How Great Was WordStar Really? (repost)

How great was WordStar, really?

I love WordStar. Used it in my youth. I remember flying around the page, being ridiculously “productive”, if you could say that I ever produced anything. It was valuable to me, at any rate.

Nowadays, in this world of word processors which all try to be layout suites for desktop publishing, there is good reason to miss the older tools. For one, I remember being amazed in the 1990s that the computer couldn’t keep up with my typing. How many times have you prattled on while the display is frozen, or watched the computer actually miss keystrokes, leaving you with charaters missing from text that you *know* darned well, you hit squarely? Well, how would you know for sure that you had indeed hit the key right? The old keyboards told you so. But that’s another story.

Computers also began taking longer and longer to boot.

Longer boot times, missed keys, frozen display — this is progress?

Longer boot times, missed keys, frozen display — this is progress?

For a long time now, long enough that I remember discussing it with my father, I have surmised that a person could make some decent money issuing a yesteryear laptop. But that, too, is another story. The story today is one of the things that this yesteryear laptop could do for you — run your favorite old programs and let you be blissfully productive. XTree had a family of products XTPro, XTreeGold, something like that, which I loved using. TO THIS DAY, I have never found a file manager which would let me cruise through directories at will, “tagging” files to be moved, deleted, copied, whatever. Moving to another directory didn’t wipe out the selections you had just made. You could tag a ridiculous number of files, all over the place, and then execute a command on everything you had just tagged.

I also used BASICA and soon thereafter GW-BASIC. We had a couple of manuals sitting around for GW-BASIC, which today is the only language I ever really got good at. Digital documentation is for amateurs, because it does not grow experts. I wrote toys, utilities (including a WS file converter — doesn’t everybody?), and even a couple of tactical applications. Every EW in the known universe at one point wrote “the Navy’s only signal database”, and my shop was no different.

I played, too.  I wrote “agglobberation” models in which an active (lit up) pixel wandered about the screen until it found another pixel turned on, and then the pixel would stick — start another pixel. Sometimes it rained pixels, sometimes they blew about, and sometimes they orbited a point where the next position equaled the current position plus the current trend plus the immediate value of the inverse square of dx to the “black hole” or whatever. Fun stuff.

I have had several “peaks” of skill in certain areas over my career, including being very good at Windows Active Directory management with PowerShell and the AD-Module, writing firewall rules for a centrally-managed, distributed endpoint security client, writing big-iron MS SQL database applications with app front-ends and everything. I have been the Excel master and the Powerpoint superstar, the guy who flew through usenet newsgroups on unix using trn and pico, chatted with the sysadmin girlfriend by telnetting to her VAX across the country, and so forth. But the one that breaks my heart is WordStar.

But wait a minute! If it was so great, wouldn’t it be back? I’ve been thinking a lot about these old tools, and I have long told myself that it’s not mere nostalgia — that there are quantifiable, reasonable rationales for these superior preferences of mine. If I have a hard time explaining it, that’s because people just don’t understand — they’ll *never* understand.

One thing that I think many of us old-timers (in computer years anyway) tend to overlook is that no matter how good it was,

it was good in its time

it was good in its time, and this is a far cry from being objectively, timelessly good. Buried in almost each reminiscence about WordStar is this sentence, “I still remember the [control keys / keybindings / commands]!” The control keys were good, but they were not miraculous. It could have been many things, but objectively, no set of keyboard macros will ever be perfect — not even WordPerfect — neither mnemonics, context, nor position can be expressed fully on a keyboard. So the ESXD keys map nicely to up, left, down, and right. In the days before arrow keys, this was important. Observe emacs’ pathological “ALT+V is down; SHIFT+ALT+V is up” methodology. Typically, they try to have shift+[something] be the reverse, undo, opposite, alternative [something], but that is another unattainable goal. The many dimensions of meaning do not map into any finite set of keys and modifiers.  What is the opposite of “right justify”? Feel free to choose from left justify, center, non-justify, re-justify…

WordStar’s commands worked very well for people who learned them through long experience. The onscreen help was something I *never* turned off — it was extrasomatic knowledge for me, as if I literally had access to a real fast cache of human RAM right there on the screen. This was much better than any of the other word processors I used at the time. I cannot begrudge BASICA for being a less-than-ideal text editor, and for most of my GW-BASIC development, I still used plain old EDIT.EXE. Wait, what? If WS was so good, why wouldn’t I use that? Because even in the days when WS was the best thing going, it was overkill for making quick and dirty edits to .bas files. Compared to EDIT.EXE, WS.EXE was slow to load, clumsy to use, and feature-rich when all I needed was to add a damned semicolon to an if-then-else.

