Opinion: A tribute to WordPerfect

POSTED: 01/22/15 11:22 PM

Who remembers WordPerfect? Its 5.1 version was good and simple –and there are still people who miss it. Sociologist Herman Vuijsje is one of them, and I am completely with him, struggling as I do at times with the hopelessly stupid word processor Microsoft has forced down everybody’s throat – Word.

Vuijse writes on the opinion pages of nrc.nl how WordPerfect 5.1 appeared on the market exactly 25 years ago. I remember that well, because for the occasion I traveled to Utah to interview the brains behind the software – Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton.

These antipodes found each other in a mesmerizing adventure – creating a word processor people actually liked. Years later they would found each other on opposite sides in a thorny Californian issue. When Ashton donated $1 million to the campaign against same sex marriage, Bastian did not wait long before donating exactly the same amount to the other side.

WordPerfect 5.1 was the last version of the word processor under the MS-DOS operating system – before the introduction of Windows that offered more options than just word processing. WordPerfect attempted to keep up, but never recovered.

Ironically, on my trip to Utah in 1985 I had dinner with the European managers of WordPerfect in Chicago in a restaurant called – believe it or not – Windows.

Vuijsje notes that Windows-users were forced to use Word. The alert ones among them did not complain about unsolicited pop-ups, a silly talking paperclip and inexplicable changes in line spacing, font, font size, tabs and bullet points.

All this was alien to WordPerfect 5.1. The wonderful blue screen did not divert the attention at any time and it did not ask anything, or forced anything upon the user. There was only text and nothing but text, Vuijsje gushes (and rightly so). Any doofus was able to manage the few indispensable layout options in an ‘underwater-screen’ that showed all codes and text-commands.

This is why Vuijsje remained faithful to WordPerfect for as long as possible. When he had to write for an external client, he used Word (because of format-issues) but when he wanted to write something beautiful, WordPerfect was his weapon of choice.

Over time, Vuijsje began to feel a bit like the poet Remco Campert who stuck to his old typewriter. “I have a supply of ribbons that will do me until far after my death,” he once said. “Sometimes I admit youngsters to my office. Slightly exasperated they look at my machinery. These are machine for writing, I explain to them.”

Such must be the feeling when present-day Word-users stumble upon a dinosaur who is still happily tapping away in WordPerfect. The 5.1 version of course, not the later Windows-version. If only I still had it – I would switch back in a heartbeat.

Vuijsje’s tribute to WordPerfect 5.1 brings back memories of my encounter with the software’s founders. Their headquarters were in Orem, Utah – a sleepy town that reached a population of slightly over 91,000 in 2013. Ashton and Bastian founded their company in 1980. Just eighteen years later, WP’s new owner, Corel, closed the operation down and moved all activities to Ottawa in Canada.

At the height of its success, Bastian had become a man with a troubled mind, who did not get on well with people, especially not with photographers. The constant questions from computer-journalists about when he would add such or such feature to the software drove him nuts.

When I asked him how it felt to get up in the morning, knowing that the company was literally raining money into his bank account, Bastian showed for the first time his soft side. “You know,” he said, “I do not know who my friends are anymore. When people approach me, I always wonder whether they come to me because they know I have a lot of money, or because of who I am.”

And while Bastian drove around Orem in a car with a WP 1 – vanity plate – he would find himself when he entered a local burger place that had been his eatery of choice like forever. Because there, the girl behind the counter would greet him with a smile and simply say, “Hi Bruce, how are you doing?”

Hilbert Haar

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