Today in Tedium: As you may or may not know about me, I have strong opinions on how word processors and text editors should work. I also have a fascination with failed (or at least, declining) file formats—and having written a couple of these lists, I’ve found them to be deeply enjoyable as well as a great way to highlight forgotten software that people probably haven’t used in a long time. (Some would argue they’re trolling opportunities, to which I plead the fifth.) So perhaps it’s time to combine those two things into a list that highlights some word processors that time forgot, or that most of us moved on from. But I of course need to hedge this slightly, by pointing out that when I decide on what shows up in this list, I work within basic parameters: it tends to be specialized, obfuscated, uncommon, or unloved—in a combination that, together makes it optional for the average person. Let’s dig into some documents that might be hard to open with a standard word processor. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from a video by the YouTube creator RetroCAD, showing off the forgotten word processor Professional Write, also known as PFS:Write.
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1. BRAVO file format
File type: Historically foundational WYSIWYG word processor
Most common file extension: .BRAVO
What if I told you that you’re still using a descendant of this groundbreaking word processor, first developed in the 1970s for the Xerox Alto, today? Well, you see, Charles Simonyi, the guy who developed the Bravo word processor, the first-ever WYSIWYG document editor, was later hired by Microsoft to create a version of its early word processor for them.
That word processor? Microsoft Word. (Yes, that’s right, Microsoft got just as much out of Xerox PARC as Apple did.)
The decision to do this, beyond eventually making Simonyi a multi-billionaire who later became one of the first space tourists, created some interesting quirks in terms of what we got from our word processors. One of the most notable, as explained to Wired in 2004, is that Word documents—at least of its earliest era—essentially were dumps of the memory, which explains why Word files are so much bigger than standard text documents. On the plus side, the large size made the files load faster.
By the way, we live in a hell of a fascinating lineage, by the way, where software tools from the 1960s and 1970s directly or indirectly influenced how we used modern computing devices today. On the DigiBarn Computer Museum, author Bruce Damer makes the direct connection between Bravo and Word.
2. Volkswriter file format
File type: Text-based word processor
Most common file extension: .vw , .vw3
No, Volkswagen didn’t make Volkswriter, but the name was inspired directly by the car manufacturer’s utilitarian nature. For a time, the application was one of the most popular word processors available on the IBM PC, with a key reason for that being the fact that it had a relatively low price compared to other word processors of the era, as well as the fact that it was born early enough in the PC’s history that it didn’t have very much competition.
(The developer, Camilo Wilson, was even featured in an early issue of PC Magazine next to Mitch Kapor, for helping to develop one of the platform’s killer apps. Quite the reputation to uphold!)
The application, despite its early popularity, faltered when the company did, and despite efforts to help revive the application by handing it off to the company’s employees, it didn’t make it to the modern day as newer word processors usurped it.
Per Archive Team, Volkswriter did receive some compatibility with other word processor contemporaries such as WordPerfect, though the format fell into obscurity over time.
A video of someone booting up the Apple II version of AppleWorks.
3. AppleWorks/ClarisWorks file formats
File type: Text-based (later WYSIWYG) word processor, part of larger office suite, not cross-compatible
Most common file extension: .AWP/.CWK
Despite the name, this is a complicated mess of a file format, because if you break it down, you’re really talking about three separate pieces of software that were barely compatible and sold under two wildly different names. (I guess the quadrant system wasn’t in effect for Apple’s word processor ambitions.)
This application suite, which originally began as an Apple II program in 1984 (and, fun fact, was my first exposure to a word processor in 1991, when I was in the fourth grade), eventually was brought over to the Apple IIgs starting in 1988 under a different code base. But complicating factors is ClarisWorks, a MacOS app first developed in the early 1990s, that itself was eventually renamed AppleWorks. That application saw a single major version released for Mac OS X before it was finally retired by Apple in the mid-2000s.
Per the Archive Team, It was technically possible to convert an Apple II AppleWorks file to a Mac AppleWorks file … but only if you had an Apple IIgs to bridge the gap, which could read the former and share a saved file that was compatible with the latter.
Despite not being sold since 2007, some desperate types have taken extreme steps to be able to still run this software—including running virtual machines on Intel or compatibility layers with Windows versions of AppleWorks.
