A Look Back at Three Decades of Word Processors

A few days ago I was running through twitter when I saw Peter Cohen (@flargh) link to a blog post he had written about distraction free writing and the focused simplicity of a 30 year old word processor. Reading the article, I began to reflect upon the word processors I have used over the past 35 years and it inspired me to write a little about a few of those that stand-out in my mind. (I should underscore the fact that this post is not meant to be a look at the overall evolution of the word processor, but a look back at my own experiences over the years.)


TI Writer on the TI-99/4A (1983) — My first computer, the TI-99/4A, was nice for games and educational programs, but wasn’t the ideal word processing platform. Wanting to start using a word processor for my school reports (6th grade), I made the obvious choice to go with TI Writer, a combination cartridge and disk program that output to a printer tied to the RS-232 interface card (if you had one). The TI could only generate a 40-column display, but TI Writer delivered a virtual 80-column page that could be viewed using a left, middle, and right panning window — a bit cumbersome, indeed. I had a Smith-Corona TP-1 daisywheel printer hanging off of that board’s parallel port and became one of the very first kids in my class to hand work in done on a home computer. (Screenshot shows the first 1/3 of the 80-column sample document I created for this post.)
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Apple Writer II

Apple Writer II on the Apple //c (1984) — My next computer was the Apple //c which I got right after it launched in early 1984. And it had 80 column text! The go-to word processor at that time was Apple Writer II, which was simple but functional — a dream compared to TI Writer! I had an Apple ImageWriter printer for output. (Screenshot shows a document I recently found on my 32-year-old Apple Writer II data disk.)
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MultiScribe on the Apple //c (1985) — After getting a mouse for the //c, I was able run StyleWare’s new MultiScribe WYSIWYG word processor. I was lusting for a Macintosh at the time and this felt like something of a bridge to that world of bitmap graphics and fancy fonts. Its output to a dot-matrix printer was pretty rough looking, however. As such, I didn’t get much serious work done with this one. (Screenshot shows another document I recently found on my 32-year-old Apple Writer II data disk.)
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MacWrite on a Macintosh 128K (1985) — Now this is where I was trying to be, using MultiScribe on the //c. I finally got a Macintosh, and it came with MacWrite and MacPaint. I never did any real word processing on the Mac, however, because a week after getting it I saw an Amiga 1000 on display at the local computer shop, returned the Mac, and put an order in for the Amiga. I never even had a printer hooked to that Mac! In the early ’90s I bought a Macintosh LC and used a much later version of MacWrite on that machine during part of college. I even made some money doing page layout for students with that LC, MacWrite, and my StyleWriter printer.
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Textcraft on the Amiga 1000 (1986) — To say that software was slow to come for the Amiga after its late 1985 launch is an understatement. I had two different printers hanging off of my A1000 (an Epson LX-80 and a color Okimate 20) and for many months my only “word processor” was the extremely basic Notepad bundled with AmigaDOS. Finally I got Textcraft, made by Arktronix (who created the notable but unsuccessful windowed word processor suite, Jane). It was a proper word processor, rather basic, but it helped me get the schoolwork done. (Screenshot courtesy of Paul Ford.)
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AppleWorks on the enhanced Apple IIe (1986) — What an odd move! I sold my Amiga and went back to the Apple II! It was Apple Garamond that made me do it. At any rate, Apple’s integrated word processor, database, and spreadsheet suite was the thing to use at this point. We used AppleWorks in school and it was a surprisingly rich little package with a number of expansion tools made available by third parties. I used Pinpoint, I recall. I had an Apple ImageWriter II printer as part of this setup.
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WordWriter ST

Word Writer ST on the Atari 520ST (1987) — The most popular word processor for the Atari ST was Atari’s own 1st Word, but it felt quite basic to me, so I went with Timeworks’ Word Writer ST, which is the first word processor I ever used that came with an integrated spell checker. Like 1st Word, Word Writer ST utilized the windowed GEM user interface of the Atari ST, though it was not a multi-font, WYSIWYG editor. I used an Epson LX-800 and an Okimate 20 printer with this setup.
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MultiScribe GS

