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Tracing the History of the Computer - History of Word Processors

 

A word processor (more formally a document preparation system) is a computer application used for the production (including composition, editing, formatting, and possibly printing) of any sort of printable material.

A word processor may also refer to a stand-alone computer unit similar to a typewriter, but often including technological advancements such as a screen, advanced formatting and printing options, and the ability to save documents onto memory cards or diskettes. Word processors almost invariably allowed the user to choose between standard typing and word processing modes by way of a switch. Such word processors should not be confused with an electric typewriter.

Word processors are descended from early text formatting tools (sometimes called text justification tools, from their only real capability). Word processing was one of the earliest applications for the personal computer in office productivity.

Although early word processors used tag-based markup for document formatting, most modern word processors take advantage of a graphical user interface. Most are powerful systems consisting of one or more programs that can produce any arbitrary combination of images, graphics and text, the latter handled with type-setting capability.

The days (2006) Microsoft Word is the most widely used computer word processing system; Microsoft estimates over five million people use the Office suite. There are also many other commercial word processing applications, such as WordPerfect. Open-source applications such as OpenOffice's Writer and KWord are rapidly gaining in popularity.

Characteristics

Word processing typically refers to text manipulation functions such as automatic generation of:

  • batch mailings using a form letter template and an address database (also called mail merging);
  • indices of keywords and their page numbers;
  • tables of contents with section titles and their page numbers;
  • tables of figures with caption titles and their page numbers;
  • cross-referencing with section or page numbers;
  • footnote numbering.
     

Other word processing functions include "spell checking" (actually checks against wordlists), "grammar checking" (checks for what seem to be simple grammar errors), and a "thesaurus" function (finds words with similar or opposite meanings). In most languages grammar is very complex, so grammar checkers tend to be unreliable and also require a large amount of RAM.

Word processors can be distinguished from several other, related forms of software:

  • Text editors (modern examples of which include Notepad, Emacs and vi), were the precursors of word processors. While offering facilities for composing and editing text, they do not format documents. This can be done by batch document processing systems, starting with TJ-2 and RUNOFF and still available in such systems as LaTeX (as well as programs that implement the paged-media extensions to HTML and CSS). Text editors are now used mainly by programmers, website designers, and computer system administrators. They are also useful when fast startup times, small file sizes and portability are preferred over formatting.
  • Later desktop publishing programs were specifically designed to allow elaborate layout for publication, but often offered only limited support for editing. Typically, desktop publishing programs allowed users to import text that they have written using a text editor or word processor. This was the case with Ventura Publisher.

History of word processing

The term word processing was invented by IBM in the late 1960s. By 1971 it was recognized by the New York Times as a "buzz word". A 1971 Times article referred to "the brave new world of Word Processing or W/P. That's International Business Machines talk... I.B.M. introduced W/P about five years ago for its Magnetic Selectric typewriter and other electronic razzle-dazzle."

IBM defined the term in a broad and vague way as "the combination of people, procedures, and equipment which transforms ideas into printed communications," and originally used it to include dictating machines and ordinary, manually-operated Selectric typewriters. By the early seventies, however, the term was generally understood to mean semiautomated typewriters affording at least some form of electronic editing and correction, and the ability to produce perfect "originals". Thus, the Times headlined a 1974 Xerox product as a "speedier electronic typewriter", but went on to describe the product, which had no screen, as "a word processor rather than strictly a typewriter, in that it stores copy on magnetic tape or magnetic cards for retyping, corrections, and subsequent printout."

Electromechanical paper-tape-based equipment such as the Friden Flexowriter had long been available; the Flexowriter allowed for operations such as repetitive typing of form letters (with a pause for the operator to manually type in the variable information), and when equipped with an auxiliary reader, could perform an early version of "mail merge". Circa 1970 it began to be feasible to apply electronic computers to office automation tasks. IBM's Mag Tape Selectric Typewriter (MTST) and later Mag-Card Selectric (MCST) were early devices of this kind, which allowed editing, simple revision, and repetitive typing, with a one-line display for editing single lines.

The New York Times, reporting on a 1971 business equipment trade show, said

The "buzz word" for this year's show was "word processing", or the use of electronic equipment, such as typewriters; procedures and trained personnel to maximize office efficiency. At the IBM exhibition a girl typed on an electronic typewriter. The copy was received on a magnetic tape cassette which accepted corrections, deletions, and additions and then produced a perfect letter for the boss's signature....

In 1971, a third of all working women in the United States were secretaries, and they could see that word processing would have an impact on their careers. Some manufacturers, according to a Times article, urged that "the concept of 'word processing' could be the answer to Women's Lib advocates' prayers. Word processing will replace the 'traditional' secretary and give women new administrative roles in business and industry."

