Wednesday, February 6, 2008

WordStar: The First Real Word Processor

"I am happy to greet the geniuses who made me a born-again writer, having announced my retirement in 1978, I now have six books in the works and two [probables], all through WordStar." Quote from Arthur C. Clarke on meeting Seymour Rubenstein and Rob Barnaby, the inventors of Wordstar.

WordStar was the first real word processor, built in assembly language back in the days of CP/M (and later ported to DOS). It was quick, it had a great interface, and it did just about everything that the computers of the day were capable of.

Released in 1979 by Micropro International, WordStar was the first commercially successful word processing software program produced for microcomputers and the best selling software program of the early eighties.

Seymour Rubenstein first started developing an early version of a word processor for the IMSAI 8080 computer when he was director of marketing for IMSAI. He left to start MicroPro International Inc. in 1978 with only $8,500 in cash.

Software programmer Rob Barnaby was convinced to leave IMSAI and tag along with Rubenstein to join MicroPro. Rob Barnaby wrote the 1979 version of WordStar for CP/M. Jim Fox, Barnaby's assistant, ported (meaning re-wrote for a different operating system) WordStar from the CP/M operating system to MS/PC DOS.

It was the most feature-rich and easy-to-use word processor available for this operating system, and became a de facto standard. In 1981 WordStar version 2.26 was bundled with the Osborne 1 portable computer. Notably, WordStar was the last commercial word processor supporting the CP/M operating system. Release 4, the final CP/M compatible version, was sold with 5¼" floppy disk as a default, and an 8" version as an option.

The 3.0 version of WordStar for DOS was released in April 1982. The DOS version was very similar to the original, and although the IBM PC featured arrow keys and separate function keys, the traditional "WordStar diamond" and other Ctrl-key functions were retained, leading to rapid adoption by former CP/M users. WordStar's ability to use a "non-document" mode to create text files without formatting made it popular among programmers for writing code.

The first DOS version was a direct port of the CP/M version, and therefore only used 64K of RAM even though DOS supported up to 640K. Users quickly learned they could make this version of WordStar run dramatically faster by using the ability of DOS to create a "RAM disk" in memory, and copy the WordStar program files into it. WordStar would still access the "disk" repeatedly, but the far faster access of the RAM drive compared to a floppy disk yielded a substantial speed improvement. However, edited versions of a document were "Saved" only to this RAM disk, and had to be copied to physical magnetic media before rebooting.

By the mid-1980s WordStar was the most popular word processing software in the world. But IBM dominated the "dedicated word processor" market with its "DisplayWrite" application, which ran on machines dedicated to writing and editing documents. There were many dedicated word processing machines at the time, but IBM's main competition was Wang Laboratories. Such machines were expensive and were generally accessed through terminals connected to central mainframe or midrange computers.

When IBM announced it was bringing to market a PC version called "DisplayWriter," MicroPro focused on creating a clone of it which they marketed as "WordStar 2000." Neither program was as successful as its developers had hoped, and the lack of attention MicroPro had paid to the original WordStar in the meantime, coupled with WordStar 2000's poor support for WordStar formats and keystrokes, had allowed competing products an opportunity to take over market share. WordPerfect, in particular, used the same key sequences as the popular Wang line of dedicated word processor computers, which made it popular with secretaries switching from those to PCs.

MicroPro International restructured as WordStar International and rehired many of the WordStar programmers who had left the company during the WordStar 2000 diversion, and in October 1986 acquired the code for NewWord, a WordStar clone with extended capabilities, written principally by Peter Mierau at his company NewStar. WordStar used the NewWord codebase to produce upgraded versions, adding such long-desired features at an unerase and distinctive on-screen colorization for bold, italics, and other print effects. The first version built on the NewWord codebase was dubbed WordStar (or WordStar Professional 4.0) and it was released for DOS and CP/M operating systems. Later versions -- 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, and 7.0 -- were only released for DOS; the new releases rebuilt some of the lost market share.

An internal struggle between the "old timer" developers of version 6.5 (aimed at Microsoft Word users), and the "young turks" working on version 7.0 (aimed at WordPerfect users), led to the former product being scrapped and the latter product released years ahead of its originally scheduled launch date; 7.0 Revision D, released in December 1992, was the final DOS version of the program.

Like many other producers of successful DOS applications, WordStar International delayed before deciding to make a version for the commercially successful Windows 3.0. The company purchased Legacy, an existing Windows-based word processor, which was altered and released as WordStar for Windows in 1991. It was a well-reviewed product and included many features normally only found in more expensive desktop publishing packages. However, its delayed launch meant that Microsoft Word had already firmly established itself as the corporate standard during the two previous years.

WordStar is no longer developed, maintained or sold by its owners; it is effectively abandonware. It is currently the property of Riverdeep, Inc., an education and consumer software company headquartered in San Francisco, California.

WordStar is still actively used by several hundred members of the WordStar Users Group Mailing List. They provide technical support for each other via the long-running mailing list which started in May 1996 and has continued to this day without interruption (but with one major move from Cuenet to WordStar2 in 2003). There are also free downloads of updated macros and scripts, printer and mouse drivers, and other utilities on the WordStar Users Group web pages.

"In the early days, the size of the market was more promise than reality... WordStar was a tremendous learning experience. I didn't know all that much about the world of big business. I thought I knew it" Quote from Seymour Rubenstein the inventor of WordStar.

WordStar is copyrighted and can not be freely distributed. Anyway you can download a free word-star clone software (available both for OS/2 and Windows) from

For more WordStar resources, visit

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