MultiScribe GS on the Apple IIgs (1988) — I did most of my word processing on the Apple IIgs using the aforementioned, 8-bit AppleWorks, as it’s what we had in the Apple lab at school. I was friends with the guys at the local dealer where I purchased the GS system and a salesman gave me copies of dealer versions of various IIgs applications, MultiScribe GS among them. I used it for a good many things. It’s print output, with color on the ImageWriter II, was quite nice. This felt like a Mac app. (Screenshot shows yet another document I recently found on my 32-year-old Apple Writer II data disk)
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Tandy DeskMate

DeskMate on the Tandy 1000TL (1989)DeskMate was Tandy’s own bundled app suite that came with every Tandy PC-compatible. It featured a spreadsheet, database, calendar, and word processor, with later versions seeing the inclusion of audio and drawing modules. It worked fine, but all parts were rather basic and I never liked the overall feel of the thing; it was rendered in a graphics mode but looked like nothing more than some kind of enhanced ANSI text. Still, while I was driving the 1000TL I used DeskMate‘s word processor to get things written.
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ProWrite on the Amiga 2000 (1989)ProWrite was the WYSIWYG word processor of choice for the AmigaDOS 1.3-era Amigas. I used this on my Amiga 2000 at the end of high school and in early college, and really put it through its paces. This is the first setup where I experienced something akin to today’s web distraction; I’d be working on a paper and then switch over to browsing dialup BBS forums and back again. I printed documents on an Epson LX-800 dot-matrix printer.

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Final Copy II on the Amiga 1200HD (1993) — One of the nicest word processors for AmigaDOS 2.x era Amigas was SoftWood‘s Final Copy II. It had a very clean interface, was fairly feature rich, and was responsive to use on standard config hardware. Final Copy II supported both the standard Amiga Compugraphic outline fonts as well as PostScript Type 1 fonts. I printed out my work on the excellent Epson Action Printer 3250 24-pin printer.
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MS Word

Microsoft Word for Windows on the 486 66 PC (1994) — And, of course, we come to this. Microsoft Word. I ran this on my eCesys 486 66 PC under Windows 3.1 as well as under Windows 95. (How I came by owning the Windows version of Word is an interesting story.) Later, I ran it on my Macs from the Power Macintosh G3 up through my current iMac desktop, and on my work PC and MacBook Pro at the office. I don’t do much word processing these days, but when I do it’s usually in Word. The days of competing word processors really ended after Word had been on the market for a few years.

I’ve not listed every word processor I’ve ever used on the various systems I’ve owned over the years, but these are the ones that stand out the most. As mentioned above, when I do have a need to use a word processor, I typically use Word. I own Pages for OS X and use it here and there, but really my processing of words mostly involves code and code editors like PHPStorm and Sublime Text. My 10-year-old daughter started using a word processor three years younger than I did, and it’s not even a traditionally executing application; she uses Google Docs on her Chromebook, as per her school.

The area of computing that is word processing used to be quite an eclectic field, and I suppose that makes sense given that the early era of home computing was, in most ways, exactly that. Today we have a narrow spectrum of both computing platforms and word processors. They are all feature rich and (more or less) stable, but the field is less interesting, less exciting overall.

Ah, but for the days when word processing was an adventure.

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23 Responses to A Look Back at Three Decades of Word Processors

  1. nitrofurano says:

    what about Tasword?

  2. Chris Dotson says:

    Awesome list! I also remember Wordstar on the Osborne I and the DecMate I word processor!

  3. Rogelio Perea says:

    Nice trip :-)

    For me it was VIP Writer III on the CoCo 3 that carried me over college, all my previous hardcopy jobs were done on a tried and true typewriter and the then fledgling Word Perfect on a IBM PC at the school’s lab. One develops an attachment to one WP system and VIP stuck with me even as I started my professional life. The later part of school had me using Max-10 on the CC3, one hell of a WYSIWYG WP for the platform.

