back to article Word and Excel creator: How Gates, Jobs and HAL shaped Office

Films, according to Charles Simonyi – the man behind Microsoft's Word and Excel used by 500 million people – are great for showing the future of computing. Simonyi reckons Kubrick's seminal 2001 a Space Odyssey from the moon-landing days of 1969 foreshadows the kind of video calls now in Skype. Minority Report does much the …


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  1. Alistair Wall

    "today, people confuse the homonyms"

    "Simonyi was a programming protege "

  2. stucs201

    How .... HAL shaped Office

    Are you sure? I can see it now if they'd based Clippy on HAL:

    It looks like you're trying to open the pod bay doors. Would you like me to:

    Ignore your request?

    Attempt to murder you?

    Sing you a song while you dismantle me?

    1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

      Clippy based on HAL?

      I don't remember that scene in 2001...

      "Hi Dave, I see you are writing a letter to your mother, would you like me to totaly f**k it up for you"

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've always been a great admirer of Simonyi

    But I've never seen HAL's interface as having been WYSIWYG. Quite the reverse: it was all beautiful text based interfaces and wire-frame CAD like graphics. Not a paper-white screen in sight,

    It was always what my idea of a computer was as a kid, and turned out to be as a user, for many years.

  4. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

    I cheered when Wordperfect finally sank without trace...

    ... because the DOS version had the least friendly UI of just about anything I've ever used. Yes, even worse than Wordstar with its collection of dot commands borrowed from nroff. On start up the Wordperfect screen was entirely blank apart from a cryptic indication in the corner that you were at line 1 page 1, it required you to use a template to sort out its tangled mess of 4 shifts on the function keys and its idea of WYSIWYG was to stick with the same font but use colours to indicate italic, bold, etc. Some will tell you that its Reveal Codes mode was wonderful: I disagree. Essential, yes. Wonderful, no. In truth Reveal Codes was nothing but a debugger and was essential because it was all too easy to create an unprintable mess of misused formatting codes that could only be fixed with careful editing in Reveal Codes. Last but not least, the only way it could produce our company standard documents was with a large collection of custom macros that somebody had to write in house.

    Word 4.0 for DOS was 100% better: faster, fairly instinctive to use, and about as WYSIWYG as a 24x80 display could get. On-screen alignment etc was good, it could show italics, underlining and bold text on screen, and it was much faster than Wordperfect on the same PC. Company standard documents? Somebody took half a day to create a style sheet. Job done.

    The company I worked for at the time used both Word and Wordperfect: I never used Wordperfect if I could possibly avoid doing so.

    I disliked Win Word when it appeared because it was much slower than Word for DOS, but at least it worked reliably, which was far more than could be said for the Windows Wordperfect port.

    1. gerryg

      I think we've been around this buoy a couple of times, however...

      "I disliked Win Word when it appeared because it was much slower than Word for DOS, but at least it worked reliably, which was far more than could be said for the Windows Wordperfect port."

      Please see Novell v Microsoft

      Case history here:

      1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

        "Please see Novell v Microsoft" - Why?

        That was me reporting what I experienced at the time. IIRC we couldn't even persuade WPW to read a document we'd written a year or so previously with WP for DOS.

        1. gerryg

          "Please see Novell v Microsoft" - Why?

          Because whether or not it turns out to be another illegal anti-competitive act, WPW was screwed over by Microsoft. Microsoft emails and other material are on the record.

          You might say you don't care, WPW was rubbish. OTOH you might consider the well known expression "fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me"

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      I get the feeling you never really did try to get "into the program" and thus were left of disliking it.

      What you call an unfriendly GUI I recognized as something very slick to work with. I do agree that WordPerfect had a steep learning curve, but I think its a little silly to call the program bad just because it didn't work for /you/.

      Considering how its main function was word/text processing and the fact that you use the keyboard in this process most of the time I think its pretty straight forward that all commands can / should be entered on that same keyboard. In those days the mouse was often more some kind of distraction than anything else. Instead you could keep your hands where they were in the first place.

