Step Away from the Mouse

A reader distracting a journalist...

Distracting the author -- from Twain's Editorial Wild Oats

Macintosh users may just yawn when Jane Wells of WordPress starts out her “Now More Than Ever: Just Write” essay with the demise of Internet Explorer’s old version, but she gets downright inspiring after that: WordPress (and Firefox and Google Chrome) now lets users break out of the confining window-in-a-window blog-style editing interface.

I’m using the new full-screen editor to write this, and it’s very cool. It’s especially good news to me, since I’m using WordPress to write my other blog — the one that might turn into a book someday, if I can avoid distractions this summer.

WordPress is even calling this the new distraction-free writing feature, so they’ve got my number! And the feature has its own support area and discussion forum, although that might be too much of a distraction.

It was a line on one of those linked pages that convinced me to try the new feature: “But once you let go of the mouse and get to writing, the real magic starts to happen.” The other convincer was the headline on Ms. Wells’ article.

The Paige Compositor

The Paige Compositor, no mouse required

“JustWrite,” you see, was the name of a word processing program that I had some fun with about 25 years ago, during a brief foray into technical writing and public relations for a software company. JustWrite was a spin-off of the long-winded “Multimate Advantage Professional Word Processor.” Just shrinking the name of the product down to two syllables was an enormous, er, advantage.

Like MultiMate and this new WordPress feature (and the Paige Compositor, above), JustWrite could be operated entirely from the keyboard. I don’t remember whether it would  know what to do with a mouse if it saw one.  Like word processors of old, this WordPress fullscreen editor even knows to switch to italics when I hit command-I on the Macintosh. And to stop when I hit the key again. No mouse needed, until I decided to insert the woodcuts. I mean, “images.”

Actually, “JustWrite” began as something called “MultiMate Jr.” back when IBM was threatening the world with a little computer called the “PC Jr.” The computer had a wireless keyboard, but was a bomb (not “the bomb”), crippled so that it wouldn’t replace business PCs, and it was cancelled.

An image of a puzzled editor, from Mark Twain's Editorial Wild Oats

Driving the editor to distraction -- from Twain's Editorial Wild Oats

So was our neat little word processing program, and the cancellation cost some very creative technical writers their jobs. (I think the programmers just switched to adding features to already bloated MultiMate.) But I loved the first draft of the how-to book, which was never published: Someone on the “Jr.” team had the wonderful idea of basing a kids’ word processing tutorial on the works of Mark Twain, using lots of his early references to using a typewriter as well as bits from stories kids had read in school.

I forget whether they used anything about his losing his shirt on investments in an early typesetting machine — a masterpiece with 18,000 parts. He, if not the Multimate Jr. documentation team, might have appreciated the irony.

A year or two later, the renamed and re-branded JustWrite, now an “entry-level” word processor aimed at adults, still didn’t do much better than Multimate Jr. It “shipped,” minus the Twain-centric manual, but it was cancelled within a year. A company full of Silicon Valley hubris bought our modest Connecticut outfit and made it a less fun place to work. Soon after, I retreated back to grad school to explore something called “hypertext.”

As for Twain’s problems with technology, the evidence is still there, at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, right over the river from East Hartford, former home of MultiMate International.

The Twain House preserved the last of the Paige Compositors, which its website calls the “typesetting machine that drove the family to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing them to leave their Hartford home.”

It also has Twain’s 1904 billiard table. Sometimes, I guess, even the best writers need some distraction.

Footnote: If you need some distraction, read some of the things Twain had to say about journalism in his Editorial Wild Oats, now preserved by Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats. It’s the source of the two images above.

mild-mannered reporter who sank into computers and the Web during graduate school in the 1980s and '90s, then taught journalism, media studies and Web production, retiring to write and play more music.

Posted in coincidence, History, hypertext, j-heroes, WordPress, writing
2 comments on “Step Away from the Mouse
  1. PF says:

    Talk about obscure technology references! “Just Write” was Just Wrong on timing – it debuted Just As 100 word processors tried to battle it out for a saturated market. And against other upstarts including something called “Microsoft Word”. Just Write was stunning in that it ran in 128K, and most incredibly, had spell-checking that was better and faster at $115 than Multimate’s spell-checker at $599. I know, because I created the spell-checking functionality, among other parts of Just Write. Other than that, it was a fun toy, and fun to make. We knew it had no future, of course, as it was a marketing gimmick to move new customers up to high-end Multimate. Further, sales of Multimate were bottoming out and the owner was already in secret talks to flip to Ashton-Tate, but we enjoyed the adventure just the same.

  2. Bob Stepno says:

    Thanks for the comment, Peter. Always fun to run into another Multimate survivor.

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