  4. George says:

    In 2013, somebody spoke of difficulties printing a document properly. On following up, I found that she was using WordPerfect; she did not care for my suggestion that she import her document into Word. This would have thrown off the alignment of a table, I think, not that the table printed quite properly as it was. I suspect that if I went through the organization inquiring closely, I could find a handful of lawyers and legal secretaries still using WordPerfect. It was, I recall, WordPerfect’s footnoting that made the legal world love it.

  5. Warner says:

    What about the VI editor? lol :-)

  6. pmarin says:

    Wordstar->Ability->Locoscript->Wordperfect 5.1-> VIM and Latex

  7. Mike Brown says:

    For retro word processing, mostly used Word Perfect on the Atari ST.

  8. mel says:

    My favorite old word processor was WriteNow 4.0 for Macintosh. I also used MS Word 5.0 and MacWrite.

  9. Ahmed Samir says:

    Protext on the Amstrad CPC running on CPM+

  10. Mats Peterson says:

    You’re saying “Final Copy II on the Amiga 1200HD (1993)”. Looks like WB 1.3 or something to me alright.

    • Blake Patterson says:

      Good eye. That’s a screenshot I grabbed from the web, not having made my own way back when. I ran the program under Workbench 3.x, on my A1200HD, though.

      • Mats Peterson says:

        Yep, OK. I personally find the text in interlaced HiRes very hard to read, not because of possible flicker, since that can be avoided by certain means, but since the letters will often only be one pixel thick. Old eyes here, haha. On the other hand the text will of course look better than in non-interlaced HiRes overall. Now one-pixel thick text will look fatter on a CRT display than on a LCD display as well, so that will affect it too, of course.

    • Blake Patterson says:

      I often would prefer ~640×200 than interlaced 640×400 for wp, but it depends on the system. Look at the IIgs screenshot up there. The GS basically used Mac bitmap fonts but at 200p it rendered them twice as tall as they would appear on page, and that was a bother. Of course, the GS didn’t offer a 400i mode at all, so there was no option, really.

  11. John says:

    Anyone remember the name of the bundled software package around 1990 that had a word processor, spreadsheet and database?

    • Blake Patterson says:

      It came about five years earlier but Apple offered AppleWorks for the Apple II line, which was an integrated suite of the three apps you mention. It’s shown within this post. The Commodore Plus/4 unit, released in 1984, featured such a suite in ROM, though it was extremely basic.

      There’s Microsoft Works from 1988 and Microsoft Office, which debuted in 1990. I’m sure there are others.

  12. Mark says:

    I ran “Pen Pal”, a combination word processor, database and page layout package. I produced our Amiga User Group newsletter for two years using this software on my Amiga 500 with 2 meg of ram. Output was to a 24 pin Citizen color (ribbon style) printer. The newsletter was of course done with the black ribbon.

  13. Sandra Rye says:

    I am 82 and I am a greeting card maker. I loved making my cards personal. So I set up pages in the sizes I used most often. IT SAVED THE SETTINGS. NOT ANYMORE!!! We had wonderful variety of fonts. NOT ANY MORE
    I especially miss the tool feature that asked for a shape. I wanted to design a special printing for a family reunion. I pickked a circle to be made into a rememberance button. I clicked on tools…picked my shape….circle…add your text…AND IT DID IT!!! Word 10 is hopeless for me

  14. Darío Pérez says:

    Very good article. I am going to mention a word processor that was not commented: GeoWrite that came included in the GEOS operating system for Commodore 64 and Commodore 128. If you look at it, it has a certain similarity with AppleWrite. A few years later, the GeoWrite developers produced a version of GEOS for Apple 2 computers.

    • Blake Patterson says:

      Am familiar with GeoWrite, thanks. I know a number of Apple II folks that loved it. It ran at a very nice 560×192 res on the enhanced IIe and //c. I have a mountable volume with all of GEOS and the apps on my IIe’s CFFA3000 flash, but sadly GEOS won’t recognize the mouse card sitting in slot 7 (surely it wants it in slot 4, but for reasons, the Mockingboard C is staying there). Wish I knew of a patch version so I could run GEOS properly.

      • Donald eamon says:

        Way back in the day, I used to write GEOS columns for Computer Shopper. Thanks for bringing back those memories!

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