately unsuccessful. 

By the mid-2000s, Adobe had their PDF software dialed in and converting PDF to Word and Word to PDF documents was finally readily available to the public. To convert a file from PDF to Word, users had to use Adobe software or an online PDF editor. Starting with Word 2007, users could select "Save As PDF" which would convert their Word documents into PDFs


Word in recent times has improved collaboration features

Office 2010 first introduced a backstage interface view which consolidated saving, sharing and collaborating options into a more intuitive layout with customisable tabs. Similar to updates in Word 2007, Office 2010 simplified the process of converting Excel to PDF and PowerPoint to PDF and viewing files in PDF format.

Word 2013 was the first version that focused on cloud computing services. It allowed users to save documents on the cloud and collaboratively edit the same document in real time. It also was the first version of Word that could open certain PDF files in Word just like conventional Word documents.

With Word 2016, Microsoft shifted to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) sales model. All previous versions were packaged as a one time download. Word 2016 was subscription based for home and business users and needed to be renewed on an annual basis.

Word 2019, the newest version, was released at the end of 2018. It includes learning tools such as its text-to-speech feature and a productivity tool called "Focus Mode" which blocks out distractions so users can put their undivided attention into their document.

When Simonyi and Brodie began building their original word processing software in the early 1980s, the tools we rely on today weren't imaginable -- even to the most forward-thinking software engineers. 


Will Word and Office become cloud-based? 

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Simonyi and Brodie's Word 1.0, it's interesting to ponder how far word processing has come and where it will be 40 years from now. Will it be 100% cloud-based? Will we be able to compose neat and tidy documents by simply thinking about concepts? Will the top selling Word products be designed for smartphones? The possibilities are endless and the future is bright.