In defense of Wordstar

Over at Ars Technica, there’s a thread expressing horror and dismay that the Navy is using WordStar in some of its departments–or, for that matter, that anyone alive is using WordStar.

Which leads me to ask, have any of these critics seen WordStar?

WordStar is a relic from an era when software was art. It had tons and tons of features and it was fast on any computer. By fast, I mean it loaded in seconds and did everything but print in a fraction of a second (the speed of your printer was beyond its control). It did things on pathetically slow computers that Word does on really fast computers.

Unfortunately, people look at older software today and generally just say, “WordStar sucks” and go talk up Microsoft. And I admit, on today’s keyboards, WordStar’s keystrokes aren’t exactly intuitive. But look at the keyboards that were in use when WordStar came into being, and you suddenly realize the genius that went into its design.

Is it WordStar’s fault that IBM moved the control key and the rest of the industry followed?

(Historical note: In the early days of computing, the control key was usually located where the caps lock key is located now, either occupying the full space, or sharing that space with caps lock. Most early keyboards had a limited number of function keys and page navigation keys–you considered yourself lucky if you got four arrow keys. The 26 letters, 10 numbers, basic math symbols and punctuation were about all you got. You often got a numeric keypad–computers were supposed to replace calculators, after all–but often you had a very limited number of function keys. And in the early days of WordStar, there was no standard for keyboard layout. The wonder was that they came up with a keyboard mapping for their commands that made any sense at all.)

And yes, a lot of the later packages that bore the WordStar name were junk. The original brilliance of Seymour Rubenstein and Jim Fox was lost on the later versions, and the so-called “WordStar for Windows” had nothing to do with the DOS classic.

I heard a rumor once that Jim Fox was such a brilliant assembly language programmer and some of the tricks he used were so ingenious that after he had surgery, his mind was altered ever so slightly and even he couldn’t understand some of the tricks he’d used. It’s probably an urban legend, but it sure would explain the convoluted genealogy of WordStar after 1985.

Why’s the Navy still using a word processor with a copyright date in the early 1980s? For the same reason a lot of newspapers still use XyWrite in their newsrooms. The software is just as capable of doing the job today as it was the day it was first bought. Retraining users can be difficult and expensive. Some departments are too busy doing real work to make time to train users on newer software and deal with the lost productivity asociated with being less familiar with your new tool than you were with your old one. Older software will run on any computer you throw at it–software that was fast on a 10-MHz Turbo XT will absolutely fly on a 386 or 486, let alone any Pentium.

Keeping old software running can be a pain, and the legality of it can be difficult. There can also be security issues. But there can be compelling reasons for doing so.

But it’s a whole lot easier to just let Microsoft’s marketing department do your thinking for you than it is to consider such questions.

3 thoughts on “In defense of Wordstar

  • October 21, 2002 at 4:50 am
    Permalink

    Going against the grain of conventional thinking is pretty hard.

  • October 21, 2002 at 4:25 pm
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    Sounds remarkable like Naval Security Group. When I retired in 1998 we were still using Word Perfect.

    I have trouble with MS Word. It’s not as flexible as WP is to me.

    When I bought my Gateway in 99, I actually went and purchased WP for it.

  • October 23, 2002 at 8:32 pm
    Permalink

    comment Was a time Word Star was at least everybody’s second word processor with a lot of Borland software copying parts of the user interface.

    Last I knew the Dept. of Agriculture was using DOS based xbase (FoxPro) and DOS based Wordperfect to store price data and generate market newsletters to vendors for agricultural products – market clearing prices and quantities in major markets and at major ports of entry.

    I suspect all the 1’s and 0’s on my floppies have long since converged to the .5’s though.

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