How Did WordPerfect Go Wrong?

I don't know why, but over the last year readers have several times brought up a topic that is a something of an historic gripe - actually, in terms of the technology world, one that is ancient history. Why did WordPerfect - the word processing program beloved by so many loved in the DOS era - lose out to Microsoft Word? That has been the subject of some rather hot debate in my discussion boards this year,

I don't know why, but over the last year readers have several times brought up a topic that is a something of an historic gripe - actually, in terms of the technology world, one that is ancient history. Why did WordPerfect - the word processing program beloved by so many loved in the DOS era - lose out to Microsoft Word? That has been the subject of some rather hot debate in my discussion boards this year, even when it was considerably off topic.

The basic historic facts of the WordPerfect saga aren't in dispute. Early in the IBM PC era, Satellite Software's WordPerfect 4.X series supplanted WordStar as the most popular word processor, based largely on its macro capabilities, "reveal codes" feature, and the company's reputation for high-quality free support. But WordPerfect was late with its first Windows version, and then the bundling of Word with Microsoft Office on many PCs resulted in WordPerfect's sale - first to Novell, then Corel in 1996 - aimed at producing a competitive office suite. While retaining popularity in some markets, particularly legal circles, WordPerfect now generally gets little attention as a Word competitor compared to free software alternatives.

But there seems to be plenty of dispute about whether WordPerfect simply failed to compete or was a victim of Microsoft monopolistic practices. Some feel that deathblow the Office bundling dealt other productivity applications was just a real smart move on Microsoft's part. "I think Microsoft gets a lot of criticism that they DON'T deserve," wrote one reader. "I remember the days of Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Graphics and WordStar and GoldenGate, and life with MS Office is soooooooooo much better and more productive. All those open-source geeks wouldn't be nearly so effective if Microsoft hadn't thoroughly and clearly defined the target -- i.e., the user needs -- for them."

But others think Office allowed inferior Microsoft applications to win out over better products. "In reality, Office was a bit late to the party," wrote another reader. "While Word 2.x was failing to wow customers, Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and others were providing superior products. IMO, WordPerfect is still the superior product because it allows a savvy user to determine exactly where the formatting in a document is being adversely 'helped' by the application and allows deleting those control codes. Those were the leaders of the pack, Microsoft brought up the rear, then used FUD to crush them."

But another reader countered with a chronology of WordPerfect's self-inflicted wounds. "Frankly, WinWord 2.x was a great program, well ahead of its time, especially if you ran it on Windows 3.0/3.0a as opposed to 3.1x. WordPerfect 5.1 for Windows (Q4-1991) was a dismal failure -- totally unstable, not feature-laden, and it even used a DOS-based installation program! WordPerfect 5.2 (Q1-1992) was a massive bug-fix, albeit small & fast. WordPerfect 6.0 (Q4-1993) was another buggy piece of crap, but it showed potential. Only when WordPerfect 6.0a (April, 1994) came out was there something worthwhile on the Windows front. By mid-1994, 2 1/2 years after the first version of WordPerfect for Windows came out, was there something reasonably stable. But by then, the damage was done and MS-Office 4.2/4.3 was available."

Of course, others pointed out Microsoft didn't exactly make it easy for anyone to compete with its Windows applications. "MS Office crushed its competition for one reason and one reason ONLY -- undocumented application programming interfaces," wrote another reader. "WordPerfect ran into problems because they invested big-time in a new graphical product for the operating system Microsoft touted as the future -- OS/2 -- while Microsoft was busily writing a competing product using secret programming interfaces for their real operating system of the future - Windows. Microsoft created and exploited intentionally undocumented Windows capability to ensure that its competitors' products would run like a dog, thus ensuring MS Office was the only viable choice on Windows -- and of course locked users into Windows with monopolistic practices well-documented in the various lawsuits they lost. You are giving the wolf credit for the excellent taste of lamb chops."

There are other explanations, however. "WordPerfect indeed ran into trouble when it did not move quickly into the Windows environment," wrote an anonymous observer from WordPerfect's former neighborhood. "They had plenty of time to respond to it but chose not to for whatever reason they may have had. Their top two owners (49.5% ownership each) had cultural differences from each other that distracted them from paying attention to the future of the product at that time. They parted ways by selling the WordPerfect organization to Novell for about $700 million. WordPerfect's legendary support had begun to decline prior to that sale. By that time, many of their programmers and support people had been fired (some my close friends) and most offices were empty with the lights off. That was well over ten years ago."

One reader even took the position that WordPerfect's support model was a big factor in its undoing. "I remember when the gold-standard for support was WordPerfect Corp. They sold most of their product based on the great and FREE support they provided. They even provided support for people who stole their software. Look what happened to WordPerfect. They found the cost of support exceeded the gains found by providing it for free, and started charging. That was the end of the company since their software was by that time not the superior product."

Or does the real blame lay with IT managers, and their bosses, who couldn't say no to Redmond? "Back when Office 97 had been removed from all of the various computer magazine's recommended lists because it was so buggy, you could buy a server copy of WordPerfect for $1500, which allowed up to 255 users! And WordPerfect was stable and easy to use. When I complained about the decision in the government agency where I worked at the time to switch to Office 97, I was told 'It makes more strategic sense to align ourselves with Microsoft.' So, it makes sense to buy a product that was more expensive, buggier, and harder to use! These management types don't have the sense God gave crabapples. They used to say that nobody was ever fired for buying IBM. Now it's MickeySoft. We definitely need to be using other products -- ANY other products."

What do you think? Post your comments about this story below.