      As to the screen... Why waste precious space with markers and such when you don't need to ? They kept as much room left for the text you were working with as possible.

      Word was easier to use back then, no question about it. It was fully aimed at getting people up & running without having to learn the program. However, what WordPerfect might have lacked in userfriendlyness it more than double made up in speed and power.

      But like so many things; you need to know how to use a tool in order to really appreciate it.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        I have never encountered a more powerful and versatile writing tool as WordPerfect. I miss it greatly.

        As you say, you had to use it and know it intimately to really get the full benefit. F-Keys were your friend.

        I used to make a good living writing WP Macros and had it set up to output PostScript files to a DOS hotfolder where they would be instantly converted to PDF's via GhostScript. It did typographic ligatures automatically and its line and inter-character spacing was second to none. Hyphenation was perfect and it had an incredible equation editor. That and an installer for PostScript fonts and there wasn't anything else you needed as a professional writing tool. You *could* also switch on the ruler and have full mouse support as well if you wanted it.

        Very happy and productive days. I keep wanting to dig out the floppies but I no longer have a 5.25" floppy drive :(

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What an arse

    I suppose it's good to be reminded that not all the computer pioneers were smart.

    1. Goat Jam


      I gave up when he asserted that the world was a better place because of Windows.

      I guess when you've been gulping koolaid for 30 years you get used to the taste.

      People with a clue however recognise the enormous damage done to the IT industry by Microsoft and their so called "Windows standard"

  6. gerryg

    Try 60 years earlier

    "Simonyi reckons Kubrick's seminal 2001 a Space Odyssey from the moon-landing days of 1969 foreshadows the kind of video calls now in Skype."

    1909, EM Forster,

    1. Colin Millar
      Thumb Up

      Not just Skype

      But social networking, self-reinforcing cliques and wilfully ignorant fanbois. Brilliant book.

    2. James Anderson

      ... Thunderbirds should claim prior art!

      gee Mr Tracy I er think we had the video calls first.

    3. Hardcastle the ancient
      Thumb Up

      ooh yes

      I was going to point out that there were video calls in 'cold comfort farm' but TMS trumps that, and does it well. Thanks for the reminder.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Real-world implementations, too

        And there was a working commercial video-call system before "2001" came out in '69, not just the various fictional predecessors: AT&T's Picturephone I, from 1964. So not only had the idea been around for at least six decades, but it's possible some of the people involved in the film had actually used the thing. (They weren't popular, partly due to expense and rarity, and partly because video calling is generally even more annoying than voice calling.)

        It's typical for someone like Simonyi - an expert in one area inflated by his successes - would wave about ill-conceived theories for other domains, like "films are great at predicting the future". I suspect rigorous study would show that films rarely offer any new (non-idiotic) predictions about the future; it's a medium that by its nature (because most films are developed by committee, and usually have a long development time, etc) tends to recycle ideas that are already securely in the culture.

  7. John 62

    Rayburn vs Aga

    Now there's a seed for a flamewar!

    1. Mystic Megabyte

      @Rayburn vs Aga

      Wick or coal burner?

  8. John 62

    Standardised Interface

    I know Office 2003 is old news now, but it really annoyed me when Simonyi said a standardised interface was best because presumably he was responsible for the loads of UI inconsistencies that trip me up between the different packages, even between Excel and Word, which don't even have the excuse Visio and PowerPoint had of being bought-in Johnny-come-latelies.

    And now everyone uses their phone as an alarm anyway, so they don't even think about having to use the clock-radio.

    1. Peter Simpson 1

      Ahh, VISIO!

      The red-headed stepchild of the Office suite. Not included, costs extra, and the keyboard and mouse shortcuts are more classic Visio (which was originally, I think, a DOS copy of MacDraw?) than MS Office. Meaning that nothing works the way you expect it to in Visio...

  9. Christian Berger


    WYSIWYG doesn't make any sense any more. There's no point in designing a document for printout. And this is essentially where "productivity software" fails.

    I think we have moved beyond that. People now understand that there are multiple views to the same set of data. After all that's essentially what social services and, to lesser extent, search engines provide you with.

