If someone asked you on the street for the most important word processor in history, the most frequent answer would probably be Microsoft Word. If they had asked you in 1995, the answer would have been very different.
Back then if someone wanted to work on text documents, the default option was a development called WordPerfect. That word processor practically disappeared, but there are those who still defend it and look for all kinds of ways to continue using it.
The race for office automation started earlier, with WordStar
WordStar, released in 1979, was the first WYSIWYG word processor (What You See Is What You Get), even if it was “textual”: what was shown on the screen was what you would get once you printed the document. It also had keyboard shortcuts, another feature that we take for granted today but were a bit of a revolution at the time.
Those features allowed WordStar to become an especially popular word processor, but the emergence of new, more powerful platforms. had a negative impact on WordStar.
Other word processors developed for the increasingly dominant IBM PC ended up offering specific characteristics of these machines with which WordStar could not compete.
Although its development was abandoned in 1989, the famous George RR Martin, author of ‘Game of Thrones’, made it clear years ago that he continued to use it to write his novels.
The WordPerfect era
One of the programs that ended up taking the baton from WordStar was WordPerfect. In 1979 a Brigham Young University student named Bruce Bastian began development of this word processor with his computer science professor there, Dr. Alan Ashton. The first version ended up appearing in 1981 and was created in assembler of the x86 processors, and in fact it did not begin to be programmed in C until its version 5.1, which would appear years later.
In 1983 one of the milestones of the application occurred. WordPerfect 3.0 arrived, which took advantage of the options of the MS-DOS operating system and also added support for dozens of printers, something that until then had been a clear limitation: if you wanted to print something in WordPerfect you had to have a specific model from Epson or another from Diablo.
It was also then that macro support was integrated, another of the star features of WordPerfect along with the characteristic operation of keyboard shortcuts that allowed users to add all kinds of features to texts with quick key combinations.
When the company launched WordPerfect 4.2 in 1986, another of the word processor’s great achievements was produced. With that version came the support of the line and paragraph numbering or footnotes, something that was key to winning over law firms. Suddenly this development became the de facto standard for these professionals, but there were still major improvements.
In 1989 WordPerfect 5.1 appeared, one of the versions most appreciated by many users (not so much by others) for its adoption of ideas that were still centered on DOS but “pointed” to the future of the graphical interface. This edition offered drop down menus, tables, laser printer support and even another one of those little novelties that we take for granted today: the print preview.
The rise and fall of the processor that conquered the world
WordPerfect had so many features that it was sold with a gigantic 600 page manual to document all your benefits. The company even had a technical support team on the phone that even hired DJs to entertain users while they waited for an agent to assist them.
In 1993 WordPerfect had a market share of over 60% and the business was first acquired by Novell in 1994 and later by Corel in 1996, which intended to make it the clear alternative to a Microsoft Word that did not stop gaining integers.
They integrated it into a suite, but his arrival in Windows was erratic and Microsoft took advantage of that and managed to impose its suite, which also behaved perfectly with Windows, also developed by the Redmond company.
Part of the blame for this was the fact that Microsoft succeeded in focusing on allowing users to take advantage of the graphical interface and the mouse in Word instead of the shortcuts that were still the focus in WordPerfect.
After the arrival of Windows 3.0 to the market, the growth of Microsoft Word was more and more remarkable, and the version that WordPerfect prepared for this operating system arrived late (two years late, no less) and bad, with negative reviews regarding its adaptation to the world of windows and the graphical interface.
WordPerfect ended up losing much of its popularity: from that share of 60% in 1993 and 50% in 1995 it went into the background, and in 2000 Microsoft Word absolutely dominated with 95% of market share. WordPerfect, yes, is still alive.
Today it is possible to use WordPerfect legally and for free
The total supremacy of Microsoft Word did not completely end with WordPerfect. Some law firms and government agencies, already accustomed to the benefits of this word processor, continued to take advantage of its benefits, although its market share is very small today. Curiously, Corel continues to work on new versions, and it is possible to buy the WordPerfect Office 2021 office suite in different editions (or try its evaluation versions).
Even more surprising is the fact that the small community of WordPerfect users continued to defend this application as the ideal word processor for them. Some indeed they tried to be able to continue using the “good old” versions on current computers, and one of those users ended up devising a way to achieve it.
For example, it is possible to run the version of WordPerfect for DOS (called WPDOS) as explained by another member of the community, who has also created a website that is a museum dedicated to this development (and it is not the only that hobby). It’s a great alternative because it works, but that version was never made freeware, which means that if you did not buy the original program you would be in danger of violating the terms of the license.
As this user explained, there was another way to try to enjoy WordPerfect on current machines: WordPerfect version 3.5e for Mac ended up being released and turned into freeware. That gave rise to being able to run it for example in an emulator, but to be able to use that emulator legally you had to have a proprietary copy of MacOS 9, something that once again imposed another barrier.
There was a third way. Corel developed a version of WordPerfect for Linux that it actually integrated into its old distribution, Corel LinuxOS. It came to integrate WordPerfect 8 for Linux into it, and offered both the free version (with few sources) and a full paid version.
The problem is that that version, which was from 1998, did not work well on modern Linux distributions. That is precisely what one of the veteran users of WordPerfect has managed to facilitate, who was also one of the lawyers who used it in the “old days”.
Years ago, he began working on making that version relatively easy for others to use on their modern computers. He created the website xwp8users.com (“Former WordPerfect 8 users”), and together with the rest of the users who participate in that community, he has created a script that allows automatic installation of WordPerfect 8.0 Downloadable Personal Edition (freely downloadable) on various Linux distributions.
Thanks to this effort it is possible that any user, whether or not they are a fan of that development, can access a word processor that stubbornly resists dying. That in the days of Word and Google Docs (not to mention other alternatives such as LibreOffice, for example) is, of course, quite an achievement.