, National Air and Space Museum
, Burton Grad Associates
Pages: pp. 4-5
Abstract—In January 1975, Popular Electronics featured on its cover a photograph of the Altair computer and, inside the magazine, an article announcing Altair's availability in kit form. One may quibble over whether it was that precise article which inaugurated personal computing, but in any case, within a few short years the PC era had arrived.
For a long time, the volatility of the computer world driven by the PC foreclosed a meaningful historical assessment about the events and changes that were taking place. Now, with the passage of time, the articles in this special issue begin that assessment. More than 31 years have passed since the Altair's announcement. That is effectively as far back in time as the first operation of the Manchester Baby computer was from the publication of the Annals' first issue. Enough time has passed, then, to let us view personal computing with the historian's eye.
From this historical perspective, we see that the true impact of the personal computer was that it allowed software, previously a labor-intensive and often customized activity sold to a limited number of customers, to become commoditized and mass-produced. It could now be marketed directly to those who used it, whether at work or at home. With that came the realization of dreams held by computer pioneers of an earlier era, who foresaw an age of ubiquitous computing but who did not know precisely how we would get there. Making the hardware cheap, reliable, and small was obviously an important step. But it was just the first step; it was only significant in that it enabled the next step—the development of packaged personal computer software.
Although many have said the era of PC software began with the 1979 introduction of VisiCalc on the Apple II to create and run spreadsheets, 1979 also saw WordStar's introduction, on the CP/M operating system, for word processing. CP/M and the Apple II operating systems became the two most prominent standard platforms for early personal computers. By 1984, the IBM PC standard with the MS-DOS operating system dominated the market, but the CP/M and the Apple II platforms were still popular. Accordingly, the year 1984 witnessed literally hundreds of companies producing PC software packages of all types, including systems and utilities programs, language compilers, scientific and technical applications, and a wide range of business applications, education programs, and games.
Out of all those software areas, two in particular stand out: word processing and spreadsheets. Although the term word processing derives from the minicomputer era, the concept of working with words and turning rough text into polished documents is obviously much older. By contrast, the VisiCalc spreadsheet paradigm was new. People had, of course, been working with rows and columns of numbers long before the punched card era. But no mainframe or minicomputer user, no matter how well-connected they were, could make a simple "what-if" change to a single spreadsheet cell and watch those changes propagate through the rest of the data. A future issue of Annals will address the invention of the modern spreadsheet and place it in historical context.
This issue focuses on the evolution of word processing programs. Historical context is provided by Thomas Haigh, whose article chronicles the pre-PC years of word processing development and puts that application in the context of how text was prepared before the advent of PC-based software. Many readers will be surprised to learn the extent to which word processing existed in other forms before the PC appeared: either on special-purpose office machines from companies like Wang, or using enhanced typewriters, especially from IBM (with whom the term apparently originated). We shall also see that corporations employed many individuals, usually women, in typing "pools," to prepare written documents. Word processing software for PCs was a major event and today is without a doubt the most-used of all PC applications. In two articles, Thomas (Tim) Bergin details how a series of PC word processing products, one after the other, dominated this application landscape. We also present an article, based on his personal recollections, by Seymour Rubinstein, the founder of MicroPro—the company that published WordStar, the first really successful PC word processing software product.
The period from 1975 to 1985 was one of rampant growth and innovation not only in the writing of computer software but also in the business of selling it. PC software companies did not derive from the mainframe or minicomputer software companies, and their product volumes and distribution channels were necessarily different. PC software companies developed an entirely new business model. Several articles in this issue will help the readers see how that new model evolved, and how it led to the robust PC software industry of today. Ed Bride, former editor of Software Magazine, describes some of the key influences in the PC software industry: media, trade shows, and research consulting firms. Seymour Merrin describes starting one of the early computer stores that sold word processing and spreadsheet software with their accompanying hardware. And Amy Wohl, one of the premier consultants to the word processing software companies, discusses her experiences, providing further information on how word processing systems were marketed and supported.
In the Anecdotes department, Mike Marcus and George Trimble write about their project management and technical management of a photocomposition project for Mergenthaler. hey describe how the programs they produced for the New York Daily News and for other newspapers throughout the world spelled the end of the use of Linotype machines and introduced high-quality electronic text publishing.
The issue closes with a Think Piece by Len Shustek, a computer software pioneer who by his own admission has written many lines of code and who is now chairman of the Computer History Museum of Mountain View, California. Len focuses on the value of collecting historic software source code as an artifact for future generations to analyze and examine, rather than limiting the collection to the relevant documents and background information for these products.
Significant background materials for this special issue of the Annals were gathered at a PC Software conference organized by the Software History Center and held in Needham, Massachusetts, in May 2004. That lively conference afforded an opportunity not only for historians and practitioners to interact, but also for the software pioneers themselves to mutually discuss their different perspectives on events. There were certainly disagreements among them (and with the historians!), but as participants in that meeting, we can say that all agreed that the 10-year period following the introduction of the Altair computer was one of the most exciting in the history of computing, and everyone felt fortunate to have been part of it.
The workshops and interviews at the conference were transcribed and carefully edited by the interviewers and meeting organizers as well as by Louise O'Donald and Carol Anne Ances; we owe a great debt to all of these participants. The transcriptions of these oral history interviews and transcripts of the workshops either are or will be available at http://www.cbi.umn.edu and http://www.computerhistory.org. We hope that participants and readers both will find the results not only accurate but also as fascinating as we found them.