classic computing

Corel WordPerfect 6.2 for DOS – A Look Back

I’m sure some of you may have noticed my “WordPerfect 5.1” screenshot in my last post looked a little “off”. The menu bar had different options from the standard WP51 menu bar, and the path on the bottom of the screen was not C:\WP51, but C:\COREL\WP62. Yes, I actually took that screenshot in DOSBox running Corel WordPerfect 6.2.

Remember that I had serious problems actually getting 5.1 to work. I figured out why though. The ancient floppy disks I was using were corrupted, presumably from being baked in the desert heat in my parents’ dusty shed in the backyard. So, while looking for a completely legal solution to this problem, I found an abandonware site with all sorts of versions of WordPerfect, so I decided to try the latest version of DOS WordPerfect, version 6.2. It installed like a dream, and it actually works perfectly (lol) in vDOS.

(Well, not exactly perfectly. It has a few issues, but I think those might be the fault of the vDOSWP installer, which was kind of glitchy. And it might possibly have a virus.)

I played around with this version of WordPerfect a bit, thinking it would be nothing more than an incremental update, but it’s actually quite a bit different than the classic program I spent six months learning back in the early 1990s. Apparently this version didn’t come out until 1997, eight years after 5.1, after WordPerfect had changed hands twice (to Novell and then to Corel), after the game-changing Windows 95 had been out for over a year, and after WordPerfect 7 for Windows had been out for several months.

So naturally this version of DOS WordPerfect borrows a lot of ideas from Windows. A lot of keyboard shortcuts were altered to be more like the standard Windows ones. Some of the old ones were preserved. You could activate bold type and underline by typing F6 and F8 respectively, or you could hit CTRL-B and CTRL-U like in every Windows word processor. But a few of the others didn’t survive the transition. Help is F1 now, not F3, and ESC is now the “go back a menu” key instead of F1. Again, following Windows conventions instead of the way WordPerfect handled it in the past. However, the new keyboard shortcuts are listed on the menu bar instead of in a help document, so it’s not too hard to readjust.

But other things are very different. WordPerfect 5.1 and versions before it gave you text menus. You selected the option you wanted by typing the number corresponding to the name of the option. For example, if you want to type in italics, you would type CTRL-F8 and then type “2” for Appearance and then “1” for Italics from the menu that popped up. (For some reason, this was handled a lot differently than bold and underline, probably because old-timey printers didn’t do italics very well, if at all.) After a while, you wouldn’t have to even read the menu, you could just do everything by remembering the keyboard shortcuts. However, when you type CTRL-F8 in WordPerfect 6.2, it opens up a Windows-style dialog box, with a huge number of options combining several of the old menus.

wp62 font dialog

You can still use the keyboard, but the numbers you press are all different. Now it’s “CTRL-F8, 3, 4, Enter.” At the very least, if you’re used to the old way of doing things, it’ll throw off your muscle memory, but it may also mean that you have to re-record all of your old macros and might break your entire workflow until you readjusted to the new system.

There was a method to this madness, however. The reason that the system was changed to appear more Windows-like was because, when you hit CTRL-F3, this seemingly innocent-looking DOS program turned into a full-functioned Windows-style GUI, complete with WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing, TrueType fonts, and enough menu bars to clog up half your screen.

wp62 graphics mode
Graphics Mode

wp62 text mode

The text mode version of the same part of the page.

You can even change fonts on the fly! Just like in Windows!
The only thing missing is Comic Sans!

(You could probably install Comic Sans, since 6.2 can use Windows TrueType fonts, but why would you want to pollute WordPerfect that way?)

The graphics look like crap in this version because vDOS is limited to 640 x 480 VGA resolution and it doesn’t scale very well on modern LCD screens. In DOSBox (or on real hardware, natch) it can support much greater resolutions. There are a number of different things you can do in the graphics mode much more easily than the text mode (like using the mouse, inserting images into documents, manipulating multiple document windows, etc.) but the text mode still has commands for all of them. I really don’t want to go through all of 6.2’s graphics features, because I much prefer the text entry mode for what I want to do, but if you want to learn more, here is a website filled with screenshots of WP 6.x’s graphics mode. It’s for the Novell version of WordPerfect 6.1, but for all intents and purposes, the Novell and Corel versions are mostly identical.

