WordPerfect versus Word

A friend of mine just sent me the following news article, along with the subtitle, "Can we just let this die, geez..."

Novell Antitrust Lawsuit Against Microsoft Revived by Court
Bloomberg Businessweek - May 03, 2011
By Tom Schoenberg

Personally, I find articles like this depressing - not just because they are frivolous lawsuits that do little more than wasting millions of dollars for everyone concerned, but because they send the wrong messages to the business world. Let me explain:

I love quotes that are worded like this: "WordPerfect's share of the word-processing market fell to less than 10 percent in 1996 from almost 50 percent in 1990." This statement is an excerpt from a section in that article which suggests that Microsoft is the bad guy in this situation.

Has anyone ever bothered to consider that whatever happened to WordPerfect occurred because the executive leadership at WordPerfect made a plethora of poor business choices and their applications ceased to be good products? This entire lawsuit reminds me of when Metallica sued Napster over the decline in their album sales - did it ever occur to them (Metallica) that maybe they had passed their prime and perhaps no one wanted to buy their albums anymore?

Here's another question: did anyone else actually try to use WordPerfect for Windows 3.x through Windows 98? Well, I did - because back in my DOS days I was an avid WordPerfect 4.x through 6.x user. So take my word for it, every version of WordPerfect starting from 5.x through 8.x on Windows platforms were simply awful, while at the same time the versions of Word for Windows got better and better.

I can give you several reasons behind this dichotomy, but the primary cause is simple - WordPerfect didn't have a clue how to make a Windows-based product. As the world transitioned from a DOS-based environment to a Windows realm, WordPerfect shipped products that were technologically inferior, way behind schedule, and badly engineered. By the time that the folks at WordPerfect quit wasting money and figured out what they were doing, it was way too late - they owned less than 10% of the market, and the damage was irrevocable.

Here's just one example: instead of leveraging Windows' built-in printing capabilities and investing in better application features and functionality, the people at WordPerfect continued to develop and ship their own printing subsystem, which bypassed the built-in Windows printing features. Even if WordPerfect's alternate printing subsystem had been better, (which I can honestly say from personal experience that it was not), that's not the way that you're supposed to do things in a Windows world, and WordPerfect threw away millions of dollars and countless thousands of man hours on this colossal failure.

Here's another oldie but goodie - WordPerfect bought into the fantasy from the now-defunct Sun Microsystems that Java was the up-and-coming, be-all/end-all of computer languages and the dawn of write-once/run-everywhere software. This was a wonderful theory, and I personally spent some time writing simple applications in Java back in the mid-to-late-1990s because I, too, bought into Sun's hype. (I still wear a Java baseball cap that I got from Sun back in 1996.) But it wasn't long before I, like many others, realized that Java was mostly hype, and writing software in Java was an experience that was more like rewrite-often/debug-everywhere. But I realized my mistake before I had wasted over $400 million on a failed word processing application in Java like WordPerfect did.

But the folks at WordPerfect continued to press on in their self-delusions - all the while falling behind Word, which was now integrating wonderfully with Windows, Microsoft Office, and a host of other applications through technologies like DDE, OLE, and ActiveX. By this point WordPerfect's losses were enormous, then along came Novell, who was already a sinking ship; this was due to the fact that their difficult-to-use and expensive flagship NetWare operating system was taking a serious beating from Windows NT's ease-of-use and significantly reduced barrier-to-entry pricing.

Novell realized that WordPerfect had once been a major cash cow, and I guess they hoped that they could turn around both of these massive sinking ships and get them headed back from the Red Sea into the Black Sea. But Novell's delusions proved to be worse than WordPerfect's, and eventually Novell had to sell WordPerfect to Corel for a pittance just to keep their ship from being dragged under as WordPerfect rocketed toward the bottom in a technology fate that was worse than the demise of the Titanic. And yet, very much like the sinking of the Titanic and the untimely deaths of technology giants like Netscape and Sun Microsystems, WordPerfect's downfall was ultimately caused by a series of gargantuan blunders and the terminal hubris of their leadership, and not by any action on Microsoft's part.

Not that any of this will matter in court - Microsoft will probably still have to shell out a few hundred million dollars in "damages," thereby rewarding former executives at WordPerfect for their incompetence, and reinforcing the message to the business world that just because you're a colossal failure and you ruined the lives of thousands of your loyal employees, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be able to buy a large mansion and luxury yacht by cashing in on the profits of your successful competitors.

Additional Reading

At the time of this writing, Wikipedia has a great write-up on the history of WordPerfect, including blunt analysis of WordPerfect's many failures. But pages on Wikipedia are subject to change, and they're not always accurate.

With that in mind, you might want to take a look at the book titled Almost Perfect by W. E. Peterson, who had been one of the senior executives at WordPerfect. Sometimes it's nice to have an insider's view of the breakdown and failure.

Comments (2) -

For what it's worth, I worked in the IT depart for a college before I got hired by Microsoft, and to be fair - we moved to Microsoft Office because WordPerfect wanted too much money; Microsoft Office was simply priced cheaper.

To put things in context, this was in the early 1990s, and we were primarily using DOS-based software. The college had to license Ashton Tate's dBASE, WordPerfect 5.1, and Lotus 123, since those were the industry standards at the time. Each of those licenses was around a hundred dollars on a per-seat basis, so we had to shell out over $300 for every computer that needed those applications. (This was over a hundred workstations, if I recall correctly.)

Because of the high licensing fees for the applications that I just mentioned, we never had cash for hardware - so most of our workstations were diskless computers that did everything over network boot; these computers used mapped drives to sections on a server's hard drive instead of having physical hard drives in them. Our networking stack was using DOS-based DEC Pathworks over thinnet cables with a VMS-based minicomputer as our server. This environment was slow, cumbersome, and prone to failure.

When Microsoft released Windows for Workgroups 3.1 and Windows NT 3.51, we decided that we should look into that. Windows NT was much easier to manage and astronomically cheaper than VMS, and we could lock down functionality in Windows to allow students to do only what we wanted them to do. But the real clincher was the licensing fees - Microsoft Office 4.7 was only $60 per seat, so we immediately saved around $24,000 just by switching to Microsoft Office. (Considering the fact that my annual salary at the time was only $20K, this was a lot of money by our standards.) This unexpected economic windfall had dramatic repercussions for our IT department - we suddenly had a hardware budget, and we had a field day buying what used to be luxuries - hard drives, VGA cards, monitors, computer mice, etc. In the short span of a couple weeks our whole world changed - and this was all thanks to Microsoft.

Yup - those were the days.

And by the way, this experience is why I became a big fan of Microsoft. ;-]

tandblekning 7/23/2011 5:08:48 PM

Hmmm... I thought the battle was between MS Office and Open Office... I used to be a big fan of Open Office, simply because it was open, but with the abuse on the open source world by Google and now Oracle have made me realize that open source is not the way to go.
Anyway, from using OpenOffice I am now back at MS Office. After migrating back I also realize that OpenOffice is way behind in functionality and easy of use, and yet I bet OpenOffice is way ahead of WordPerfect. Smile

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