The Complete History of WordStar: The Revolutionary Word Processor That Took the 80s by Storm

Before we had Microsoft Word and Google Docs, early personal computer users typed away on word processors. As you‘ll learn in this deep dive, WordStar dominated as the world‘s most popular word processing software through much of the 1980s. Its feature innovations changed how people approached document creation. Read on as we explore WordStar‘s origins, meteoric rise, the competition that led to its demise, and its lasting impact that still shapes word processors today.

So What Was WordStar and Why Did It Matter?

WordStar was word processing software for early home computers – similar to the Microsoft Word or Google Docs many of us use today. But it debuted years before those applications existed.

Released in 1978 for CP/M operating systems, WordStar introduced big innovations in word processing capabilities to personal computers. These included:

  • WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editing: Users could format text right on the screen and see pagination and layouts identical to print.
  • Built-in printer support: Directly formatted documents for affordable home dot matrix printers.
  • Mail merge: Could generate form letters with custom details inserted – a feature even some expensive corporate word processors lacked.

With its intuitive editing and practical features, WordStar became the world‘s most widely used word processor by the mid-1980s. It popularized modern word processing among mainstream households and small businesses. While it would eventually be overtaken by rivals, WordStar had a profound impact in those early years – not to mention sales estimated to have passed $100 million at its peak!

Now let‘s dive into the origin story behind this revolutionary software that took the personal computing world by storm…

1978-1982: From a Bootstrapped Startup to Dominating Early Word Processing

Our WordStar journey starts in the mid-1970s when future founder Seymour I. Rubenstein began designing a word processor for microcomputers while working at a company called IMSAI.

However, frustrated with management, Rubenstein left with nothing but $8,500 in his pockets and a dream to build even better word processing software. He co-founded MicroPro International and convinced IMSAI‘s star programmer Rob Barnaby to join as a partner.

Brave Promises in Version 1.0…Delivered!

Together in 1978 they released WordStar 1.0, the very first version of their word processor built for the popular CP/M operating system.

Rubenstein boasted WordStar could do everything those expensive, hulking word processors could for a fraction of the price. And against all odds…he delivered!

Key innovations users loved included:

WYSIWYG formattingSee margins, line breaks as you edit
Built-in printer supportFormat documents for low-cost home printers
Mail merge capabilityGenerate customized form letters

With both features and pricing tailored to mainstream households, Wordstar quickly dominated – achieving over 70% CP/M market share by some estimates!

And as we‘ll see, this was only the beginning…

1983 Peak: 4 Million Users and Over $70 Million Revenue!

Buoyed by its CP/M success, MicroPro undertook an ambitious project to port WordStar to the emerging DOS-based PCs led by IBM.

The gambit paid off handsomely!

By 1983 WordStar was selling on 70-80% of all DOS computers, either bundled with systems or installed separately. It was clearly the word processor of choice for the DOS market.

With an astounding user base over 4 million strong and print advertisements everywhere, MicroPro revenue topped $70 million as it went public in 1984.

Year WordStar Revenue
1979$0.5 million
1980$1.8 million
1981$5.2 million
1982 $23 million
1983$45 million
1984 $70+ million

For a few years in the early 1980s, it seemed no other word processor could touch the mighty WordStar!

But soon a dangerous rival would emerge from Utah…

1984-1989: WordPerfect Dethrones WordStar from the Top

In many ways, WordStar created its own undoing. Hungry competitors studied its success and failures closely.

Chief among them? The WordPerfect Corporation out of Orem, Utah. Their namesake product, WordPerfect, arrived in 1982 and steadily picked up steam over the next several years.

"By 1986, WordPerfect had clearly pulled ahead of WordStar in market share and features…"

Let‘s contrast the trajectories of these two bitter rivals between 1984-1989:

WordStar WordPerfect

❌ New version plagued by slow speeds and bugs

❌ Declining retail sales

❌ Share dropped from 80% in 1983 down to just 20% by 1987

✅ Faster performance attracting power users

✅ Added cutting-edge features

✅ Share skyrocketed from 0% to over 60% by 1987

"WordPerfect thoroughly dominated WordStar by 1987-1988," reminisced industry observer David Bradley. "It became the gold standard word processor as WordStar faded."

This changing of the guard marked a major power shift in the word processing world. And WordStar would never recover its former glory.

1990s and Beyond: Twilight Years and Persisting Legacy

Amazing to think that in just a few short years, WordStar plunged from the world‘s most ubiquitous word processor to an afterthought.

MicroPro tried to salvage the product with updated versions. But after the MultiMate acquisition in 1989, WordStar entered its twilight years.

The company still released new WordStar editions for Windows in the early 1990s. However, without the same disruptive flair of earlier builds, the writing was on the wall.

MicroPro declared bankruptcy in 1993. WordStar‘s last DOS version published in 1994 before fading into history.

Today the WordStar trademark sits in the hands of Riverdeep and its technology remains dormant.

Yet while no one uses WordStar anymore, its legacy persists! Standards of WSYWIG, mail merge, and keyboard shortcuts clearly began with this trailblazer.

For us modern word processor users, it all started with WordStar – even if Microsoft and Google get the credit now!

So next time you print out a customized form letter or format text in Google Docs, take a moment to appreciate WordStar for kickstarting it all. The pioneering spirit of Rubenstein and Barnaby lives on through the conveniences we now take for granted in word processing today.

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