Vintage software: WordStar, WordPerfect and muscle memory

Having discovered a trove of my old files on an archive disk, I naturally wanted to read them – and post some of them here. I’ve already written about how I went about converting the files. In the process, I had a chance to catch up with a couple of old friends.

I use a FreeDOS VM running under VirtualBox as my main MS-DOS clone. As well as the inevitable Zork 1, the software I’ve loaded onto this VM includes the two packages that were most important to me in my journalism career – WordStar 4 and WordPerfect 5.1.

The opening screen of WordStar 4 – running on FreeDOS.

For me, version 4 is the classic WordStar. I started using it in around 1985/86. In fact, I really cut my teeth on NewWord, a clone of WordStar that was actually ahead in terms of development and features. Eventually, MicroPro bought NewWord and re-released it as WordStar 4.

Eventually, and for reasons shrouded in the mists of time, I switched to WordPerfect which, along with Microsoft’s Word, had started to eclipse WordStar as the de facto word processor in organisations.

Most of WordPerfect’s features were accessed via function keys. The printed function key strip was an essential part of the package.

But by that time, WordStar’s hotkey commands had become second nature, burned deep into my muscle memory. To this day, when I want to save and close a file I find my fingers twitching towards the ^K-D combination. And there were commands in WordStar 4 that you used so much that they became like an involuntary spasm – such as ^B to reformat a paragraph after you’d made a change to it (the text didn’t reflow automatically).

It wasn’t just WordStar that used these commands. Because so many people knew them, other software vendors adopted them too. For example, Borland used mostly WordStar-compatible commands for its programming language packages, such as Turbo Pascal, on both CP/M and DOS.

When I started opening the files (which you can see in the top screenshot) I found they were a mixture of WordStar and WordPerfect. The file extensions weren’t a clue – back then, you could give a file any extension you wanted. I tended to use the name of the publication, so the files ending ‘.PCA’ were for PC Amstrad. In the screenshot, I’ve already starting changing the file extensions to reflect which format they’re in.

There was something weird about several of the files, though. While clearly WordStar files – judging by the embedded ‘dot commands’ that controlled formatting – there was also a bunch of junk at the start of the files and at regular intervals throughout.

A file opened in WordStar 4. But what’s all that junk at the beginning?

I kept seeing PHP-PLUS and PHPJETPLS embedded in this junk. Those were clearly printer driver names. WordStar 4 didn’t embed the selected printer in the file, but… The penny dropped when I noticed a review of WordStar 5 that I’d written for Personal Computer World.

I’d completely forgotten that I had switched to WordStar 5 on its release in 1989. My review of the product was written in … WordStar 5. Now, young ‘uns probably won’t get this. For all that we curse at our computers and tablets and smartphones, compared to the technology of yore these devices and the software that runs on them are extremely reliable. Back in the day, you kind of expected that any software or hardware you were using – especially if it was new – would crash. Often. So two rules emerged:

  • Never use Version 1 of anything for real work. This seems quaint now that we’re in an age of never-ending betas.
  • If you’re reviewing a product, don’t use that product to write the review – it will eat your copy.

Clearly I broke the second rule, but survived.

I grabbed a copy of WordStar 5.5 from WinWorld to remind myself what it was like. I was not pleased. Yes, the new version has fancy stuff like menus, it came bundled (but was not integrated) with PC-Outline and there was lots of clever stuff such as the ability to work on two documents at once. But if you’d already internalised all of WordStar’s commands, as I had, those menus just got in the way.

WordStar 5 with drop-down menus! Whatever will they think of next?

Possibly my thinking at the time was that it was time for a fresh break.

WordPerfect 5.1 also came out in 1989 to huge acclaim. It somehow felt slicker than WordStar. It was definitely faster. And over the previous couple of years WordPerfect had established itself as the industry standard. There was something about the pared-down interface that appealed, too.

Writing doesn’t come much more ‘distraction free’ than WordPerfect 5.1.

People talk a lot about ‘distraction free’ writing these days. Well, we had that back in the 80s, thanks. You don’t get much more minimalist than WordPerfect 5.1, with just that one line of information at the bottom of the screen.

Of course, all that training of my fingers with WordStar went to waste. Now my reflexes would be honed to hit keys like F5 (open a list of files in the current working directory) and F10 (save). And while I have always used and configured keyboard shortcuts in every program I’ve used since – with Scrivener now being the most important tool of my trade – I’ve never achieved the speed and fluency that I had with WordStar 4. Some memories need to be cherished, even if they’re in your muscles.




2 thoughts on “Vintage software: WordStar, WordPerfect and muscle memory

  1. Dan Strychalski

    “WordStar 5.5…. has fancy stuff like menus….” WordStar had menus from the beginning. They didn’t drop down like those of the Macintosh OS and copycat software, but they were functionally identical — and half a decade ahead of Macintosh-style drop-downs.

    WordPerfect 5.1 had drop-downs, but they were disabled by default, of course — if people had GUI-like features in text-mode software, they might be less inclined to fork out for a GUI and the more powerful hardware needed to run it. And Ctrl-A through Ctrl-Z (with one minor exception) were disabled as well — we can’t have people learning platform-independent keystrokes, could we?

    Anyway, it was easy enough to enable WordPerfect’s drop-downs and make Ctrl-A through Ctrl-Z work much as in WordStar. I did that and used WordPerfect 5.1 for years and years without ever touching a function, paging, editing, or arrow key.

    That was at work, where I had to use WordPerfect by company dictat. At home, it was WordStar and JOE (Joe’s Own Editor, in Linux, of course) all the way.

    1. Machina Post author

      Yeah, drop-down menus are what I was referring to. Wordstar’s crude menus were screen-wasting atrocities, and were just crib sheets, not selectable menus.


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