Whatever Happened to Wordstar?

by John C. Dvorak

One of the most interesting stories in the history of computing surrounds the dominant word processor of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s — Wordstar.

The brains behind it included industry pioneer Seymour Rubenstein, who much later developed a spreadsheet product called Surpass which became Quattro Pro. Rubenstein had worked for IMSAI under his then mentor Bill Millard where he ran into superstar assembly language coder, Rob Barnaby. After his stint with IMSAI and after working on a banking system for Credit Suisse Rubenstein decided to start a company. He began studying the Datapro reports on dedicated word processors and decided he wanted to do a software company. He called it Micropro International. The first two products were a word processor and a sorting program which he got Barnaby to code. In just a few months, while coding two products simultaneously, Barnaby produced Supersort and Wordmaster which were released in Sept of 1978 at a computer show in New York. Rubenstein sold $12,000 worth of the programs at the show and was in business to stay.

Dealer feedback for Wordmaster indicated that there was a need for built-in printing. Word processors at the time typically had separate programs you ran to print the documents after you edited them. The Electric Pencil, arguably the first modern word processor incorporated printing in the program and dealers wanted the Micropro product to do the same thing.

In Oct. of 1978, a month after introduction, Barnaby began coding Wordstar with new features. According to Rubenstein, who carefully tracked Barnaby’s work, it took four months to code Wordstar. This was done in assembler from scratch. Only 10-percent of Wordmaster code was used. That was the text buffering algorithms. In four months Barnaby wrote 137,000 lines of bullet-proof assembly language code. Rubenstein later checked with some friends from IBM who calculated Barnaby’s output as 42-man years.

A few years later when Epson wanted a special ported version of Wordstar for its first portable computer the Epson reckoned that it would take six months to port the code. Rubenstein told them that it only took four months to code the product from scratch and rehired Barnaby for the port at $100/hr. Rob finished the job in three weeks. According to Rubenstein Barnaby was the “mad genius of assembly language coding.”

During this era Barnaby, who was a character in many ways, used to love to drive around a large and old Rolls-Royce limo, dressed as a chauffeur. He was probably the most famous programmer of the era.

Sales were flying for Wordstar and Micropro. In fiscal 1979 the company did $500,000. Sales jumped to $1.8 in 1980, $5.2 million in 1981. Then the company ported the product from CP/M to CP/M-86 and PC-DOS and released it for the IBM PC in April of 1982 and sales skyrocketed to $23 million. It reached $45 million in 1983. In 1984, just as the company was going public the sales were up to $70 million. At the time it was the biggest software company in the country.

Two months before the public offering in 1984 disaster struck Rubenstein. Not someone who anyone would describe as low-key, Rubenstein suffered a heart attack. Back in 1980 or so he made the mistake of bringing in a venture capitalist who was introduced to Rubenstein by Rubenstein’s brother’s brother-in-law. That kind of combination had the words “bad idea” written all over it. “It was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life,” says Rubenstein. The guy was Fred Adler who sent Fred Haney into Seymour’s hospital room with a document that Seymour had to sign converting all his stock into non-voting stock “or the public offering would be killed.” Rubenstein who still shudders when he thinks of his brush with death says he was so frightened by the heart attack that he wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone about anything. From that moment the company lost its edge. Haney, an ex-Sperry-Univac guy took over as CEO at Adlers request.

It was during this later era that a slew of newcomers to the word processing scene cropped up. Volkswriter, Word Perfect, XYwrite, Word, Newword and a host of competitors began to battle for hegemony. Eventually Word Perfect rose to the top based on its superior support program. A lot of professional writers flocked to XYwrite. I recall when I first went to work at PC Magazine in 1986 and found most people were XYwrite users at the time with the exception of a few Wordstar die-hards such as Paul Somerson. It was only much later as XYwrite fell by the wayside that WordPerfect dominated the scene until it was sold to Novell where it languished and was eventually sold to Corel.

Wordstar ran into all sorts of problems during this era. Rubestein’s original vision for the company, which was renamed to Wordstar International. was to bring out a complete suite of integrated systems. In the early 1980’s the company released Calcstar and Datastar and integrated them with Wordstar into a system called Starburst. I had played with this package and it was phenomenal for its era. Adler and company killed this idea. In fact it was the original “office” suite.

While Wordstar was still the best word processor on the market until the mid-1980’s it lacked a couple of features that annoyed users. As DOS was improved and UNIX-like paths were added, Wordstar could not initially accomodate paths. Worse it had no UNDO key. The code base by now was turning into spaghetti code and Barnaby wasn’t around to fix things. Worse, in 1985, the company produced Wordstar2000, a copy protected program that was nothing like the older lovable Wordstar and which contained annoying copy-protection features that scared most users away. While many pundits including Esther Dyson predicted great things for Wordstar2000, users rejected it. The product was big and slow and expensive. And despite complaints by the company and others, people wanted software they could copy and use on more than one machine. During this era piracy sold software and created market share. People would use a bootleg copy of Wordstar and eventually buy a copy. Wordstar may have been the most pirated software in the world, which in many ways accounted for its success. (Software companies don’t like to admit to this as a possibility.) Books for Wordstar sold like hot cakes and the authors knew they were selling documentation for pirated copies of Wordstar. The company itself should have just sold the documentation alone to increase sales. This was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge aspect of the industry at the time and everyone knew it. So when Wordstar2000 arrived with a copy protection scheme everyone should have predicted its immediate demise. By the time the company removed copy protection it was too late to save it. One curiosity was the 1985 release of Wordstar2000 for UNIX! Wordstar would later evolve into Wordstar professional and Wordstar for Windows (which developed a cult following), but it was an uphill battle despite superior usability. The edge was gone.

Wordstar2000, to me, symbolized the downturn and general muddy thinking that took over the company. The original Wordstar code base was replaced by a Wordstar clone called NewWord which was just like Wordstar but incorporated Undo and other features. While not coded in speed bullet-proof Barnaby assembler it worked well and kept the product alive long enough for Wordstar International to sell everything to Softkey where the decline continued until it was bought out by Corel, “I guess Corel wants to own all the defunct word processors in the world,” lamented Rubenstein.

Wordstar was the product that invented the “what you see is what you get” notion later to be dubbed WYSIWYG. It invented numerous features including overlays, later to develop into DLL’s. It was the first product with dynamic pagination and even help levels among other new features. All modern word processors owe their existence to Wordstar — perhaps one of the greatest single software efforts in the history of computing.

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