    It is also the reason why Unix Power users like text files so much. You can simply turn them around and display the data in many different forms.

    One step above that are SQL databases which, after more setup, provide you with even greater data processing power, but lower system integration.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Uh... No.

      1. There's still LOTS of stuff that gets printed on a daily basis. I just got a package today. It has a label on it. Guess what? That label was printed so several humans could make sense of where the package needed to go. I'm sure at some point someone had to design that label in a WYSIWYG editor. I have a paper I'm writing; the complexity of the document is so great that I wouldn't want to have to wait until I'd printed it to find out if it looks right on paper. I'm having enough trouble with the printers not understanding how to print in grayscale as it is. And no, noone wants to read even the drafts of my paper on a computer.

      2. Even without paper WYSIWYG is still useful for anything humans are going to want to read. Most online forums and social networking sites depend on WYSIWYG editors to allow their users to get their point across. Guess what? El Reg uses one too... mostly... it doesn't work quite as well when replying to people, but it still shows you what you'll get when you click the submit button.

      3. Databases are great, but someone still needs to create the interface for it; and aside from the masochists that prefer to code the interface in Notepad (or its equivelent) the GUI will be drawn up in a WYSIWYG environment so that the designer can see what he's getting.

      WYSIWYG is about easily designing text, images and video on a screen so that they can be readily consumed by a reader. Until we don't need text, images or video anymore, we'll have a use for WYSIWYG environments. Maybe we'll do away with them once the computer can simply render whatever we imagine; then we'll be the WYSIWYG interface instead.

      1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

        Thousands of markup-language users say you're wrong, and they have the productivity and quality output to support it.

        And no, there's no reason to believe that shipping label you refer to was designed with a WYSIWYG process. Label-generating software can format text onto labels quite nicely without human intervention, given a small set of simple constraints (like how large the label is).

  10. Chemist

    "world is so much better off in having the Windows standard"

    Shouldn't that be -

    "Microsoft is so much better off with the world being forced to have Windows as standard" ?

  11. David Haig

    @John 62

    Rayburn - better for heating

    Aga - Better for CAKES!

    1. Wensleydale Cheese

      @David Haig

      "Rayburn - better for heating

      Aga - Better for CAKES!"

      You can't have your cake and heat it.

      I'll get my coat.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The tyranny of the mediocre

    Personally, I never use a spelling checker. I do make the odd misteak, of course, but most of the time I spot them before bonking that button. If it's really important, I might print a draft, leave it be for a while, then take a highlighter to it. I'm not the only one to prefer a non-wysiwyg environment to work in; cue story about people being forced to use this redmondian "office", out-producing everybody else, and when asked for their secret fess up to having taken vi to windows and writing everything in there, only to drop the finished work into word for the last touches at the end. That workflow naturally focuses you on getting the text written instead of tinkering with nonessentials and losing time to fooling around with the mouse. Even simply using notepad would be faster than having the thing update its shoddy layouting and typesetting every time you add a single character. It doesn't distract you, you get on with the job, and save the tinkering for last.

    "Most people" mightn't stand for it, of course. They've been thorougly conditioned to expect this "wysiwyg" thing. And it is useful, no doubt about that. But I think its usefulness is far more a corner case than the general use pattern has you believe. Most of the time the important part is getting the content of the text right, not its appearance. And for larger texts, it's far more efficient to mark elements with function ("heading", "subheading", "emphasis", and so on) and define what each should look like in one place, like at the top of the document. This is functionality that most people simply do not manage to get out of their software.

    I dare question this needs be the status quo. With a little less emphasis on "intuitive" and a little more training, more people could make use of such facilities by simple dint of being told that it's a good idea and this is how you do it. The same goes for spelling, of course. It's all very smrt to have the computer do it for you, but if it doesn't lend itself well to doing lots of things at once, and correcting probable spelling mistakes doesn't, but it does lull you in a false sense of having caught all mistakes, then it's not actually empowering you as much as it could be. It stays stuck at the level of a handier, fancier sort of typewriter, not a true automation tool.

