19-09-14-meet-the-man-who-wrote-microsoft-word-martin-veitch-charles-left-and-me-right
Microsoft Windows

Meet the Man Who Wrote Microsoft Word

I am writing this article on the latest release of Microsoft Word for Windows. I have drafted perhaps tens of thousands of articles and certainly over a million words using versions of this program, going all the way back to version 1.0 running on Windows 3.0, circa 1991, although there were versions of Word for other platforms going all the way back to 1983.

Word for Windows was certainly a very different and welcome experience after becoming accustomed to the arcane commands of WordStar, a program I used so often that I once absentmindedly answered the phone saying ‘Ctrl-KD’.

With Word for Windows I had a true sense of what a document would look like, the screen was bright and elegant, features were – for once the adjective is spot on – intuitive. And I got all this without having to buy a Mac (although I did have to upgrade my Victor 12MHz 286 to an AST 386SX with 1MB RAM and 20MB hard drive just to run Windows).

Word is the software hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of us have used to write everything from notes to the milkman and shopping lists to Dear John letters, lists of our hopes and dreams, plans for world-changing events and great novels.

But who wrote Word itself? After Googling that question and discovering the public domain answer to be Charles Simonyi and Richard Brodie I contacted the latter by email and asked him if he would share the story of how he came to help create the software that has become a fixture of modern life.

Within an hour, Brodie had agreed to be interviewed by email and a few hours later we were swapping questions and answers. The following is a lightly edited version of our exchanges, created of course with keyboard editing, mouse highlighting, cut-and-paste, word count, AutoCorrect and the bold icon. Hitting ALT-TW tells me the draft version of the document contains 2,752 words, 12,538 characters (no spaces).

 

Could you tell me a little about how you came to code word processing software, your time at Xerox in the 1970s and before that?

I fell in love with both writing and coding young. I started programming when I was seven. My parents bought me a plastic computer called "Digi-Comp I." It had three bits of data memory and maybe room for eight logic gates. I programmed it to simulate traffic lights. At 13 I volunteered at the Children's Museum in Boston, where I wrote an "Eliza"-like program to talk to the museum guests on a teletype connected to a PDP-1 computer at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, which donated the computer time. By the end of high school I had written a general-ledger system for the New England Red Cross and, in my spare time, an email system.

My mother made me learn to type on a manual typewriter because she was afraid if I learned on an electric one I'd never be able to use a manual. I think she underestimated the rate of technological progress. But in high school I did my writing assignments longhand; in college I wrote my first paper on that manual typewriter, but then used the rudimentary text-editing and word-processing software Harvard had available in the basement of the science center (vi and nroff) to do my economics term paper. It made such a difference in the creative process to be able to edit my words easily that I knew word-processing was a very, very important innovation.

After two years at Harvard my roommate and I decided to take a year off and get jobs in Silicon Valley. I was totally naive about the process of getting a good job. I basically knocked on doors at Apple, Atari, and a few other places. When I saw an ad for programmers wanted at Xerox, I had no idea Xerox was even in the computer business, but I applied. Charles Simonyi gave me a programming test, which I found fascinating. The test contained an intentional error: one of the instructions said go to step three when it was clear to me that what was meant was go to step 4. I asked Charles about it and he smiled mysteriously. I started the next day.

It was pure coincidence that I happened to find a job working on word processing. I frankly was more excited about email, and the same group at Xerox (Advanced Systems Division) had an email system called Laurel that was better in some ways than anything available to the general public even today. It still drives me crazy that there's a "reply" button and a "reply all" button in Outlook, but when you hit "reply" to something that comes from a mailing list it still usually goes to the whole list.

 

Xerox PARC is often seen as a cradle of technological innovation. What was it like to work in Palo Alto at that time?

I was impressed by how well they treated the employees. I was so low-level - making $500 a week as an intern - that they had to make up a new pay grade for me with a new job title like "associate software engineer" or something. But I still had my own office with a name plate and we all had Alto personal computers which cost something like $17k each in 1979. We didn't have our own laser printers -- they had just been invented, cost $100k, and took up a room. So we shared those using Ethernet. They were all named after penguins.

