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Thursday, November 1, 2012

WP 5.1: 23 years later, still unmatched in some ways

It's been around 20 years since WordPerfect 5.1 was fresh software, but I bet there are still people out there who are lamenting the loss of it. There was something to be said for the things it could do and I don't think it's been matched in all this time.

For anyone who remembers it, they probably know I'm going to mention "reveal codes". That's just one of those things which you flat out could not get to happen anywhere else. For those who never had the pleasure, imagine being able to see all of the internal markers which tell your word processor where to start and stop formatting things certain ways. It's a little like in HTML where you have a container, and everything inside of it is changed somehow.

Upon moving to so-called WYSIWYG editors, this feature basically disappeared. They figured they could just show you things in different fonts, sizes, bold, italicized, underlined, or whatever. I guess word processors got there eventually, but for the first couple of years, it was pretty wonky. Meanwhile, I used to encounter situations where it seemed to be like pulling teeth to get Word (or whatever) to format things the way I wanted them, and I knew that if I could just "reveal codes", I could find the wayward marker and fix it.

There's more to this, though. All of the graphical gunk which was going on meant you had to run in Windows, or use a Mac, or (gasp) X11 and hope it would work out. Many times, these environments were horrible in terms of user responsiveness. You'd go to do something, and it would just hang there. There was no way to be sure exactly what it was doing or when it would decide to acknowledge your input.

Maybe it's just the rose-colored glasses of the past, but I can't remember WP 5.1 under DOS ever pulling that kind of stupidity on me. There just wasn't anything else happening on the machine. It was you, the program, and the bare metal. The likelihood of something else popping up and deciding to steal the CPU or block disk I/O was pretty low.

Here in the present day, we still can't get this right. I can buy a machine which has crazy amounts of CPU power, but it's still slow and laggy at times. I'm not even talking about asking it to do serious work. This is just for when I decide to type in some notes and it decides it's time to block the UI thread to get something else done. This makes no sense. How can the creators of these tools live with this? What are they doing to avoid this kind of insanity?

Responsiveness matters to me, so I use my boring old text editor in a terminal window when it comes time to write lengthy things. It never gets "behind" my typing, and it basically stays out of my way. Maybe it's because the fundamentals of a terminal are positively ancient. Is it going to take another couple of decades for graphical user interfaces to stop lagging? I sure hope not.