Contemplating my pencils

My wife has been away for the last week. She had to go back home to the Midwest to do some family reunion thing. I was invited, but money and work issues kept me at home. So you would think all this solitude would help me produce the world’s greatest teen romance/mystery/fantasy/scifi novel ever? Nope. I’ve just been sitting on my butt playing Kingdom of Loathing and watching the world go by. (It’s an awesome game by the way–I should write an article on that sometime.)

I thought that getting back to that plain blue screen with friendly white letters on it that fueled my writing in my teenage years would inspire me, but I got distracted by figuring out how to make old DOS programs like WordPerfect 5.1 work in 64-bit Windows. Then I got further distracted by articles advocating for WordStar (WordPerfect’s even-more-archaic cousin), an article on how much Microsoft Word sucks, and a very enlightening article which argues that all word processing software (especially Word) is inherently obsolete because it assumes you are writing words to be printed on 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, when most writing nowadays is shared electronically. But people just keep using Microsoft Word because it’s entrenched and people are just too used to it.

The same, in my opinion, goes for all those writers who are stuck in WordStar or WordPerfect: all they need is something to put text in, and mark it up with basic bold/underline/italics/etc., but instead they hold on to archaic, obsolete, proprietary software on systems that are prone to bugs and hard to fix when something goes wrong. There’s much better stuff out there right now. George R. R. Martin could probably do everything he needs to do in, for instance, emacs. (Not to infuriate fans of vim or jed or pico or insert-your-favorite-other-text-editor-here, but I just mention emacs because it’s the one I’ve used the most and am the most familiar with.) Not only can it be configured with WordStar key bindings, it can be run on both modern and ancient computers without much trouble (essentially anything that runs Linux, and there may even be a DOS version). He wouldn’t have to get up from his 30-year-old Kaypro and walk over to his other machine every time he wanted to check his wiki to figure out which of his characters are still alive. Emacs does have a tremendous amount of functionality, but unlike the auto-correcting flashy-ribbony Microsoft Word he keeps complaining about, it does a good job at hiding unwanted features from the user (in terminal mode, it just presents a text box with a status bar on the bottom, much like many old DOS word processors.) I admit there’s a steep learning curve on all but the most basic emacs modes (heck, I’ve been trying to master it for years, only to go back to Notepad or gedit or something like it when things go wrong.) However, it is suitably archaic for the likes of Mr. Martin, since the earliest versions of emacs predate WordStar by several years. But unlike WordStar, emacs has been constantly updated and bug-checked for over thirty years.

The best part of about something like emacs is, since it is open-source free software, I don’t have to worry about support for it being tied to a company that might go out of business. I can also be sure that anything I write in emacs can be read with any software that reads ASCII text. Plain text is future-proof. I recently discovered this by pulling some old emails from my backups that were also 20 years old, and I could still read them just fine, whereas I needed to jump through hoops to read my WordPerfect 5.1 files, and there are still some old files I can’t read at all. I think they were written in AppleWorks or the Mac version of WordPerfect or an old version of 602 Office (some shareware MS Office clone my mom liked) or Q&A Write (some other non-compatible program that was on the 486 I borrowed from one of my college roommates, that I used because I couldn’t afford WordPerfect or MS Office) or Tandy DeskMate or some other product produced by some other now-defunct victim of Microsoft’s office software wars. I really don’t want to track down all of those softwares again (especially when some of them require a pre-OS X Mac or Windows 3.1 to work.) If I had just saved my work as plain text, I could read it all today.

If I wanted fancy formatting in my document, I could just do HTML. Or LaTeX. Or save as RTF (which most word processors, even the feature-limited WordPad and TextEdit, which come with Windows and Mac OS X, respectively, can open). All those file formats will be readable in 10, 15, 20 years or more, unless there’s some kind of fundamental change in how we do computing (like if we all go to brain-implanted virtual reality quantum computers or something.)

I also know my modern laptop, modern flash drives, and modern cloud backups are a lot more stable and secure than a 30-year-old DOS machine. I can’t tell you how many times back in the day that I put a file on a floppy to print out at school, only to have the floppy fail or the file end up unreadable when I opened it up at the computer lab. Or, for that matter, in the late 90’s I had something called a “Zip drive” which… well, to say those were unreliable would be an understatement.

So I have decided that I need to look towards the future instead of luxuriate in nostalgia. I want to write, not fight with ancient computer programs and obsolete file formats. (I admit it’s fun sometimes to do just that, but only when you’re just doing it for fun.) So I just have to pick up the closest pencil from the huge box of pencils I have in front of me–and just start writing again. And hope I can still read stuff written with that pencil in the future.

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.)

Rearranging my pencils

I have been staring at this computer all day. I have no idea why. I’m not doing anything useful at all. I’m not looking for jobs, writing my novel, or learning Spanish. I’m not even playing Kingdom of Loathing, the online game that I got sucked into back in January. I’m watching old Homestar Runner cartoons that I’ve watched many times before and trying to make the ancient WordPerfect 5.1 word processor for DOS work on my Windows 7 setup.

As far as the last one is concerned, I know why I’m trying to do that. I feel like it would help me write again. I remember extremely fond memories of staring into the friendly blue screen with white text back in my teenage years, back when “serious” computers ran DOS and word processors were clunky, text-based affairs that required you to learn a metric shit-ton of control codes in order to do anything other than type. But for some reason, I have a lot of nostalgia for those days. I figured out how to use the keyboard interface and typed all sorts of stories and journals and school papers and projects into that thing. I felt like I could write anything with WordPerfect 5.1 on my mom’s 286.


(We’re getting all recursive, now!)

