As Microsoft Corporate Vice President Peter Pathe prepares to retire, he discusses the lasting legacy of a product he’s overseen for more than a decade.
REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 4, 2007
With the release of Microsoft’s new generation of technologies in 2007 comes an interesting highlight about a venerable program. Microsoft Word for Windows, the flagship word-processing program so popular around the globe, is turning 18.
Word was originally the “Bravo” product, brought to Microsoft from IBM’s Palo Alto Research Center by Charles Simonyi in 1981. The following year, Microsoft officially launched Word’s development team. When the first version was released in 1983, it was the first word-processing product to feature the “WYSIWYG” design philosophy that what appears on screen should appear in print. It was the first program to feature line breaks, bold-faced and italic fonts on screen, and typeset-quality printing.
In its early days, Word strove for acceptance in a word-processing market that boasted more than 300 different titles on multiple platforms. In addition to versions for MS-DOS, Word was among the earliest applications to appear on OS/2 and Apple’s Macintosh computers. As early programs such as Electric Pencil gave way to WordStar, WordPerfect and other brands, Microsoft Word laid the foundation to become the no. 1 word-processing application worldwide.
The first version of Word for Windows was released in 1989, a full two years before WordStar and WordPerfect were delivered on the new Windows operating system. That two-year head start, together with Word’s decade of development and innovation — as well as stellar product reviews — helped catapult the program to the top slot in the early 1990s. By 1994, Word was able to claim a 90 percent share of the word-processing market, making it one of the most successful and most well-known software products in history.
While many credit Simonyi as the “Father of Word,” Microsoft Corporate Vice President Peter Pathe has been the program’s legal guardian throughout the Windows Era. Pathe joined Microsoft in 1991 to manage the development of the TrueType font system, still regarded as a de facto standard in digital typeface engineering. In 1993, he took over the helm of the Word Business Unit in Microsoft’s Desktop Applications Division.
During the first four years under his management, revenues for the business more than tripled to over US$2 billion annually, and Microsoft Word surpassed all competitors to become the world’s most popular word processing software. Pathe is credited with introducing key innovations to the product line and with early recognition of the shift from print to online documents in the workplace.
In 1994, he helped make Word the first commercial word processor capable of browsing and editing documents directly from the World Wide Web. In 1995, a single version of Word replaced the many individual language versions previously shipped. This achievement, along with native support of UNICODE character sets and device-independent page layout, enabled users to share e-mail and word processing documents online around the world.
This month, Word is launching as Microsoft Office Word 2007, and will be available along with Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft Office suites for consumers and small businesses Jan. 30.
PressPass took the opportunity to talk with Pathe, who recently announced his retirement, about his flagship product, how it became so successful, and what he’s excited about with the Jan. 30 launch of Microsoft Office 2007.
PressPass: Over the past 18 years, Word has become the standard word processor, with more than 450 million users of Microsoft Office worldwide. To what do you attribute this success?
Pathe: Word processing is basic. Whenever a new computing platform emerges, one of the first applications and often the first application to appear is the word processor. Early on, the evolution of the word processor for the personal computer was driven purely by feature development. Customers were very demanding, and vendors competed to deliver more and more complete and powerful word processing capabilities. Magazine reviews listed the most popular word processing software along with feature checklists, and winning the reviews was the name of the game.
In the early to mid-nineties, a number of things happened and the game changed. PC sales took off, the industry consolidated around Windows in a very big way, and the PC phenomenon started to spread to countries around the world. E-mail became an everyday way to communicate, and the Internet and the World Wide Web began connecting people through computers everywhere. All of these elements were in place for quite some time, but when they started getting popular things changed really, really, quickly.
Ease of use became as important, or in some cases more important, than any particular word processing feature a competitor might be adding. Consistency and compatibility with Excel and the other Office applications became a new customer expectation. And “personal productivity” had to be enhanced with collaboration and workgroup capabilities.
The Word team is an extraordinary group who realized how these changes were reshaping the customers’ needs, and much of our success can be attributed to how well they listened to customers and anticipated those needs. Of course, none of that would have been possible without the leadership of Chris Peters, who managed the team until he became the vice president of the Office group in 1993. I think the cumulative effect of their innovations and their total focus on our users are the primary reasons the product has continued to be such a success. And of course, we had a little luck along the way too, which never hurts.
PressPass: What were some of the milestone innovations that really helped Word make its mark? How are programmers able to integrate the feedback of users to develop the best product?