 

How did you come to work for Microsoft and what were your early impressions of the company and activities there?

Xerox decided that the prototype hardware and software that we had developed -- the Alto, BravoX, and Laurel -- were best abandoned and a production product started from scratch, from the ground up. I think that was a mistake on several levels, but it eventually resulted in the Star, a workstation that was specced to be able to publish the Encyclopedia Britannica but ended up having something like a 10-page limit on document length and taking five minutes to boot up. Anyway, when they shut down Charles's project, he went to Microsoft to start the Applications Division and took me with him.

There were only about 50 people in the company. I interviewed directly with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. My impression was they were really smart people doing really important stuff. Bill asked me a question about sharing code among different groups within the company, something that remains difficult to this day for both technical and political reasons. I was very impressed with Bill. With few exceptions, the executives at Xerox seemed like they didn't really get technology.

 

You worked closely for a time with Bill Gates. How did that come about and how did it work out?

Bill was always trying to find the ideal technical assistant to complement him. I was the third one, I think. I was a lousy choice because I’m more of a big-picture guy. It was thrilling hanging with him for a year or so, hanging out with Steve Jobs, Mitch Kapor, and other industry luminaries. Eventually I moved onto Word for Windows and he tried someone else.

 

You wrote Microsoft Word at a time when the PC was just becoming generally popular, I think. What were Microsoft’s aims with Word at that time?

The PC hadn't come out yet when I started at Microsoft in May 1981. It came out in August. I went back to Harvard for another year and a half but during vacations and summers I started Word. We added about six more programmers and it was released in October 1983. While I think Bill's vision was to have a suite of apps centered around Multiplan, the predecessor to Excel, Charles always planned to take over the world and I shared his excitement. We put in support for WYSIWYG before there were even displays of sufficient resolution to show it, and for laser printers when everyone was still fixed-pitch fonts on dot-matrix and daisy-wheel printers. We were planning for the future.

 

Can you describe the process of creating Word? Is it fair to call you and Charles the co-creators of Word?

I sat in an office and wrote code myself, bouncing ideas off Charles every now and then, for maybe nine months. I started from scratch, but of course worked from the philosophy of Charles's project Bravo from Xerox. So Charles didn't write any actual code for V1 (although he did code heavily for a later version of MacWord). Yet it would never have existed without Charles.

Nobody was patenting software back then or I'm sure Charles would have a bunch of patents and so would I and certainly Frank Liang, who wrote the hyphenation and printing code toward the end of the project. And about six more people came on toward the end and were a tremendous help.

 

How was your relationship with Charles Simonyi?

He is and was one of my favorite people in the world. As he said in a Business Week article long ago, "the bandwidth between us was incredible."

 

 

You later went on to write Word for Windows which smashed open the WP market and dethroned WordPerfect. Did you have a sense at that time at how popular the programme would become?

Well, of course that was the plan. We wanted our products to be on every computer. Bill always rode me to make sure we did really hard things technologically so that people couldn't easily catch us, and I always made sure that the tasks people wanted to do could be done intuitively and easily. Charles basically left me alone but was still the godfather of Word and was always available to hash out technical and user-interface problems. I didn't care much about WordPerfect, or WordStar before that -- we took a different approach, one that we believed would naturally rise to the top once graphical user-interfaces and laser printers became popular, and of course that ended up happening.

 

I remember how thrilled PC users were when they first used Word for Windows. What were you most proud of?

I'm proudest that after about 20 years they finally put "Brodie" in the spell-check dictionary. I invented the squiggly red underline and autocorrect, although I never intended autocorrect to work the way it does on phones today, being so aggressive about choosing a replacement word. But without that we'd have no "damn autocorrect." I also invented the "combo box," a really small user-interface innovation that makes life easier a zillion times a day. I like making life easier.