    In the end, it doesn't really matter what it looks like when you write it down. It does matter what the finished product looks like, how it reads, what it says. Since most of the "communication" in business these days is about how badly we communicate, I think that whatever this wonderful wysiwyg software might be, it's not part of the solution to that. But it does make its vendor a pretty penny helping the world perpetuating the problem.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down


      ...90% of the population would never understand why they should learn LaTeX, when they can do it using Office/Word. "It is soo much easier, I can show you immediately", goes the argument. Most people can't even secure their Twitter account, but you expect them to remember LaTeX tags ??

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        That's circular reasoning, m'dear.

        I didn't say a thing about LaTeX, you do. Maybe it'll soothe your sensibilities to know that I'm not even using it myself?* To refute your objection, I'll point out that with a suitable editor** you can turn those tags into (shiny!) buttons just like micros~1 word has. You can see them sitting on the right there button bar, no need to remember them. Only they do something different than turning your text into comic sans right before your eyes.

        But really, the specific alternative is quite entirely irrelevant. If none of the existing solutions are good enough, we can always come up with new ones. The point here is to identify the problem.

        And the key to that is the workflow, not what the interface looks like. If it turns out your "90%" can be taught better using something else, well, we can write it. The point I was trying to make is that while people _can_ be taught (like they _have been_ taught to speak, maybe even to listen, and presumably their letters and numbers too), in this area we're not even trying, "because intuitive". Well, I say, that is probably a mistake.

        You point out it /looks/ to be much easier. That's the selling point. That's the "oh look it's intuitive". I say it puts a rather harsh cap on learning curve and productivity down the road, painting the "intuitive" thing a fallacy trap and a progress retardant. Learning is our human nature's greatest strength, and we're throwing it away by pretending we don't need to because the software rules us.

        This guy is tooting a loud horn about what a wonderful solution their clickibunti thing is, because it changed the kind of errors we still see in people's work. I say it's doing things that are more interesting to write as a programmer than that they're useful to have people use, and that other things that would really unleash the power of what a computer can do so much better than humans can, aren't offered by the touted software.

        That is, "we" are failing to capitalise on either us humans' or our computers' strengths. As such, there is room for us to do better. I say we should perhaps try to pursue that a bit more, eh.

        * Personally I'm using troff (groff really) because it comes with the base system and is enough for my needs, like typesetting letters and CVs and such. Lots of "write once, use often", including the embodiment of my "corporate identity design". Should I need to typeset the jumble and mix of weird shit that is mathematical formulae, I'll give LaTeX a whirl. There are others still.

        ** Now that you mentioned LaTeX anyway, I could point you to LyX, which gives LaTeX a nicer "WYSIWYG"-like face, which in turn already exists to give TeX a nicer face. If there is need to go on, well, we can.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What you get is what Microsoft wants you to get. I don't use Word: I fight with it, and all the damned stupid assumptions it makes that because I change one thing, I want a heap of other stuff to change. It is truly horrible.

    Excel, on the other hand is one of the best things to ever happen on a computer :)

  14. Lars Silver badge

    Are we here again

    Visicalc was the first spreadsheet, and appeared first on the Apple II+.

    Wonder what inspired them but Excel was inspired by Visicalc, simple as that.

    Word was inspired (a rip off) of previous "words", equally simple.

    So has Charles Simonyi lost his memory or something.

    1. James Anderson

      To be fiar to the Hungarian notary

      He was part of the team at PARC which which wrote the excellent word processor that came with the venerable XEROX star machines.

      This was one of the best word processors I have ever come across, they, just managed to get everything completely right first time around,

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        This seems painfully ironic.

        So he left a job where they happened to get the this particular wheel quite right the first time, for the king of reinventing wheels badly to, well, reinvent this particular wheel badly?

        It makes me curious as to what happened with that old code. If xerox'd release it as FOSS, would there be people mad enough to try and port it to what's available nowadays? Would it make sense to use it still? It seems interesting enough to simply try, even.

  15. Ant Evans


    2002 was a good time to leave. By then Office had achieved dominance by being easy for beginners to use, largely reliable, and free of annoying tics.

