Whatever Happened to NewWord

by John C. Dvorak

One of the great Word Processors of the early desktop computing era was NewWord, a product that evolved from mismanagement at the company that gave us Wordstar, MicroPro International/Wordstar Corporation.

Wordstar was making a transition to the DOS world from CP/M and released a PC version of its dominant Word Processor in 1982. It was a recompiled version of the CP/M source code with patches. But somewhere along the way the original documented source code was lost! One of the top programmers at the company Peter Mierau was in the process of reconstructing the code base during this era. He was apparently the only guy who could make any sense out of what was described to outsiders as “spaghetti code.”

In October of 1982, shortly after he finished this tedious job the company laid him off along with pals Stan Reynolds and Richard Post as part of a cost-cutting move. The irked threesome decided to form their own company to clone Wordstar from scratch. This happened fast as Reynolds still had a company car for a month and the trio drove the car down to COMDEX Vegas with a business plan looking for investors.

It was there they found George Morrow who was heading a successful manufacturing company making inexpensive Z-80-based personal computers and bundling a lot of software with each machine. Seeing the potential to invest a fixed amount of capital, about $100,000, to get this new company off the ground Morrow could grab a free license for the new product and not have to pay any more fees to bundle Wordstar. The company, called NewStar, was off and running with Reynolds as President.

They shipped NewWord version 1 in September of 1983. It was a subset of Wordstar and MailMerge with 80-percent of the features. By August of 1984 they shipped version two which excited the installed base of Wordstar 3.3 users. Many devoted Wordstar users switched to it immediately. Word Perfect came along during this era and within no time took market leadership away from Wordstar with more modern features. WordPerfect also claimed to be “easier to use” which still galls Stan Reynolds to this day. In fact WordPerfect was as unintuitive as any word processor ever released, but it used the function keys and the marketeers argued that it was easier because of that fact.

Version 2 of NewWord also added other characteristics that Wordstar user wanted badly including the addition of an Unerase feature which was missing from Wordstar. These new features included: laser printer support, built-in spell checking, unlimited block sizes for block delete and block move, ability to make columns, file locking and a menu-driven install system. The entire program was coded in speedy assembly language by Mierau and his team.

The company was in business now and Morrow sold back most of the company to the founders and kept a minority share and the perpetual license. Some beef or other arose with partner Richard Post around the time of the release of NewWord 3 which added the additional features including keyboard macros, math functions, as well as pathnames. Post was bought out. While Wordstar had not been seriously updated new versions of DOS with pathnames had been released. Wordstar could not take advantage of paths and you had to have a copy of Wordstar in the directory where the documents were retrieved and saved. It was this missing feature in Wordstar in 1986 that was killing the product along with the fact that a management coup had taken place after the founder Seymour Rubenstein had an unfortunate, but not fatal, heart-attack (see article on Wordstar).

During the NewWord era Wordstar had tried a couple of things to get back on top of the word processing game. The company released Wordstar2000 which was copy protected to excess and represented early bloatware. The Wordstar users didn’t like it. The company also took the source code earlier rebuilt by Mierau and attempted to upgrade Wordstar 3.3 and produced an unsalable product that was rejected by the company’s outside beta testers. This led the board to fire the acting CEO. The company was in a quandary and new CEO Leon Williams was brought in to save the operation.

It was then that the VP of Sales and Marketing at NewStar, Walt Feigenson, put together a meeting with Leon Williams and Wordstar in late 1986. Reynolds and team were either going to sell to Wordstar or buy Wordstar somehow. They were offered $3 million for NewWord and decided to take the money and run. The product was modified with new menus and the addition of background printing to become Wordstar 4 and shipped in February of 1987 and at the time was the biggest and most successful upgrade in software history.

The NewStar folks were given a one year employment contract which was never renewed and the guys went their separate ways.

In the short term the acquisition saved Wordstar but it was only a short term fix. You have to wonder what would have been if the NewStar guys were inclined to buy Wordstar or just compete in the business. The decision to bail out for what seems like a pittance in todays Internet mad world may have been wise in 1986 There were dozens of Word Processors competing and Microsoft hadn’t begun to push Word seriously. Furthermore this was an era when the Venture Capital community thought investing in software companies was a bad idea. Times change.

The most ironic aspect to this story is that in todays world the NewWord guys would have been sued from the beginning for look and feel or something similar. The product would have never been completed and improved and Wordstar would have never had the opportunity to buy it to save their own hides. Yes, times change.

Link:
Whatever Happened to… archives