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Apr 21, 2020

Today we’re going to cover the software that would become Microsoft Office. 

Microsoft Office was announced at COMDEX in 1988. The Suite contained Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. These are still the core applications included in Microsoft Office. But the history of Office didn’t start there. 

Many of the innovations we use today began life at Xerox. And Word is no different. Microsoft Word began life as as Multi-Tool Word in 1981, when Charles Simonyi was hired away from Xerox PARC where he had worked on one of the earlier word processors, Bravo. 

He brought in Richard Brodie, and by 1983, they would release it for DOS, simplifying the name to just Microsoft Word. They would port it to the Mac in 1985, shortly after the release of the iconic 1984 Macintosh. Being way more feature-rich than MacWrite, it was an instant success. 2.0 would come along in 1987, and they would be up to 5 by 1992. But Word for Windows came along in 1989, when Windows 3.0 dropped. So Word went from DOS to Mac to Windows. 

Excel has a similar history. It began life as Multiplan in 1982 though. At the time, it was popular on CP/M and DOS but when Lotus 1-2-3 came along, it knocked everything out of the hearts and minds of users and Microsoft regrouped. Doug Klunder would be the Excel lead developer and Jabe Blumenthal would act as program manager. They would meet with Bill Gates and Simonyi and hammer out the look and feel and released Excel for the Mac in 1985. And Excel came to Windows in 1987. By Excel 5 in 1993, Microsoft would completely taken the spreadsheet market and suddenly Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) would play a huge role in automating tasks. Regrettably, then came macro viruses, but for more on those check out the episode on viruses. In fact, along the way, Microsoft would pick up a ton of talented developers including Bob Frankton a co-creator of the original spreadsheet, VisiCalc.

Powerpoint was an acquisition. It began life as Presenter at Forethought, a startup, in 1983. And Robert Gaskins, a former research manager  from Bell Norther Research, would be brought in to get the product running on Windows 1. It would become PowerPoint when it was released for the Mac in 1987 and was wildly successful, selling out all of the copies from the first run. 

But then Jeff Raikes from Microsoft started getting ready to build a new presentation tool. Bill Gates had initially thought it was a bad idea but eventually gave Raikes the go-ahead to buy Forethought and Microsoft PowerPoint was born. 

And that catches up to that fateful day in 1988 when Bill Gates announced Office at COMDEX in Las Vegas, which at the time was a huge conference.

Then came the Internet. Microsoft Mail was released for the Mac in 1988 and bundled with Windows from 1991 and on. Microsoft also released a tool called Inbox. But then came Exchange, expanding beyond mail and into contacts, calendars, and eventually much more. Mail was really basic and for Exchange, Microsoft released Outlook, which was added to Office 97 and an installer was bundled with Windows Exchange Server. 

Office Professional in that era included a database utility called Access. We’ve always had databases. But desktop databases had been dominated by Borland’s dBase and FoxPro up until 1992 when Microsoft Access began to chip away at their marketshare. Microsoft had been trying to get into that market since the mid-90s with R:Base and Omega, but when Access 2 dropped in 1994, people started to take notice and by the release of Office 95 Professional it could be purchased as part of a suite and integrated cleanly. I can still remember those mdb files and setting up data access objects and later ActiveX controls!

So the core Office components came together in 1988 and by 1995 the Office Suite was the dominant productivity suite on the market. It got better in 97. Except The Office Assistant, designed by Kevan Atteberry and lovingly referred to as Clippy. By 2000 Office became the de facto standard. Everything else had to integrate with Office. That continued in the major 2003 and 2007 releases. And the products just iterated to become better and better software. 

And they continue to do that. But another major shift was on the way. A response to Google Apps, which had been released in 2006. The cloud was becoming a thing. And so Office 365 went into beta in 2010 and was launched in 2011. It includes the original suite, OneDrive, SharePoint, Teams for chatting with coworkers, Yammer for social networking, Skype for Business (although video can now be done in Teams), Outlook and Outlook online, and Publisher. As well as Publisher, InfoPath, and Access for Windows. 

This Software + Services approach turned out to be a master-stroke. Microsoft was able to finally raise prices and earned well over a 10% boost to the Office segment in just a few years. The pricing for subscriptions over the term of what would have been a perpetual license was often 30% more. Yet, the Office 365 subscriptions kept getting more and more cool stuff. And by 2017 the subscriptions captured more revenue than the perpetual licenses. And a number of other services can be included with Office 365. 

Another huge impact is the rapid disappearing act of on premises Exchange servers. Once upon a time small businesses would have an Exchange server and then as they grew, move that to a colocation facility, hire MCSE engineers (like me) to run them, and have an amplified cost increase in dealing with providing groupware. Moving that to Microsoft means that Microsoft can charge more, and the customer can get a net savings, even though the subscriptions cost more - because they don’t have to pay people to run those servers. OneDrive moves files off old filers, etc. 

And the Office apps provided aren’t just for Windows and Mac. Pocket Office would come in 1996, for Windows CE. Microsoft would have Office apps for all of their mobile operating systems. And in 2009 we would get Office for Symbian. And then for iPhone in 2013 and iPad in 2014. Then for Android in 2015. 

Today over 1 and a quarter billion people use Microsoft Office. In fact, not a lot of people have *not* used Office. Microsoft has undergone a resurgence in recent years and is more nimble and friendly than ever before. Many of the people that created these tools are still at Microsoft. Simonyi left Microsoft for a time. But they ended up buying his company later. During what we now refer to as the “lost decade” at Microsoft, I would always think of these humans. Microsoft would get dragged through the mud for this or that. But the engineers kept making software. And I’m really glad to see them back making world class APIs that do what we need them to do. And building good software on top of that. 

But most importantly, they set the standard for what a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool would look like for a generation. And the ubiquity the software obtained allowed for massive leaps in adoption and innovation. Until it didn’t. That’s when Google Apps came along, giving Microsoft a kick in the keister to put up or shut up. And boy did Microsoft answer. 

So thank you to all of them. I probably never would have written my first book without their contributions to computing. And thank you listener, for tuning in, to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so lucky to have you. Have a great day.