It doesn’t quite rank with presidential assassinations or exploding space shuttles, but I still remember when I first saw Microsoft Word demonstrated, at a store called ComputerLand back in in the mid 80s. It’s hard to believe there was actually a time when Word wasn’t as ubiquitous as air, but I’m here to say there was such a time — a time when Bill Gates’s dreams of global domination were known to but a few. A time when Apple’s market share could still be expressed in double digits. A time, in short, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
I think it was an SE the salesman used — my memory of the demo is hazy — but he capped it off with something I’ll never forget: Page Preview. “You can see how the page will look before it prints,” he said breathlessly. I stared at the diminutive clumps of pixels on the screen, neatly confined in squiggly little rows inside a white rectangle representing a piece of paper. I was struck dumb — I might as well have been watching the risen Christ. By the time the test print came off the tractor feed I was a believer.
Then as now, the world teemed with steely-eyed business types who thought Steve’s Apple was just an expensive toy. Yet somehow, amazingly, the little boot-up Mac (please Steve, bring him back) smiled his way into the cracks of the corporate firmament, like blades of grass infiltrating concrete. Equally amazing, I found myself gainfully employed at some of these same companies, and whether or not it was in the job description, I gravitated toward the Macs, doing as much of my admin work on them as I legitimately could. Most of these Macs, coincidentally, came with Microsoft Word installed. My journey with Word had begun in earnest.
That journey was still young when I first thought about leaving the Microsoft fold. My motives were not ideological. When it came to platform politics, Microsoft wasn’t the enemy — IBM was. At the time I was the proud owner of an Apple Lisa refurb from Sun Remarketing. I’d ponied up a sum of money too embarrassing to mention here for a 5MB Apple ProFile external hard disk, which was loud enough to shatter fine crystal at twenty paces and big enough to store a shoulder-mounted Stinger. I was also a generally-satisfied user of Word 3.x, having by that time invested untold hundreds of hours of my life learning its quirks and crannies.
But all it took was one look at a slick full-color ad from a company called Ann Arbor Softworks touting a new high-end word processor, FullWrite, and I was ready to ditch Word on the spot. FullWrite did amazing things — it had a built-in drawing module, text wrap around irregularly-shaped objects, annotation, outlining, hell, it italicized the cursor when you moused over italicized text — none of which Word could do, and none of which I can honestly remember desiring before I saw that ad. No matter. I wanted to do those amazing things, now that I knew they could be done.
I pined for FullWrite’s greener pastures. And pined. And pined. Month after month the same pitchman imbued with the same sublime glow of the annointed (a result of exposure to the perfect consumer product) smiled out at me from the pages of MacUser and MacWorld promising nirvana. “Wait,” he said. “Don’t buy Microsoft Word.” “I won’t,” I promised (cue Jeopardy theme – set loop duration for two years). It must have been the 1987 year-end issue of MacUser or MacWorld – or both – where I first saw the term “vaporware”.