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Word of the week: WordPerfect

“Word Perfect” is a book by Susie Dent published recently here in the UK. Unfortunately the initial print-run was based on an early version of the text and was full of typographical errors. As you can read in this piece from the Guardian (“Susie Dent ‘gutted’ after new book Word Perfect printed with host of typos”) the publisher (John Murray) is “taking urgent steps to recall these copies, reprint and resolve this swiftly”.

For me “WordPerfect” (in CamelCase, without the space) will always evoke memories of the word processing software that was the world leader in the early 1990s. If you are of a certain age you might be able to picture it too, the all-blue or all-black screen displaying your text in white or grey. The only other information appeared on the  bottom line of the screen: the  filename on the left, and your position within the document on the right. In a blank document this would typically read [Doc 1 Pg 1 Ln 1” Pos 1”].

30 years ago this month I attended a conference in a hotel near Heathrow where a host of software companies demonstrated their latest offerings to clients, vendors, and people who worked for authorized training companies, as I did at the time. In the late 1980s WordPerfect had overtaken WordStar as the most-used PC-based word processor. Both companies were represented at the conference and gave away assorted branded goodies. All these years later I still have a t-shirt or two and these two items of headgear, a yellow WordStar cap and a blue WordPerfect sun visor, as you can see here, resting on a rather faded WordPerfect t-shirt:


I always had a soft spot for WordStar and without having used it for at least a quarter of a century can still recall most of the keystrokes. They may not have seemed especially logical or memorable to the untrained user, but you could make sense of them. The program was written at a time when most keyboards did not come with arrow keys, so the commands to move up, down, left and right were based on the position of the letters. The diamond shape formed by E, S, D and X served as your arrow keys: Ctrl + E (up a line), Control + X (down a line), Ctrl + S (left one character), Ctrl + D (right one character). Moving outwards from those “Home Keys”, Ctrl + A moved left a word, Ctrl + F moved right a word, and so on.

WordStar also had a rock ’n roll connection according to some people I knew at the time, but I was never able to confirm it. Apparently the former drummer of The Skids was head of the UK office but he wasn’t at that October 1990 conference, and the member of staff I spoke to couldn’t confirm if their boss had formerly been a member of Dunfermline’s finest. This Wikipedia piece tells me that Tom Kellichan played drums in the band between 1977 and 1979 (and later with Bill Nelson of Be-Bop Deluxe) and he is now “running a music bar, called ‘The Sax Bar’, in The Patch, Playa de las Américas, Tenerife; and still playing drums in a house band called Real Deal”. There’s no mention of him heading up the UK office of the world’s most used word processing software of the mid-1980s.

I was happy enough with WordPerfect too. It worked. I do not create, save and print documents any quicker now than I did in the early 1990s. The blank screen could be rather off-putting to begin with but the software came with a printed template listing how the Function Keys and Home Keys worked. By now most keyboards did come with arrow keys, Home, End, Page Up and so on. As with WordStar I can recall most of the day-to-day commands over 20 years since I last used a non-Windows version of WordPerfect: Home Home Up Arrow (top of document), Home Home Down Arrow (end of document), F10 (Save), Shift + F7 (Print), F7 (Close document). The only thing you really needed to know was that F3 brought up Help. F3 followed by F3 brought up on an onscreen version of that printed template listing the key assignments. (Later versions of the software assigned Help to the F1 key.)

This is all making me feel rather nostalgic, for a time when the code for an entire word processing program could fit on a floppy disk (the dictionary usually came on a second disk), and we weren’t fussed whether out text was “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get). In a cupboard somewhere I still have my first Windows PC (a 486 tower running Windows 3.1, bought in the summer of 1994). I installed my DOS version of WordPerfect (5.1, a definite improvement on 5.0) and used it in favour of the WYSIWYG alternatives (Word for Windows 2.0, Lotus AmiPro 3) to create my documents. I’m tempted to fire it up for old time’s sake, but it wouldn’t help me to get these words published: no Internet access, you know.

I’m also tempted to document how and why WordPerfect fell from its exalted position to its place as a footnote in computer history, but that’s for another time. In the meantime, here’s a video of The Skids performing their only UK Top 10 hit, “Into the Valley”, back in 1979. The drummer, who may or not have been the head of WordStar UK ten years later, is wearing a yellow jacket, the same shade as the WordStar cap I acquired in 1990. Coincidence?



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