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World's Longest-Using WordPerfect Author Abandons WordPerfect After 30 Years

Gary North
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Feb. 22, 2011

The story of WordPerfect illustrates the history of microcomputing, and how a dominant company that fails to keep up with technology fades into the sunset. Price competition erodes its profitability. Rival products keep getting more powerful and cheaper -- even free. A younger generation of users ignores the old brand, and existing users either die off or switch when a new generation of cheaper, better software appears.

My story illustrates this relentless process. I held out longer than anyone else.

I began using WordPerfect 1.0 in late 1980, within a month or two of its release. The program was produced by Satellite Software International (S.S.I.). The last time that I used a typewriter to write a book was in July 1980. Since then, I have written over 40 volumes. I have also written something in the range of 2,000 newsletters and articles using WordPerfect. (The 7,000+ articles on GaryNorth.com I wrote mainly with my site's program.)

For my books, I was still using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS until late last year, when my 1995 Dell computer finally died.

I did my own book typesetting after 1989. I used WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS until 1999, and WordPerfect 8 for Windows thereafter.

When I began, WordPerfect 1.0 sold for 7,500 1980 U.S. dollars, or so I recall -- in the range of $19,000 today. I still have the manual. It is under 40 pages, printed out in dot matrix. The program ran on a used $25,000 Data General minicomputer, which required a $600 a month service contract. Multiply these figures by 2.5.

I typed in my office. The wires to the computer ran across the street alongside the city's electrical wires (illegal, I suppose) to a house where the computer was. Primitive? You bet!

The typewriter was far cheaper. Early adapters overpay. But I got used to using WordPerfect, and that shaped the next 30 years of my career.

The I.B.M. PC appeared in August 1981. It sold for under $2,000. I did not buy one until late 1982, as soon as WordPerfect 2.20 was made available for the IBM PC. It sold for $495. I immediately bought an IBM PC and a copy of WordPerfect. It was better than S.S.I., though basically the same.

I got rid of the Data General. So did everyone else. The era of the minicomputer was ending.

The big breakthrough in version 2.20 was the use of the IBM function keys. That made the program a writer's delight. It was designed for function keys down the left, where they belong. I became addicted to WordPerfect and the clickety-clack keyboard. When the industry shifted to function keys across the top, I dug in. I have collected nine PC AT keyboards. I hope at least one will outlast me.

WordPerfect was the dominant word processor in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Word for Windows overtook it. In this century, WordPerfect became a niche product.

It has one overwhelming advantage. On request, it lets you see the control codes on a page. You can repair things that don't look right or act right. That feature keeps Corel's WordPerfect X5 in the running. But at $55 from Amazon, it is not a very profitable product.

In the 1980s, there was a cottage industry: publishing 600-page manuals on popular programs. The Dummies books empire began with DOS for Dummies. Today, there are few such manuals. The software firms offer a short PDF file to print out.

Everything relies on the Help files. These are incomplete. They are not a major focus of attention by the companies. Techies are not committed to producing beta-tested Help files and then making continual revisions.


I found a major problem in X5. I am in a position to know. I have been using the Windows version to typeset my books for over a decade.

To perform a crucial function, there is a hidden toolbar in WordPerfect X5. But there is no section in the Help file on activating this hidden toolbar. It is mentioned, but there is no instruction.

I decided to ask for help. Understandably, free help is not free to software firms. It is a loss producer. The retail profit margins are too low. A $495 program in 1982 was what a $1,500 program is today. There is not much room for customer support.

I created a hidden page on my site that described the problem, including screen shots from the defective Help entries. I included a link to this page in my request to customer support. It's here: http://www.garynorth.com/public/7636.cfm.

When a user finds a major glitch in the Help file, and he warns the company's customer service department, the department ought to assign a staffer to fix the Help file. It also should also have another staffer post a reply on the customer's support page: "Go through these three steps to activate the toolbar you need." But WordPerfect did not do this.

One staffer told me I had to supply my program's registration number. I did. That was the last time anyone in customer support responded.

Corel could charge for customer support. It doesn't. It wants to maintain the illusion that there is free customer support.

This has come at the right time. Scrivener is almost ready for Windows.

So, I say goodbye to WordPerfect updates after three decades. It was a powerful tool that changed the way I write. In the first week that I used WordPerfect 1.0, my output doubled. I have never have had a more startling increase in my output.

I will still use WordPerfect X5 for simple tasks, such as writing a short article. But for typesetting, Adobe's InDesign is now dominant. That is what I will use from now on.

WordPerfect competes against Microsoft Office (dominant) and Open Office (free). It will keep its niche, based on its declining installed base of users, but it is otherwise a dinosaur, just as I am. The "reveal codes" option is a great one, but Corel never mentions this in its marketing.

So, I leave WordPerfect with an old Woody Guthrie chorus.

So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along.

Yet Corel could make the product profitable. It won't, but it could. I have written an article on how the company could do this.

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