The 1970s word processing concept did not refer merely to equipment, but, explicitly, to the use of equipment for "breaking down secretarial labor into distinct components, with some staff members handling typing exclusively while others supply administrative support. A typical operation would leave most executives without private secretaries. Instead one secretary would perform various administrative tasks for three or more secretaries." A 1971 article said that "Some [secretaries] see W/P as a career ladder into management; others see it as a dead-end into the automated ghetto; others predict it will lead straight to the picket line." The National Secretaries Association, which defined secretaries as people who "can assume responsibility without direct supervision," feared that W/P would transform secretaries into "space-age typing pools." The article considered only the organizational changes resulting from secretaries operating word processors rather than typewriters; the possibility that word processors might result in managers creating documents without the intervention of secretaries was not considered - not surprising in an era when few but secretaries possessed keyboarding skills.

A major breakthrough occurred in 1976 with the introduction of a CRT-based system by Wang Laboratories. It displayed text on a CRT screen, and incorporated virtually every fundamental characteristic of word processors as we know them today. It was a true office machine, affordable by organizations such as medium-sized law firms, and easily learned and operated by secretarial staff.

The Wang was not the first CRT-based machine nor were all of its innovations unique to Wang. In the early 1970s Linolex, Lexitron and Vydec introduced pioneering word-processing systems with CRT display editing. A Canadian electronics company, Applied Electronic Systems, introduced a product with similarities to Wang's product in 1974, but went into bankruptcy a year later. In 1976, refinanced by the Canada Development Corporation, it returned to operation as AES Data, and went on to successfully market its brand of word processors worldwide until its demise in the mid-1980s. Despite these predecessors, Wang's product was a standout, and by 1978 it had sold more of these systems than any other vendor.

The phrase "word processor" rapidly came to refer to CRT-based machines similar to Wang's. Numerous machines of this kind emerged, typically marketed by traditional office-equipment companies such as IBM, Lanier (marketing AES Data machines, re-badged), CPT, and NBI. All were specialized, dedicated, proprietary systems, with prices in the $10,000 ballpark. Cheap general-purpose computers were still the domain of hobbyists.

Some of the earliest CRT-based machines used cassette tapes for removable-memory storage until floppy diskettes became available for this purpose - first the 8-inch floppy, then the 5-1/4-inch (drives by Shugart Associates and diskettes by Dysan). Printing of documents was initially accomplished using IBM Selectric typewriters modified for ASCII-character input. These were later replaced by application-specific daisy wheel printers (Diablo, which became a Xerox company, and Qume -- both now defunct.) For quick "draft" printing, dot-matrix line printers were optional alternatives with some word processors.

With the rise of personal computers, and in particular the IBM PC and PC compatibles, software-based word processors running on general-purpose commodity hardware gradually displaced dedicated word processors, and the term came to refer to software rather than hardware.

Early word-processing software required users to memorize semi-mnemonic key combinations rather than pressing keys labelled "copy" or "bold". (In fact, many early PCs lacked cursor keys; WordStar famously used the E-S-D-X-centered "diamond" for cursor navigation, and modern vi-like editors encourage use of hjkl for navigation.) However, the price differences between dedicated word processors and general-purpose PCs, and the value added to the latter by software such as VisiCalc, were so compelling that personal computers and word processing software soon became serious competition for the dedicated machines.

The late 1980s saw the advent of laser printers, a "typographic" approach to word processing (WYSIWYG - What You See Is What You Get), using bitmap displays with multiple fonts (pioneered by the Xerox Alto computer and Bravo word processing program), and graphical user interfaces (another Xerox PARC innovation, with the Gypsy word processor). These were popularized by MacWrite on the Apple Macintosh in 1983, and Microsoft Word on the IBM PC in 1984; these were probably the first true WYSIWYG word processors to become known to many people. Dedicated word processors became museum pieces.

Of particular interest to many is the standardization of Truetype fonts used in both Macintosh and Windows PCs. While the publishers of the operating systems provide Truetype typefaces, they are largely gathered from traditional typefaces converted by smaller font publishing houses to replicate "revered" fonts. Advertising continues to create a demand for new and interesting fonts, which can be found free of copyright restrictions, or commissioned from font designers. "Software With Flair" was a software house, as an example, that employed artists in the 1980s and 1990s to create fonts.

Resources

DisplayWrite

DisplayWriter

WordPerfect

WordStar

History of Computers

History of Computer Games

History of Operating Systems

History of Programming Languages

History of Microprocessors

History of Sound Cards

History of the Floppy Disk

History of the Hard Disk

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_processor

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