4. PFS:Write/Professional Write format
File type: Text-based (later WYSIWYG) word processor
Most common file extension: .PFS
This early word processor for the IBM PC and Apple II was the word processor you used if you found WordStar to be too confusing. That made it something of an also-ran in the market even in the middle of its mid-’80s heyday, but it also gave it its own lane in the market. At one point, IBM white-labeled it as IBM Writing Assistant.
The software, first built by Software Publishing Corporation and later sold off to Spinnaker Software, evolved into Professional Write in the early ’90s, and even saw the release of a Windows version.
But it, alas, could not compete with the juggernaut that is Microsoft Word. This format and its successors can be converted into something modern with the help of a tool called LegacyFileConverter, produced by Columbia University professor and vintage word processor enthusiast Edward Mendelson.
5. Cut & Paste document format
File type: Text-based word processor
Most common file extension: Unknown, because of the way the app was built
It might be hard to find a harsher opening line than the one used in the 1986 PC Magazine review of the PC version of this word processor app:
If simplicity is a virtue, then Cut and Paste is the most virtuous word processor I’ve ever seen. It handles most basic word processing functions with ease, but those basics are all it handles.
This multi-platform application, made by Electronic Arts (better known for being a dominant game-maker these days), has proven to be a difficult format to parse in the modern day not because of its use of standard text-based documents, but EA’s decision to basically obfuscate the file system so you couldn’t use files from anywhere else.
Basically, if you wanted to write words but never remove them from this application, and never import files from other applications, this is a good choice. (Which is ironic, given that the program is literally called Cut & Paste.)
6. GeoWrite formats
File type: WYSIWYG word processor document for C64 and DOS, not cross-compatible
Most common file extension: .CVT, .000
As you probably know, I’m a bit of a GeoWorks superfan, and a big element of this is the fact that its included software was significantly more capable than its Windows equivalents.
This is in part because of the software’s roots, which started as GEOS on the Commodore 64—where the company’s software suites, including GeoWrite, first began.
GeoWrite had some fairly advanced capabilities from a graphical standpoint, including the ability to display text in columns and add visual elements, such as borders, to pages. And these capabilities were all the more impressive on the hardware-bottlenecked C64. (As far as I can tell, the C64 geoWrite, with a lowercase g, is not directly compatible with the later DOS GeoWrite.)
A 1991 review of the DOS version of GeoWorks Ensemble, in the magazine Compute! noted that GeoWrite was perhaps one of the best parts of GeoWorks, but was held back by under-the hood capabilities.
“Well, it’s not what GeoWrite includes that’s the problem; it’s what it’s missing: macros, search-and-replace capability, a thesaurus, and a spelling checker,” reviewer Howard Millman wrote. “When compared to the advanced bells and whistles GeoWrite offers, these missing features are as basic as toast for breakfast.”
Much work has been done to make C64 versions of GEOS documents compatible with modern software, much of which is highlighted on the site Pagetable; the path for the DOS version is slightly easier, as GeoWrite files can be converted to HTML or RTF files in later iterations of the operating system (though admittedly, when I tried to test this in DOSBox, FREEGEOS crashed).
7. Microsoft Write format
File type: WYSIWYG word processor, although a simpler one than Microsoft Word
Most common file extension: .WRI
It seems bizarre to consider these days that Microsoft was shipping out multiple GUI-based word processors that weren’t fully compatible with one another, but this early word processor, dating to the Windows 1.0 era, was essentially Microsoft’s answer to the question, “Can we make Word, but cheaper and less functional?”
(And this was a question Microsoft had multiple answers to, given the release of Microsoft Works just three years later. It, too, utilized a nonstandard format for its word-processing documents.)
There was a lane for this, as strange as it sounds; the truth of the matter is, not everyone needed a full-fat word processor back in the day, though this slowly changed as competition grew and open-source options emerged.
While a very uncommon format today, it can still be opened by many more modern word processors.
8. JustWrite/Q&A Write format
File type: WYSIWYG word processor, although a simpler one than Microsoft Word (but more complex than Microsoft Write)
Most common file extension: .JW, JWT
The high cost of buying a copy of Microsoft Word in shrink-wrapped form in the early 1990s ($495, before upgrades! In 1991 money!) created a lane for word processors that didn’t do quite as much as Word, but still did more than the word processor that came with the application.