I did spec the table insertion UI, and I’m not super proud of it. I left before I could play with a prototype and tweak the design. I would have made it a lot easier to use.

 

Did you have anything to do with (the much hated) Track Changes and is there a Word feature you love or hate?

Track Changes, like table insertion, was a feature I didn't complete design of before I left Microsoft. It's a tough design because there are many different ways people want to track changes and collaborate. I think there's room for someone to have a brilliant idea on how to solve that problem.

I love a lot of the little things people don't notice, like removing extra white space when you cut and paste. There's a "redo" function that was really hard to implement that we've had since version 1 for DOS. You could make some text bold, Times Roman, and a bigger font, then select different text and hit redo and it would do the same to the new selection. I think I may be the only one who's ever used it.

 

Windows was not the most stable environment back then and of course coding tools, processors, memory and disk capacity have changed somewhat since. What were the biggest challenges?

We had our own proprietary coding tools. Charles was very big on tools. You should see his garage. But Windows was not that bad. Most of the problems users had were caused by interaction with third-party software, especially device drivers. Because of the architecture of the old Intel chips, any piece of code could alter any part of memory. Nowadays programs run in “protected” mode where they can only alter the parts of memory they are assigned. But we used standard hardware configurations and didn’t really have a lot of problems in our work environment with instability of Windows.

 

Did Word change your life and how do you feel now when Word, Notepad and other tools you were involved with are almost as ubiquitous as the PC itself?

I have a friend who was born deaf. If you ask him what it’s like to grow up deaf, he answers, “normal.” In other words, it’s hard to know how I would feel at 54 if I hadn’t done something that affected so many people in my early 20s. I’m grateful for people’s appreciation, although I’m sure that if I hadn’t been there, something similar would have filled the niche. Maybe the squiggly line would have been purple.

 

Is there anything that you now regret in that first spell at Microsoft?

I wish I hadn’t wasted that year and a half going back to Harvard.

 

Why did you leave Microsoft after it went public in 1986?

I’m not a corporate guy. I had no patience for fighting political battles and wanted to be free to work on whatever projects interested me at the time.

 

The decision to write self-help books must have been an abrupt change. Why did you pursue that course?

Well, I only wrote one self-help book [Getting Past OK], and I wrote it because a lot of my smart friends seemed not to think about some things I thought were important. Both of my books just kind of burst out of me, because I couldn’t find books that said what I wanted to say. But [a later book] Virus of the Mind continues to be read by a lot of people, even used in college courses, which is funny since I don’t have a degree. I think it’s important to know what influences the programming of your mind.

 

Did your time at Microsoft make you a wealthy man, able to make your own choices in life without fear of failure?

I don't think I ever had much fear of failure. As I wrote in my book Getting Past OK, wealth didn't make me happy. It gave me options, but options can be stressful in their own way. Still, I think we'd all rather have options than not.

 

You returned to Microsoft and were instrumental in the development of the Access database. Why did you go back and how was your second stint there?

My best friend needed my help to ship Access, and promised to shield me from politics. It worked out great.

 

You later became a pro poker player. What appealed to you about the game and how did that period of your life work out?

Poker is a really fun game, one that’s easy to learn and very hard to master. I used to play for dimes and quarters with some of the Microsoft guys, including Bill Gates. He was very good at reading people. I’ve always loved gambling, and some of my friends were on TV playing poker, so I took a crack at it. Ultimately playing in tournaments was too much like work, so I played online awhile until the government shut that down. It’s fun, but not much of a contribution to humanity. It makes a better hobby than a profession.

 

What is your life like today and what does the future hold?

I have a variety of investments and other projects, and there’s probably another book or two in me.

 

Do you still keep an eye on Microsoft and the tech scene? If so, what are your thoughts on software and the tech world today?

I don’t know that I have anything unique to say. Microsoft is betting the future on mobile and cloud. I think security is a huge issue, especially because of the conflict between personal, corporate, and government interests. I love technological progress, and I usually have a smile on my face.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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