But then, the world changed. Computers became faster, more capable, more connected, easier to use yet more annoying at the same time. The huge metal IBM box in the office got sent to the junk yard when my mom upgraded to a Pentium with Windows 95. It could get you on the Internet where an infinity of information came through at you, constantly distracting you. You could run multiple programs at once, but they all competed for your attention like a dozen people trying to instant message you at once. Program X needs updated. Program Y is shoving ads in your face. Program Z has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down! And don’t forget, you’ve got mail!

Windows-based writing programs like MS Word (and all Windows-based versions of WordPerfect) are set up with black text on a white screen. It made them present something that looked more like a printed page, but I found the glare of the white always hurt my eyes, no matter how I adjusted the contrast or brightness on my monitor. And while you’ve got dozens of fonts to choose from, and numerous other settings, you find yourself adjusting your work to look good rather than actually doing the business of writing.


(Also… taking all the time to figure out why it’s making squiggles all over my work.)

I’ve tried so-called “minimalist” text editors, but none of them seem to work for me. Either they have too few features to write comfortably in (no spell check or find/replace or even support for accented characters) or too many nonsense functions (like playing New Agey mood tones or making fake typewriter key noises or changing the background colors at random) for me to respect them as a writer’s tool. Or they cost too much money, or they’re only for the Mac, or they’re based on decades-old Unix terminal editors that come with so many unfamiliar and unintuitive commands, they make WordPerfect look like Notepad by comparison. You know how it is.

And then I read an article online about how author George R. R. Martin writes all of his ultra-violent fantasy novels on an old DOS machine running WordStar 4.0. I googled WordStar and found this other article written by science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer that said that WordStar was the greatest thing since sliced bread because of its awesome keyboard shortcuts, which were like WordPerfect’s but totally different. That made me wish that I could track down something like my mom’s 286 to use just for writing. However, I soon realized that something like that would not only take up too much space in my tiny apartment, but also be prohibitively expensive to get shipped to me if I bought it online.

I thought about getting a classic laptop for this project, but laptops from that period had crappy screens and were not much smaller than desktop units.


(We’ve come a long way since then.)

I actually found a Pentium I-era laptop alongside a dumpster about a year ago, and was going to clean it up to use as a distraction-free DOS writing machine, but the screen was dim, the keyboard was mushy and uncomfortable to type on, its floppy drive was broken, and had no CD-ROM, USB, networking ports, or anything to get software on the machine–or writings off the machine. I am a huge nerd when it comes to old technology, but I wasn’t about to spend $$$ on peripherals for this thing or rig up some sort of MacGyvered file-transfer cable to plug into this laptop’s serial port just to run WordPerfect again.

Then I thought, why not just emulate WordPerfect on my Thinkpad? There seem to be numerous ways to do that. Some guy at Columbia University seems to have spent a tremendous amount of time compiling them all. Well, that doesn’t seem to be working out for me either. I can get the program to run in DOSBox, in a window, which clashes horribly with all the other windows on the screen. When I hit Alt-Enter to make it run as a full-screen application, it attempts to emulate 640 x 480 VGA screen resolution… which makes the text blurry and really eyestraining. vBoxWP uses Windows system fonts instead of DOS console fonts, so it’s a little better… or it would be, if the program didn’t glitch out every time I try to do anything. Virtualbox works okay… but can’t do full-screen for reasons unbeknownst to me.

I also downloaded a more obscure emulator called PCE which emulates a 16-bit 8086 processor along with a complete IBM PC BIOS, peripherals, and VGA monitor. It’s quite neat–it even runs long-forgotten operating systems that time forgot and DOSBox won’t touch–stuff like CP/M (the original WordStar OS), Minix, and Xenix. But… it also runs them at 8086 speeds. It took about an hour to install WordPerfect from a disk image on my computer via the DOS setup program, which I expect is how long a computer from that period would take to read 11 floppies. There didn’t seem to be any option in the emulator to speed that process up, either. Felt like loading a game on the Commodore 64 using the notoriously-slow tape drive.

WordPerfect 5.0 - keyboard template - top

But I got it to run to my liking… and I was just about to start typing up a storm like back in the good old days of the 1990s… when I realized that I had forgotten all of the WordPerfect keyboard shortcuts. I had to use the mouse menu or look up the codes in the help pages constantly just to get it to do basic things like boldface and centering text. And when neither of those availed me, I had to just look up advice in a web browser. I realized that this was getting me nowhere.

Also, there was the little matter of getting the text out of the emulated system and onto something I could copy and paste into a Word document or a WordPress input dialog. Turns out that’s not as easy as it sounds either. I anticipated this issue back in college when I converted all my old WordPerfect 5.1 files to the (then-new) WordPerfect 8 .wpd format. Word and LibreOffice are okay with those, but documents written with the 25-year-old DOS program become a garbled mess. I understand you can open them right with the latest version of WordPerfect (which has miraculously survived the Microsoft Office onslaught and made it to version 17) but that’s $54.95 I really don’t care to spend right now (although it would make a great gift for the wandering nerd in your life.)

So… I spent all this time rearranging the chairs in the Procrastination Station when I could have been on the writing train. Using anything. MS-DOS Edit. Word with a reverse-colors Windows theme. Vim or emacs in a Linux console. Heck, even a pencil and paper. That’s just me, though. I’m so blinded by nostalgia and a need to return to a time where I felt more creative and less writers-blocked that I spend all my time making ancient software work instead of doing the work of my soul or continuing that fantasy novel I’m currently stuck on chapter five of.

Hell, even writing this blog post is a form of procrastination… as well as a way to keep myself sane on a lonely Saturday in which absolutely nothing else is going on. But at least I’m writing again. At least I’m writing something.