Home Computer: Finding the key to success

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The Independent Online
WORDPROCESSING is the most basic activity on a personal computer - much as the industry would hate to think of its products as highfalutin typewriters, writes Nigel Willmott.

But the ability to type in words and save them, then edit and correct documents or all kinds, from letters to encylopedias, without having to retype great chunks remains the greatest attraction.

Word processors have gone through several generations, becoming more and more complex as computers have become more powerful. Along the way there have been several 'classics', admirably fitted to the technology of their time - and often by-passed as it has advanced.

Perhaps the first true classic was Wordstar 3.3, which worked on PC Dos machines with as little as 128 kilobytes of main memory - about 32 times as much, 4 megabytes, is now standard. Wordstar distributed the control keys - to move the cursor, delete words, lines and so on - in a 'star' shape on the then standard typewriter keyboard. You held down the 'control' key to turn the ordinary letter key into an instruction key. This was, for the time, a great advance ease of use.

However, when keyboards with separate 'function keys' - usually an extra row at the top - were introduced, Wordstar never really found a successful formula again, despite now being on version 7.

Two programs dominated the next generation of PCs, with more memory and hard disks. Word 4 from Microsoft used the keyboard's escape key to switch the keyboard from inputting text to inputting instructions, with an instruction 'menu' permanently at the bottom of the screen. Word 4 also allowed the screen to be split, so two documents could be on screen at the same time, and let the user set up 'style sheets' - pre-determined sets of type sizes, styles, paragraph indents and so on, which could be applied to any document, saving vast amounts of work on complex documents.

But the real classic of this generation, was WordPerfect 4.1, which gave the company the position it still retains as market leader. WordPerfect's great advantage over Word was its 'clean screen' - a screen clear of instruction menus which could be quickly called up when needed by pressing the function keys. This separation of keyboard functions seems to have suited the vast army of corporate secretaries and administrators rapidly converting to wordprocessing.

Microsoft came back with its own classic for the next generation of PCs, running Windows, the company's graphics-based operating system. Word for Windows, was, not surprisingly, able to use Windows to full effect, particularly point- and-click operation of the program, using a mouse with on- screen 'drop down menus'; 'multitasking' - having several programs running at once in different parts of the screen; and 'wysiwyg' editing, displaying the document on screen as it would look when printed.

Even so, many corporate users stayed with WordPerfect 5, both because of the cost of retraining and its familiarity and ease of use. However, with Windows becoming the standard PC operating system and new Windows-based programs like Ami Pro chipping away at the market, the pressure was on for WordPerfect to find its own 'wysiwyg' offering.

The unsatisfactory WordPerfect for Windows 5.2 was only a stopgap. WordPerfect 6 gives up the attempt to work with Windows and instead operates with its own graphical user interface. The program can operate in traditional text-only mode for fast text input, plus the user can also work in graphics mode, which shows how the text will look in the chosen sizes, styles and formats when printed.

The trouble is, it in effect duplicates Windows. Its success will depend on whether users find that wasteful and migrate to Word for Windows. There are now two 'classic' wordprocessors battling head to head to inherit the crown.

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