Once we set the software world on fire

Things you find in the bottom of a box of old computer disks. In its heyday when I worked there, 1984-87, “MultiMate Word Processor” was not only international, it was a best seller and, you might say, almost matchless.

Its biggest selling point was that it allowed the earliest IBM PCs to take the place of much more expensive WANG office word processing systems, popular with insurance companies, law firms and other high-volume purchasers of software. It was designed for typing pools, not creative writers or computer hobbyists, so it didn’t get a lot of love from the geekier computer magazines. But for office typists, the stick-on labels for computer function keys and thorough user manual “documentation” were selling points, its fancy padded binder full of heavyweight pages, a veritable “what to do until the doctor comes” security blanket for nervous users.

My biggest contribution to the East Hartford, Conn., company was probably telling Tina, the product manager, how to get the documentation for version 3.3 into ring binders and slip cases originally measured for a previous version that didn’t have as many pages.

My solution was to make two spiral-bound smaller books out of the beginners section and most advanced/technical section, and only use the three-ring binder for the main reference pages. The smallest spiral booklet fit inside the binder and the beginner/tutorial fit alongside it in the slipcases, of which we apparently had a warehouse-full.

The product manager left for another company and launched a new product… called Microsoft Word. (It, unsurprisingly, successfully made the transition from Microsoft DOS to Microsoft Windows; MultiMate, sold to Ashton-Tate, didn’t.)

With my 11 years’ experience on a newspaper and some accidental computer documentation experience while writing and rewriting a 300-page anthropology/ethnomusicology master’s thesis, I had come to MultiMate to add some technical expertise to the public relations department. They thought I would be good at talking reviewers through the program and writing how-to articles for a user’s newsletter. Within a few months, I was drafted to edit and rewrite parts of the user manual after badly timed company cutbacks removed key technical writers and others quit, just when the slipcase crisis arose.

When the company was sold, I didn’t particularly like the new management and left to finish a second Master’s thesis, which was loosely about the future of writing with computers and a new technology called hypertext, which I thought showed a lot of promise. Two years later an Englishman in Switzerland figured out how to use hypertext to interconnect documents on the Internet and call it the World Wide Web… a sign that I had to go back to grad school again.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in Computers, Connecticut, History, wesleyan, writing
2 comments on “Once we set the software world on fire
  1. yudel says:

    We were using Multimate when I started at the Long Island Jewish World in ’87, and I lobbied hard and successfully to switch. The thing about Multimate is that it had a page-based paradigm. Which meant when you got to the end of a page of writing, you had to press a function key to start a new page. F2, perhaps? Certainly a way to get a writer out of his flow.

    • Bob Stepno says:

      I think the shift from page to page was more subtle in later versions of the software, but should have been gone by 1987. Behind the scenes, what it was doing was saving each page so that even if you kicked the plug of the computer out of the wall you wouldn’t lose much of your work.
      That “page oriented” concept was a selling point to early customers, who were paranoid about losing anything. But, again, they tended to be typists, not writers. Personally, I preferred a programmer’s ASCII text editor.

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