05/12/2021

043 – Advances in PC software – 1974

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Word processing’, …combines the dictating and typing functions into a centralized system,
is replacing the one-man, one-secretary, one-typewriter idea in a growing number of firms.
Administrative Management magazine 1970

Budapest-born Charles Simonyi had an early encounter with computing during his secondary education.  While working as a night-watchman at a computer laboratory his role was to ‘baby-sit’ a Russian Ural II mainframe that had the habit of burning out valves.

He seized the opportunity to be trained by one of the programmers and of course had ample time to try out his techniques each night.

Subsequently developing various compilers in Hungary, he approached a visiting Danish trade mission and was hired by A/S Regnecentralen, the first computer company in Denmark; they manufactured Data General Nova computers under licence.  Simonyi was just sixteen!

After working there for eighteen months Simonyi moved to the UCB where he graduated and transferred to Stanford.  His thesis ‘Meta-Programming: A Software Production Method’ outlined a process for improving software development productivity; a team leader would specify a program at a conceptual level and the team would then code the defined elements.  He first tried this with undergraduates in a project named Alpha.

Simonyi worked at BCC alongside Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker during this period.

From there he did not move directly to Xerox PARC, instead he joined NASA’s Ames Research Center to work on the ill-fated Illiac IV supercomputer.  This used 256 processors in parallel and a system called vector processing.  By the time it was completed in 1976, well over budget, it could not match the Cray 1 for performance.

Simonyi moved to PARC in 1972.  Lampson had used the meta-programming approach to outline his concept for a text editor for Alto, but Simonyi chose to look ahead and write a word processing package named Bravo.

Bravo was the first document-preparation software program to use multiple fonts with both upper and lower cases.  It also introduced underlining and emboldening to fully utilise the bitmap display of the PARC Alto computer.  This text editing system could direct the font, format the text, justify it and add margins, with the actual copy entered in either an insert or append mode.

Bravo word processing became the killer-app for all those with access to the Alto.  Bravo was not a user-friendly general-market program but it was still an achievement for its time.

Bob Metcalfe later recommended Simonyi to join Microsoft in 1981.  There he implemented his concept of meta-programming and later presided over a move into applications.  An early effort was applied to a CP/M platform package electronic paper, a VisiCalc competitor designed by Simonyi.  This was redesigned to fit the Apple Mac’s GUI features and was first shipped as Multiplan.

It was developed using Microsoft’s own ‘pseudo code C’ allowing the program to be easily ported.  It did not do well against Lotus 1-2-3 and was later replaced by Microsoft Excel for Mac in 1985 and Windows by 1987.  Simonyi moved on to develop Word and Excel.  He came up with what he termed a ‘revenue bomb’, a virtual machine on which they could develop a program and then port it to any platform, thus maximising return on effort.

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