There were other editors around. I never got any good at them. WS differed from other battleship editors in having a lean and graceful learning curve. Unlike emacs or vi, WS allowed you to dip in only as many toes as needed to get a particular task or set of tasks done. emacs and vi fairly require you to master half of the capability of the things just to get your first text file written and saved without having a heart attack. dired mode? Just save the blinking file!

Contemporary word processors are easy to start up with, in part because we all have twenty to thirty years using their direct ancestors, in part because the popular windowing interfaces allow cautious, measured involvement with little pictures of now-standard actions, pop-up hover text describing what that button is about to do, and a nearly perfect image of what is going on — what you see is what will print.

WordStar was miserable to print from. First, getting a printer going required the equivalent of a driver be loaded not to the system, but to WordStar itself. You needed a “printer file” which told WS how to yoke, bridle, and bit the particular printer. There was no abstraction except in WS itself. You issued printer commands right in the document, in a way that showed up on screen but not in the printed product.

.paginate 25
.margin 8
.. gotta foreshadow this about ten pages ago

Those are analogies — the actual dot commands escape me. The double-dot notes were like comments, in the programming sense. WS would take those WS commands and use the printer file to translate machine motion commands to the printer. It was the worst of all worlds, but it did produce a beautiful product!

WordStar also had advantages in its block management, which is like a grown-up version of cut/copy/paste. See the middle of this guy’s blog post here: He explains it much better than I would. But the upshot is it let you think while doing, and do while thinking. The blog post there is an excellent argument for the superiority of WordStar — I agree with everything he says, and it’s nice to see my hunches and habits explained so clearly. And yet…

Where is the modern WordStar?

Where is the modern WordStar? Where is the keyboard-centric mental-flow super-powered, unintrusive text editor? I keep seeing things that purport to allow you a distraction-free writing experience, but three things: First, distractions aren’t the problem — crappy mouse-required commands are. Second, these are typically just crap-editors with backgrounds blanked out so that you have to *wave a mouse around the screen* to get a button to pop up! Third, these are still not capable of handling more than one region of marked text.

I thought I could recapture some of that old capability in the Unix world. Short answer, no. Long answer, noooooooooooo. Every text editor known to man() seems to come with a “wordstar-like” mode, but this is almost always something bolted onto the top of an otherwise unreformed character-plopper. Internal functionality remains decidedly not WordStar-like, and it shows through. Fair enough, I appreciate the amount of work that has gone into allowing codgers to use the keystrokes we remember, but there’s more to it than that. At least in the unix console world, I’m not drowning in mousiness.

But you know what? I don’t live in the unix console world. Might be nice, and maybe someday, but I work in IT, and for most of us that means Windows, Office, mouse and Active Directory. PowerShell when you’re lucky. I am fortunate that at this point in my career, most of what I do is produce paperwork, which I know the techs see no value in — after all, they already know the problem, the answer, and their preferred tools to save the world. I write reports and emails — that is what I do. I read in Windows, I write in Windows. I use MS-Visio and MS-Project in Windows. I have a dirty habit of using PowerPoint, too, and that all happens in Windows.

It will profit me nothing to develop an ideal home environment which goes to war with my work environment. Perhaps some people can successfully deal with using a different toolset for love and for war, but I am not one of those. If WordStar were available in a clean, supported, 64-bit executable, maybe I could get it purchased by the government. But it isn’t, and there is no way I will be able to set up virtual machines at work just so I can use my favorite old text-banging tool.


I’ve strayed a bit from the point I started out for, which is this: It may be that despite all of its technical merits, WordStar was good for me because I was good at WordStar. Perhaps Wordstar was good at the time, because the time was right for WordStar.

One of my favorite old movies was The Running Man, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Dawson. The movie featured trenchant social, political, and media commentary. I remember it clearly. I went to re-watch it not long ago.

It was awful. Made it about twenty minutes in, just enough to confirm that this was, indeed, the title I though it had been. But it was not the movie I thought it had been.

I got WordStar running in a virtual machine about a year and a half ago. Man, that was great! I took some screenshots — posted them about town.

Haven’t touched it since.

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  1. I did a lot of code using WS back in the day, on CP/M, CP/M-86, and MS-DOS. Well before the days of structured code editors and IDEs. Yup, the fingers still remember a good number of the control codes – no taking the fingers off the keyboard to page up/down, etc. But I miss my clicky IBM keyboards more.

  2. I was a WordStar wiz back in the day, and loved the program at the time.

    Today? It would be like getting back in the cockpit of a SPAD 13 after flying a F-86. Fun for a little while, but I would not want to do business with it.


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