WordPerfect and Bruce Bastian set the template for all word processors to come

Word Processor
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

When Bruce Bastian, the co-inventor of WordPerfect, died this week, it sent me back more than 30 years to when there was a legion of DOS-based word processing applications, and then there was WordPerfect – the only one that mattered.

Even though I once traveled to meet with WordPerfect in Utah (near its Orem headquarters), for the launch of WordPerfect for OS/2, I don't think I ever met Bastian. By 1994, he'd sold the company and moved on to become an LGBTQ activist. Still, he built WordPerfect with Alan Ashton, whom I did meet in passing, and what they created wrote the script for virtually every word processing app to come.

When I arrived at PC Magazine in 1991, one of my earliest tasks was to review a DOS-based word processor known as Textra. It's long gone now, but I do recall that I tried to compare its threadbare features with the more powerful WordPerfects and Microsoft Word for DOSes of the world.

Back then even Microsoft was chasing WordPerfect, but that would soon change thanks to Windows 3.1, the first broadly usable version of Windows, and the first X86 GUI to finally attract software developers in large numbers to Microsoft's platform.

Soon, every software company that visited my office was showing or promising Windows versions, including WordPerfect. Microsoft released the first version of Word for Windows in 1989, not that anyone cared at the time. Until Windows 3.1, the dominant platform for word processing was still DOS. WordPerfect dragging its heels almost made sense – until it didn't.

As the PC world shifted to Windows, they also looked for GUI-based word processors that could run on the platform, and Microsoft was only too happy to oblige with Word and then Microsoft Office.

WordPerfect via WinWorld

Thsi image of an original WordPerfect for DOS screen comes from WinWorld (https://winworldpc.com/) (Image credit: WinWorld)

WordPerfect answered in kind, but always seemed two or more steps behind. It was always ostensibly the better product. It had reveal codes that let you view the formatting and structure of documents at an almost programmatic level. It was the king of keyboard shortcuts, which meant you could use many of its features without touching a menu. It was a pioneer in 'groupware' and email integration. For years the company provided unlimited, toll-free product support. In PC Magazine's Service and Reliability studies, WordPerfect regularly bested Microsoft Word.

It's telling, though, that WordPerfect invested so heavily in an IBM OS/2 version of its software suite. That moribund platform, which many considered more advanced and better than Windows, was doomed almost from the start. It never built a sizable user base, and quickly faded from view. But WordPerfect had invested millions in developing software for it, even though, by 1993, it had already lost its word-processing pole position to Microsoft Word. I remember the excitement at the WordPerfect for OS/2 launch event. Most at the company believed they were at the start of something big, the moment when WordPerfect would recapture its former glory,

I felt like I was at a funeral.


Yes, you can still buy WordPerfect (Image credit: WordPerfect)

Two years later, Corel bought WordPerfect. At the time, Corel made some of the most popular image-editing and digital illustration software in the world. Ultimately, it didn't fare much better than WordPerfect.

Remarkably, WordPerfect persists. It's now owned by Alludo, and you can still buy the suite. The reality, though, is that relatively few know of or remember WordPerfect, although it might be argued that among modern word-processing platforms, none is quite as dominant as WordPerfect was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sure, Microsoft Word is popular, but Google Docs might now be equally so. I don't even know if people nerd out about word processing in the way we did back in the 90s. Back then, your word processor of choice was like the Hogwarts House you belonged to. WordPerfect definitely felt like the place for Hufflepuffs. Microsoft Word had, back then, a bit of Slytherin in it.

My point is that whatever word processor you use today, it owes much to what Bastian and Ashton built so many decades ago. The modern word processor is a reflection of their early dream, and we should offer quiet thanks to the memory of Mr Bastian.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.