I think that this is pretty cool. This dual-mode system separates content from presentation in a way that Microsoft Word never seems to manage. You can type out your thoughts in a basic scrolling text window, using DOS’s major strength, basic scrolling text, as an advantage. Then, when you want to format your document for printing, you can jump into the graphics mode and tweak the margins and fonts and all that stuff–all within the same program.

It also serves the purpose of making the program easier for people who were already used to Windows to jump into it–and to make it easier for old-time DOS text wranglers to ease themselves into the new GUI paradigm. I can see why the makers of WordPerfect did it this way. They still wanted to support their DOS users, since that was where most of their business still was. WordPerfect came late to the Windows scene and their earlier versions of WordPerfect for Windows were buggy and not well received. However, they knew that Windows was the future and that in order to stay competitive with the Microsoft Office juggernaut, they had to provide an easy path for their users to migrate to Windows so they would stick with the product through future revisions. WordPerfect 6 for DOS greatly resembles its Windows counterpart in the graphics mode, the text mode uses the same menu layout and keyboard shortcuts, and both versions use the same fonts, file formats, and macros. If you learned on WordPerfect 6 for DOS, you could transfer the same skills over to WordPerfect 7 for Windows 95 when you finally traded in your 386 for a Pentium.

Of course, not all diehard WordPerfect users bought into Corel’s way of thinking. If you spent years using WordPerfect 5.1, and doing things its way, and then Corel comes along and switches enough things around to make things difficult for you, you would probably feel a little resentful. I’d imagine the response to the changes would be similar to the tremendous outrage of Windows users after the release of Windows 8. And if you were a new user who was used to the Windows way of doing things, you’d probably just buy the Windows version of WordPerfect anyway. So I can understand why WordPerfect 6.2 was resigned to the dustbin of history and when most people think of WordPerfect for DOS, they think of WordPerfect 5.1.

Which is a shame, really, because WordPerfect 6.2, along with the other applications in the Corel WordPerfect Suite, would make an excellent graphical office system for a small business in the mid-1990s that were probably still on 386s or 486s and didn’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for Windows 3.1, or thousands of dollars to upgrade to a computer that could run Windows 95. This was back when a decent 486 or Pentium with enough memory to run Windows and office software at a speed faster than “snail’s pace” could run you $3000-$4000, and software wasn’t cheap either. Corel WordPerfect Suite 6 would run you $375 new back in 1996, but it was a small price to pay to be able to use the new features on old equipment. And you could run it without any Microsoft software whatsoever (unlike Microsoft Office, Corel products will work in DOS clones like FreeDOS, DR-DOS, and Novell DOS.)

Of course the coming of Windows 95 and Microsoft’s economic and litigious powerhouse destroyed the DOS clones and the market for DOS software, and Microsoft Office, which used secret Windows APIs to give itself a speed and performance advantage over its competitors, introduced upgrades that were increasingly bloated to force users to upgrade their systems, and produced obfuscated file formats that could not be easily read by non-Microsoft products, quickly became the standard.


So what purpose does WordPerfect 6.2 serve nowadays, when you can download a pretty awesome open-source office suite for free, and there are multiple ways to edit documents for free through your web browser? Probably very little. If you want classic DOS WordPerfect, 5.1 is your better choice; if you want a distraction-free blue screen for your writing, there are options that run natively in Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux; and if you want a Windows-ish GUI word processor, you have many better options. I think it’s fascinating from a historical perspective though, to see what was out there, and to remember that there were many more ways of doing things than Microsoft’s way (which they stole wholesale from Apple, Xerox, Digital Research, and VMS, among others, but that’s a tale for another day.) WordPerfect 6.2, as unpopular as it was, walked the line between the old (DOS) and new (Windows) paradigms, and it must have served its purpose, because even if WordPerfect isn’t as big as it used to be, it’s still alive and being continuously updated (it’s up to version 17 now.) That’s more than can be said for most of its competitors.

(Update: The vDOSWP installer actually had some kind of trojan attached to it, and my computer was slowing down and doing all sorts of weird graphical glitches. So now I’m in Ubuntu running a virus scan on my Windows partition. On the upside though, I just discovered that LibreOffice reads WordPerfect 6 files pretty well.)