WordStar—The First Word Processor

Before Microsoft, This Was the Word Processing Program to Use

KayPro WordStar keyboard template
Marcin Wichary/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Released in 1979 by Micropro International, WordStar was the first commercially successful word processing software program produced for microcomputers. It became the best-selling software program of the early 1980s.

Its inventors were Seymour Rubenstein and Rob Barnaby. Rubenstein had been the director of marketing for IMS Associates Inc. (IMSAI), a California-based computer company, which he left in 1978 to start his own software company. He convinced Barnaby, the chief programmer for IMSAI, to join him, and gave him the task of writing a data processing program.

What is Word Processing?

Prior to the invention of word processing, the only way to get one's thoughts down on paper was via a typewriter or a printing press. Word processing, however, allowed people to write, edit, and produce documents (letters, reports, books, etc.) by using a computer and computer software designed specifically to rapidly and efficiently manipulate text. 

Early Word Processing

The first computer word processors were line editors, software-writing aids that allowed a programmer to make changes in a line of program code. Altair programmer Michael Shrayer decided to write the manuals for computer programs on the same computers the programs ran on. He wrote the somewhat popular, and the actual first PC word processing program, called the Electric Pencil, in 1976.

Other early word processor programs worth noting were: Apple Write I, Samna III, Word, WordPerfect, and Scripsit.

The Rise of WordStar

Seymour Rubenstein first started developing an early version of a word processor for the IMSAI 8080 computer when he was director of marketing for IMSAI. He left to start MicroPro International Inc. in 1978 with only $8,500 in cash.

At Rubenstein's urging, software programmer Rob Barnaby left IMSAI to join MicroPro. Barnaby wrote the 1979 version of WordStar for CP/M, the mass-market operating system created for Intel's 8080/85-based microcomputers by Gary Kildall, released in 1977. Jim Fox, Barnaby's assistant, ported (meaning re-wrote for a different operating system) WordStar from the CP/M operating system to MS/PC DOS, the by-now-famous operating system introduced by MicroSoft and Bill Gates in 1981.

The 3.0 version of WordStar for DOS was released in 1982. Within three years, WordStar was the most popular word processing software in the world. However, by the late 1980s, programs like WordPerfect knocked Wordstar out of the word processing market after the poor performance of WordStar 2000. Said Rubenstein about what happened:

"In the early days, the size of the market was more promise than reality...WordStar was a tremendous learning experience. I didn't know all that much about the world of big business."

Influence of WordStar

Still, communications as we know it today, in which everyone is for all intents and purposes their own publisher, would not exist had WordStar not pioneered the industry. Even then, Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science-fiction writer, seemed to know its importance. Upon meeting Rubenstein and Barnaby, he said:

"I am happy to greet the geniuses who made me a born-again writer, having announced my retirement in 1978, I now have six books in the works and two [probables], all through WordStar."