Microsoft Word Comes of Age

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2007-01-04

Microsoft Word Comes of Age

Microsofts ubiquitous word processing program, Microsoft Word, celebrates its 18th birthday in 2007, having successfully wended its way through the growing pains of childhood and challenges of adolescence.

Word essentially started as a product known as "Bravo," which was brought to Microsoft in 1981 by Charles Simonyi,who is regarded by many as the father of Word, from Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center.

Microsofts official Word development team was given the green light in 1982, and the first version was released in 1983 featuring the "WYSIWYG" (What You See Is What You Get) design philosophy, a Microsoft spokesperson told eWEEK.

But the application was not officially released as Word for Windows until 1989, which is the date Microsoft regards as its birthday.

The latest version of the product, Microsoft Office Word 2007, will be released to consumers and small businesses at the end of January, along with the 2007 Microsoft Office suites and Windows Vista.

There are currently more than 450 million Microsoft Office users worldwide, the spokesperson said.

eWEEK Labs says Office 2007 breaks some new ground. Click here to read more.

Microsoft Word grew up in a word-processing market that had more than 300 different titles on multiple platforms, but it was among the earliest applications to appear on OS/2 and Apples Macintosh computers, in addition to versions for MS-DOS, she said.

Early programs such as Electric Pencil gave way to WordStar, WordPerfect and other brands, but Words official release in 1989 was two years ahead of the delivery of WordStar and WordPerfect. Within five years, Word was able to claim a 90 percent share of the word-processing market, the spokesperson said.

WordPerfect will support the Open Document Format and Microsofts Open XML. Click here to read more.

One Microsoft executive, corporate vice president Peter Pathe, has been parenting Word since its infancy.

He joined Microsoft in 1991 to manage the development of the TrueType font system, and in 1993 he moved to head the Word Business Unit in Microsofts Desktop Applications Division.

Under his watch, revenues for the business had more than tripled to over $2 billion annually by 1997, and Microsoft Word was the most popular word processing software, the spokesperson said.

Word also made technical gains, being able to browse and edit documents directly from the World Wide Web by 1994 and, in 1995, a single version of Word replaced the many individual language versions previously shipped.

This, along with native support of Unicode character sets and device-independent page layout, let users share e-mail and word processing documents online around the world, she said.

Next Page: The role of word processing.

Role of Word Processing

Pathe is upfront about what word processing is and the role it plays, saying: "Word processing is basic. Whenever a new computing platform emerges, one of the first applications and often the first application to appear is the word processor."

Over time though, ease of use became as important, even more important in some cases, than any particular word processing feature, with consistency and compatibility with Excel and the other Office applications becoming the new customer expectation, he said.

Personal productivity also had to be enhanced with collaboration and workgroup capabilities.

"The graphical versions of Word are almost iconic in the world of modern computer application software. In many ways I think Word helped to shape peoples expectations of what productivity applications were all about," Pathe said in an interview with Microsofts PressPass.

To read more about how the launch of Vista will spur a wave of innovation, click here.

"Being early supporters of the Mac did a lot to establish that sensibility in the development team, and it continued into the work on Word for Windows," he said.

Asked about some of the milestones achieved along Words path to adulthood, Pathe cites tool bar buttons, print preview, background spelling and grammar checking, auto-correct and creating a table with the pencil and eraser icons as among them.

Looking forward, Pathe says that along with new user interface design in Office 2007, Word will have a new menu design that makes it easy to access the most commonly used commands.

"Weve also really worked on the formatting capabilities in Word 2007. We have the new Quick Styles and Document Themes that help users to quickly change the appearance of text, tables and graphics throughout the entire document, and the new SmartArt diagrams and a new charting engine that make it pretty easy to create 3D graphics, transparencies, drop shadows and other effects," he said.

Microsoft is using a Web-based comic strip to try to convince consumers that the new Ribbon-based user interface found in Office 2007 is an innovation they can benefit from. Click here to read more.

The new Document Inspector protects people from making information errors much the way spell check protects them from spelling errors. The inspector looks for personal information, along with tracked revisions, and alerts users to their presence.

Microsoft had also spent a lot of time over the past decade working on making Word a platform for Web-based and collaborative processes. Word has been tightly integrated with SharePoint, while protections and rights have been added to the document.

The program also supports HTML and HTTP, XML templates, and other Web-based protocols.

"A very important development in Word and Office 2007 is the support for Open XML file formats. The specifications for these have been submitted for approval as ISO standards and will enable Word to be used in whole new ways, including the information processing scenarios you are asking about," he said.

Read more here about how Microsoft has hit back at its Open XML critics.

While Pathe acknowledges that "we didnt always get things right," one thing was clear: Word needed to be easier to use and the features more accessible to more people.

Referring to the notorious "Clippy," which was dropped for Office XP, Pathe said "it turns out a cartoon paper clip asking if you wanted help with that letter to Mom wasnt always as welcome as we had hoped it would be."

Pathe, who is retiring from Microsoft, is upbeat about the future for both Word and Office, saying that "Im reminded of the story of the closing of the U.S. Patent Office around the turn of the 19th century because there was nothing left to invent. Well, the patent office is still open and the Word team is getting ready to start work on the next version. I cant tell you what they are up to, but Im sure it is going to be great."

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