(Note: GeoWorks, with GeoWrite, was right there, and it came with the OS!)
This Symantec-produced word processor was just one effort to meet the needs of this market, and it only sold for $199, making it a much more reasonable option from a price-performance standpoint. According to a 1991 PC Magazine review, it was also less RAM-hungry than Word was.
However, the application simply wasn’t a hit, even after a rebrand to Q&A Write a few years later to match the company’s Q&A database software. Hence, the dustbins.
9. StarOffice Writer format
File type: WYSIWYG word processor that later gained open-source superpowers
Most common file extension: .SDW, .SXW
The open-source office software game is strong these days, thanks to the modern-day LibreOffice suite, but that suite had to come from somewhere, and that starting point was the StarOffice suite, which dated way back to the 1980s as a DOS application.
A fateful decision by Sun Microsystems to buy the suite for its own company (rather than pay Microsoft licenses for Office), then offer a freely available version of the application, created a lane for the tool to survive into the modern day, first as StarOffice, then as the open-sourced OpenOffice.org. When Oracle bought Sun in the early 2010s, the company shut down StarOffice and gave OpenOffice.org to the Apache Foundation to manage, leaving LibreOffice to carry the reins.
StarOffice Writer format, while uncommon today, is basically the connecting thread between the application’s early proprietary roots and the mature modern free and open source alternative to Microsoft Word we have today.
10. Apple Pages format
File type: WYSIWYG word processor/layout program for MacOS
Most common file extension: .PAGES
OK, I admit it: This is perhaps a bit of a troll, given that this software is a current part of Apple’s office suite and a significant part of Apple’s marketing around the iPad Pro. But the thing is, it probably deserves to be on this list because represents a bit of a throwback of sorts, and not in a good way. (It also, admittedly, inspired the piece.)
Simply put, it has all the elements of a format destined to go obscure the second Apple stops supporting it. It is a file format that can only be correctly opened by Pages, in an era when easy compatibility across apps is the name of the game. Building a file in Pages and sharing it with a friend, even if they also have a Mac or iPad, is a nonstarter—especially given the fact that formats like RTF and DOCX are significantly more common in the modern day.
(By comparison, its sister application, Keynote, has had more luck breaking through.)
One big reason for this is that Pages files are complicated to open in Windows—which means Apple has created a format that basically isn’t portable in any way, at a time when portablity matters deeply for document editing. (Also not helping is the fact that Apple has inexplicably changed the format significantly over the years, limiting its compatibility across individual versions. Again, not a great thing for a word-processing tool to do—but very similar to what design tools like InDesign tend to do. Perhaps this explains why most word-processing apps don’t add in layout capabilities.)
The saving grace of Pages is that its documents can be exported into more common formats.
One interesting wrinkle of modern iWork document files like Pages is that they’re technically ZIP archives that are full of metadata. (As the Archive Team puts it, “So things are nested like Russian dolls.”) If you’ve ever dug into the internals of a modern MacOS application, it’s sort of the same idea.
I will add that there are, of course, some historically important word processors that I haven’t included on this list in part because I know the flame burns bright for them.
For example, WordPerfect is still on sale today, despite the fact that Microsoft nearly destroyed its market chances a quarter-century ago. And as long as George R.R. Martin still writes in Wordstar, we’ll avoid calling it out.
But I think what’s important to discuss here is the fact that standardization around more common formats such as RTF and DOCX has made it possible to get more out of writing and collaboration than we might have been able to do just a few years ago.
Unless you’re doing some really crazy stuff with Word, most of the time, the documents will work well in numerous other applications, including LibreOffice and Google Docs. And honestly, that’s better for everyone. It took us a while to get to that point, but I’m glad we did. As an editor, I think I would go nuts if I had to spend my days trying to figure out how the hell to open PFS:Write files.
(Anything I missed? You know where to find me.)
Find this one an interesting read, or think I’m an idiot for criticizing something you use? Share it with a pal and see what they think!
And thanks again to Nightfall for sponsoring this one.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional context around the Apple Pages format.