    That it is still not consistent (e.g. Ctrl-; or Ctrl-' do nothing outside Excel) is pretty damned annoying. But it never evolved beyond this base predictability. It really has had no new feature since 1997.

    The poverty of Microsoft's ambition is the most staggering thing about Office today. Office is dumb. It understands exactly nothing about what I am doing. If it were an employee it would be fired immediately. But why put lipstick on a cash cow? No wonder Simonyi chose to spend more time with his money.

    If anyone knows any productivity software that raises productivity, I'd love to hear about it.

    1. fzz

      To be fair to Excel, OLAP cube support in Excel 2000 and structured tables in Excel 2010 are significant features new since 1997. 2 steps forward. Then there's the new UI. 1 step back. Still, progress.

      1. B4PJS
        Thumb Up

        OLAP support is brilliant.

        Other things in 2010 that I like:



        The Ribbon (shock horror!)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "If anyone knows any productivity software that raises productivity"

      You have to ask? Have you tried anything else in the meantime?

      There is really quite a lot of stuff available. From the obvious ({Open,Libre}Office) though lesser-known things (abiword anyone? scribus? also plenty of commercial stuff like textmaker and friends) via different approaches (LyX as a LaTeX front for one, try JDarkRoom for another), through to typesetters that don't come with an interface (LaTeX, troff, lout, platypus) but go well with your preferred ("programmer's") editor. That's just a very few examples; wikipedia has the usual lists, including convenient "free" vs. "non-free" categorisation.

      That's just a very few things to write text with, though some of the above are "suites" that do more. There's lots of other things and tricks about; the question is too general to even begin to address it. So I'll end with some generic advice:

      Figure out what sort of workflow works best for you, then look for programs that might fit that. It's probably worth it to try a few things on a lark, too, to help you find out what you like best. Though a focus on "no distractions", gearing your workflow to get done what you want to get done, is the basic secret sauce. Knowing that Donald Knuth spent eight years away from writing his books to write better software to write his books with, just to address the limitations that annoyed him in what he was using before, should give you some perspective. Depending on the task it just might be a good idea to spend a couple hours or even days to find something that suits the task for you.

      And then there's the late EW Dijkstra, also a noted computer scientist, who switched back from typewriter to fountain pen to write is "EWD" memos with. For him, that was the right choice. I'm not saying it should be for you. I am saying that focusing on the task instead of the technology yields better choices.

  16. David Mery

    > the mouse, [...] - all ideas that emerged from PARC research

    Not so.

    Doug Engelbart was at SRI when he invented the mouse.

  17. Microphage

    Simonyi on the GUI windows standard

    > Films, according to Charles Simonyi – the man behind Microsoft's Word and Excel used by 500 million people – are great for showing the future of computing

    On telly the other night in the middle of "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra", up pops a "Norton Internet Security" logo, so I guess in the future "computers" will still get viruses.

    > Hubris also played its part as competitors blundered, giving Microsoft an edge as it delivered Windows. Lotus followed 1-2-3 with the clunky Jazz ..

    If that's true then why did Microsoft have to expend so much energy in sabataging Lotus on Windows.

    "Microsoft will offer PC Excel purchasers either $75 .. if they [destroy] Their Lotus 1-2-3 system disk"

    "I'd be glad to help tilt lotus into into the death spiral. I could do it friday afternoon"

    "There are certain things that Lotus cannot respond to in defending their position because of their overriding reliance on 1-2-3. Herein lies the opportunity .. The price cut with all the other programs is affordable"

    "Lotus' .. should not be invited to any more COM+ design previews"

    > WordPerfect .. was too rich to deliver a smooth WYSIWYG experience.

    I thought WordPerfect ran clunky because billg decided to hide the API extensions.

    "Its time for a decision on iShellBrowser .. I have decided that we should not publish these extensions .. We can't compete with Lotus and Wordperfect/Novell without this"

    > "The world is so much better off in having the Windows standard"

  18. Havin_it


    "These were almost luxury and non-existent features that became almost most standard. We were prep for that and we could accommodate them because that's what that's where we were shooting for. The hardware caught up and our software was success at cramming that functionality into smaller memory."