Pathe: The graphical versions of Word are almost iconic in the world of modern computer application software. In many ways I think Word helped to shape people’s expectations of what productivity applications were all about. Being early supporters of the Mac did a lot to establish that sensibility in the development team, and it continued into the work on Word for Windows.
Which innovations were the milestones? I don’t know. How about Toolbar Buttons? Print Preview. Background spelling and grammar checking. Auto-correct. Creating a table with the pencil and eraser icons. I’m going to stop now. There are so many things that either appeared first in Word or were made popular by Word, but I don’t think you can point to just one or a few and say, “That’s the one that made all the difference!”
Getting customer feedback happens in a number of ways. One of the first things I did when I started on Word was to create a product planning group. These folks made sure we were talking to customers at their sites and at ours, and were the first line of sorting out so much of what we were learning from people who used our products. Later on, a huge innovation from the Office team was spearheaded by a former Word developer. I’m talking about the Watson system, which enables users to anonymously provide application information when they have a crash or other problem, and has been an amazing improvement to our beta and regular product releases.
The last thing I’ll mention is Office Online, which is our Web-based help and online-feature system. Through Office Online we can learn what sorts of tasks people are trying to do with Word and where we should concentrate our efforts at improvement.
PressPass: From your perspective, what are the most exciting new innovations coming for Word 2007?
Pathe: Office 2007 features a new user interface design, and Word itself will feature a new menu design that makes it really easy to access the most commonly used commands. Users should be able to save quite a bit of time with the new layout.
We’ve also really worked on the formatting capabilities in Word 2007. We have the new Quick Styles and Document Themes that help users to quickly change the appearance of text, tables and graphics throughout the entire document, and the new SmartArt diagrams and a new charting engine that make it pretty easy to create 3D graphics, transparencies, drop shadows and other effects.
Also, our new Document Inspector protects people from making “information errors” the way spell check protects them from spelling errors. The Document Inspector looks for personal information, along with tracked revisions, and alerts users to their presence. If you’ve ever sent a document to a client that contained embedded comments and changes from the internal process, you know what I’m talking about.
PressPass: Business and technology are now global. What has been added to Word to make it work worldwide? How is Word rolled out in different languages?
Pathe: There was a time when the development team here in Redmond would focus almost exclusively on the U.S. English version of the product. Then custom versions for other languages and markets were derived from that. That took a lot of time and we ended up with a lot of different versions of what really should have been the same product. It also tended to insulate a lot of the development team here from specific competitive issues outside the United States. Still, Word was able to ship in a good number of languages. For example, we were able to produce versions in Chinese and Russian back when it was difficult for any American company to do business in those countries and they had practically no software market to speak of.
Over the last decade or so, we have completely re-engineered that process to centralize core feature development for the global product with the Redmond development team, while still enabling our developers in Ireland, Europe and East Asia the ability to deliver local market languages and features extremely quickly and efficiently.
PressPass: Looking forward, how do you see Word performing with the challenges from Web-based, open-source information processing?
Pathe: We’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade working on making Word a great platform for Web-based and collaborative processes. We’ve integrated Word tightly with SharePoint, added protections and rights to the document. The program supports HTML and HTTP, XML templates, and other Web-based protocols. A very important development in Word and Office 2007 is the support for Open XML file formats. The specifications for these have been submitted for approval as ISO standards and will enable Word to be used in whole new ways, including the information processing scenarios you are asking about.
PressPass: Any regrets along the way?
Pathe: I don’t know if they are regrets, exactly, but we didn’t always get things right. We knew that we needed to make Word easier to use and the features more accessible to more people. But it turns out a cartoon paper clip asking if you wanted help with that letter to Mom wasn’t always as welcome as we had hoped it would be. Dismissing the Tip of the Day (Don’t run with scissors!) before getting settled into work was also an extra step that was ultimately more annoying than helpful. Great people worked on these features, but at the end of the day we needed to make them less obtrusive or simply not have shipped them in the form we did.
PressPass: As you look forward personally to your retirement, how will you spend your time? Can you help thinking ahead to what’s next for Word?
Pathe: There are so many opportunities for Word and Office as I think about the future, and yes, I’m a little envious of the folks who will get to keep moving the products forward. You know, it was just stunning to me, but after we shipped Word and Office 97 there were some people who asked me if we weren’t done already. I’m reminded of the story of the closing of the U.S. Patent Office around the turn of the 19th century because there was nothing left to invent. Well, the patent office is still open and the Word team is getting ready to start work on the next version. I can’t tell you what they are up to, but I’m sure it is going to be great.