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Sunday, March 4, 2018

History of wordprocessors and spread sheets

Word processors, spreadsheets and databases are everywhere today. Modern economy would break down otherwise if going back to pencil and paper. Makes one wonder how economy was able to exist before the event of computer programs doing the tedious work for us. Here's the short but incomplete history of how it all began. More, how so often not the first software of its kind made the big money but these being improved, or just clever advertised.

It's the 1970s and computers were found only in large companies and universities. Enthusiasts had virtually no change to get their hands on one unless being in one of these universities or large firm. In offices you had typewriters, if lucky an IBM Selectric. While there was Tipex and other methods to correct already printed text it was tedious and cost time. A good typist could probably type 100 letters in the time needed to correct the mistake. To have an electronic word processor would be nice, but that only existed in large companies. Otherwise you had line editors. Early programs such as ed would actually only show one line.

The ground for electronic word processors was laid 1975 when MITS pushed the Altair 8800 on the market. Even though it was merely a box filled with electronics but without keyboard or monitor computer nerds went nuts being able to finally own their personal computer.

Two years later the first real home computers entered the market and kicked off the home computer revolution. Named 1977  Trinity by the BYTE magazine, the Radioshack Tandy TRS-80, the Commodore PET and the Apple 2, all of which came with a keyboard and monitor or could be attached to one. Now software companies saw huge potential and wrote many application for the various machines including word processors. It also produced the world's first Killer App when VisiCalc, one of the first electronic spreadsheets, entered the market. People and small offices who never used computers before bought an Apple ][ to be able to use VisiCalc.

The next leap happened 1981 when the Osborne Computer Corporation sold the first portable computer going by the name of Osborne 1. Well "e;portable" if one had strong arms to carry the some 30 pounds heavy box around. But you could do this if you wanted, put it into a plane to visit a company branch or attend a meeting. The hardware was not that amazing but the fact it was portable. May be more interesting was the office suite coming with it. The price for the software if bought separately would be almost as much what the Osborne 1 with it cost.

The software consisted of the WordStar word processor, the spreadsheet SuperCalc and databases, the program language BASIC and even a few games. While neither WordStar nor SuperCalc were the first of their kind. These were the already mentioned VisiCalc for the spreadsheet and Electric Pencil is widely regarded to be the first electronic word processor for home computers. The idea of bundling single software application into one suite and offer it with the hardware made this computer a runaway success.

Running WordStar on an Osborne 1 via emulator

While Microsoft focused since the mid 70s on selling their BASIC, which was shipped with almost every home computer from back of the day and in the 80s in creating MS DOS for the IBM PC it took them until 1990 to see the potential of bundled office software, although their word processor, spreadsheet and other components of the later Microsoft Office were available as separate products before that.

Running SuperCalc on an Osborne 1 via emulator

Note that I unfortunately do not own an Osborne I or other vintage hardware. Thus I emulate them with the M.A.M.E. emulator which not only allows to emulate long faded to obscurity hardware, but also most of the video arcade games in existence since 1975, when the first games ran on a CPU microprocessor.