    OK, maybe that's a literal transcription of what he said, but come on! You're allowed to iron out mangled language, even that of a high muckamuck such as this guy.

    1. Displacement Activity


      The guy can't think straight or speak English. That, to me, says as much as the article itself.

  19. fzz

    MSFT won or Lotus lost?

    Never used either Word or WP under DOS. Lotus Development Corp was the bigger competitor in 'productivity' software, and was much more the focus of MSFT's attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. MSFT was lucky beyond belief that Lotus was a collectively stupid as it was.

    Lotus was focused (gross understatement) on the look-and-feel lawsuits against Mosaic and Paperback Software, protecting the crown jewels of its character mode interface. So much so that they didn't bother bringing to market a Windows version of 1-2-3 until a year after Windows 3.1 shipped. And their first Windows version was GARBAGE compared to their latest DOS version.

    They didn't have a serious Windows version until Release 4, which was 1 or 2 years after Excel 5 came out, and 1-2-3 Release 4 just had 'classic macros' while Excel 5 had VBA. Too little too late. By 1995 Lotus had become a former leading software company all because their top execs really did think their character mode interface was more valuable than Windows.

    Gary Kildall in his airplane, Jim Manzi in his court room - software legends.

  20. LionelB Bronze badge


    Can I be the first to big up (La)TeX, the nearest we've got to What You See Is What You Want.

    Sure, it's a precipitous learning curve (essentially it's a programming language) but the results for technical - particularly mathematical - document production are incomparable. Once mastered, it lets you get on with the job of producing content while it takes over the the typesetting and layout task - which it generally makes an excellent job of (the trick is not to fight it). And it's wildly extensible via macros.

    There have been some attempts to put a WYSIWYG face on LaTeX (e.g. LyX) but for me they rather miss the point.

    (Anyone here remember the appalling Word Equation Editor - does it still even exist?)

  21. Chronos

    The eyes, oh god the eyes!

    What is the reason behind Microsofties with that fanatic stare in all of their stock photos? Ballmer has the prototype too-scary version but they all seem to have it to some extent. The explanation would make a good article, I think...

    Please get it off the front page: It's frightening the dogs and is almost as bad as Billy G draped over an XT or Michael Dell's smug mush.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Wild speculation:

      They're secretly all scientologists.

  22. Schist

    Wordperfect was about Speed and Printer Drivers

    In the DOS days applications had to have their own printer support built into the Application. WordPerfect was without peer on this at the time. Having spend time with WordPerfect and then supporting Word for DOS with another company, I know which I'd have preferred.

    WordPerfect was fast and unfussy. At the time most WordProcessing was done by banks of typists and PA's rather than ordinary workers (who likely didn't have a computer at all)

    I remember scores of these people having a real problem with the switch to Word for Windows, primarily because the cursor couldn't keep up with their fast typing speed.

  23. Peter Simpson 1

    Word and Excel

    "For their shortcomings and challenges today... Simonyi maintains Word and Excel deserve their success. "It's hard to find fault with them realistically," he says."

    One word: "ribbon".

    I've just had the fortune to be "upgraded" from Office 2003 (which was working very well for me, thank you) to Office 2010 (finally met a file I couldn't read). I'm somewhat less than thrilled to have to re-learn the user interface, given that I thought there was nothing wrong with the prior version.

    There seems to be a trend (Ubuntu has done this, too) of making massive changes to UI design for no apparent reason but to be able to claim "NEW! SHINY!", and damn the users who have to spend time feeling their way around the new one.

    //copy of "Autobiography of Ned Ludd" in the pocket

  24. Richard Steiner

    People seem to forget that we can thank IBM for many of the consistent UI features found in Microsoft Windows.

    The IBM CUA (Common User Access) standard was used by Windows, OS/2, the Motif window manager, and a number of other graphical interfaces. Control-C and Control-V weren't MS creations ... they simply followed the standard of the time.

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