Whatever happened to…WordPerfect?

What causes an application that once ruled the software world to completely fall from grace? That’s the question we’ll be posing in a new regular feature on OnSoftware. To kick-start the series I’m examining perhaps the most dramatic demise in software history – that of WordPerfect.

Where did it all go wrong for WordPerfect?

The rise to fame

If you were using a computer in the late 80s or early 90s you’ll remember that WordPerfect was really the only word processing program worth using. The program started life in 1982 when Bruce Bastian and Dr Alan Ashton ported their Data General app to the IBM PC and called it WordPerfect 2.20. By 1986 WordPerfect 4.2 had overtaken WordStar as the word processor market leader on the DOS platform. But it wasn’t until 1989 that the app really hit the heights, with its most successful version ever, WordPerfect 5.1. Now with support for tables, simple spreadsheets and Macintosh-style pull-down menus, the software was viewed as the choice for office professionals. At this time the WordPerfect 5.1 file format was supported by all word processors, and most publishing companies and businesses insisted documents were provided in this format. WordPerfect 5.1 would, for years, be the most respected document editing format on the planet.

Why people liked it

One of the main usability features that attracted people to WordPerfect was its use of function keys, allowing users to perform editing commands quickly through a combination of Shift, Ctrl and Alt and the ‘F’ keys. This really set the program apart from apps such as WordStar, which relied on just Ctrl and the normal letter keys. Macros were another major feature of WordPerfect that helped to make it so popular. Macros that represented long and complicated editing processes could be mapped to one key, drastically improving productivity.
Other cool features of WordPerfet 5.1 included styles and style libraries for advanced document editing; reveal codes, which contained tags and objects used to help track changes and styles that were applied to documents; and an impressive range of bundled printer drivers.

What went wrong

So why isn’t everyone still using WordPerfect today then? Some will argue that it was Windows that killed WordPerfect. The word processor had achieved its success as a DOS application that made it easy to edit documents through its intelligent support for keyboard commands. Some suggest that WordPerfect struggled to cope when it came to evolving the product for a graphical, point-and-click environment. As one reader of InfoWorld’s Gripe Line points out, it took the developer too long to come up with a decent version for Windows:

WordPerfect 5.1 for Windows (released quarter 4 of 1991) was a dismal failure – totally unstable, not feature-laden, and it even used a DOS-based installation program! WordPerfect 5.2 (Q1-1992) was a massive bug-fix, albeit small & fast. WordPerfect 6.0 (Q4-1993) was another buggy piece of crap, but it showed potential.

Only when WordPerfect 6.0a (April, 1994) came out was there something worthwhile on the Windows front. By mid-1994, 2 1/2 years after the first version of WordPerfect for Windows came out, was there something reasonably stable. But by then, the damage was done and MS-Office 4.2/4.3 was available.

As is seemingly the norm with companies who struggle to compete against Microsoft products, WordPerfect’s developers Novell (which had by now bought the company) tried to blame the Redmond firms monopolistic tactics. In fact, in 2004, Novell launched a suit against Microsoft, claiming it used anti-competitive tactics during the periods between 1994 and 1996 by forcing hardware developers to bundle its Word and Office apps with all Windows machines. Novell lost the case.
But it wasn’t just the transition to Windows that affected WordPerfect. There were other factors, such as the decision to scrap its fabled free customer support, and the impact in the change of ownership (to Novell in 1994 and then Corel in 1996) who each had different ideas about where to place the product in the market.

Believe it or not, the program is still being made, as part of of Corel WordPerfect Office X4, though it’s almost certain the application will never hit the heights of its glory days.


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