side of the CoCo
This rant started as a review of VIP Writer, one of the "heavy hitting" word processing programs for the CoCo, but sort of got away from me and wandered in some various directions. So what we have is part review, part rant and all utterly useless information for people who can now write gigabytes and gigabytes of text in 480-point Comic Sans to their heart's content.
A bit of history and perspective for anyone who cares. For those used to desktop publishing, dozens of fonts and throwing all sorts of colorful graphics into modern word processing documents, any of yesteryear's programs and computers would seem incredibly primitive and hard to use. And the final printed product was hardly overwhelming - this was before 2,880 dot-per-inch inkjet printers, so everything was printed on dot matrix printers that spit out monospaced characters usually contained within something like a 9X9 dot grid (on cheaper ones it was fewer and letters with descend like "q" and "j" didn't actually "descend" below the text line - and, boy, was that ever ugly. But any regular user of the era will tell you the programs were a godsend in an era when typewriters still had a presence in some offices.
Every computer I ever encountered had at least some kind of word processing program available for it, but sometimes it was hard to figure out why. Probably the humblest mass-selling computer ever was the Sinclair ZX81 (and of course I had one and loved it for the quirky piece of junk it was), which had a flat keyboard about one-third the size of a real one, 1K of memory and a printer that kicked out nearly unreadable letters on strips of paper no wider than grocery receipts. Then there was the VIC-20, which could display a whopping 22 letters per line on the screen (maybe three or four words). It had a whole 5K of memory. Even one of the big selling "power" computers, the Apple II at well over $1,000 was a staggeringly incompetent word processing machine for one huge reason: It had no lowercase letters. Considering schools were their big market at the time and it seems reasonable to assume students might want to do some work on the machines, it's staggering it took Apple years to come out with a model that corrected this.
As for the software, here's one of the truly great and quirky things about that era: Because computers came standard with programming languages (usually BASIC) instead of programs consumers might actual use for productive activities, even a beginning user could usually write their own word processor if they so chose. Many did, including myself, although it was never something I seriously used for anything. The reason is they were usually a joke compared to commercial programs. Instead of editing an entire document at once, for example, you might type in the sentences one at a time, press <ENTER> and each sentence would be assigned a number. If you wanted to change anything, you would use a combination of function keys to select an edit option, make the changes in the sentence, then go back to entering more sentences one at a time. When it came time to print, the computer would just take all the sentences and print them, with the "real" power being the ability to insert line and paragraph breaks at the right places.
The power of the commercial programs, of course, was most of them skipped all this nonsense and just let you edit everything on-screen at once. But their quality was all over the map and it was pretty much a certainty none of the programs - not to mention different computers - would kick out documents the competition would be able to read. So you had to pick vary carefully. Some so-called "easy" programs were so simple you couldn't move text, number pages or change the preset margin and tab settings. The complicated programs (Wordstar was the industry standard in the business world at the time) came with manuals that looked like encyclopedias and required learning hundreds of commands you had type in to get things looking right.
VIP Writer was a CoCo word processing program that played a definite second fiddle to the leader (Telewriter 64), but they have enough similarities that I can discuss them both here without too much trouble. I owned VIP because I got their entire office suit of programs (spreadsheet, database, etc.) on clearance for $20 when the CoCo was sliding into oblivion (it was a $100 program originally). Even head-to-head I might be inclined to pick VIP over Telewriter because I felt it offered more features (the latter was known as being easier to use), but had I used Telewriter all those years I'm pretty sure I'd remain loyal to it instead. Point being, I don't consider either a knockout winner.
As sold, the CoCo's basic hardware was terrible for word processing. It had a screen display of 32 characters wide by 16 deep, lower case letters were shown as reverse video (green on a black background) and you had to save your files on cassette tapes unless you spent hundreds of dollars for a disk drive. One of the biggest enticements of VIP Writer and Telewriter was they overcame at least some of these restrictions by using the high-resolution graphics modes of the CoCo instead of the standard text screens for the work area. What you ended up with was smaller letters, but you got 51, 64 or 85 (the latter largely unreadable) horizontal letters by 24 vertical ones with true lowercase. Without this I doubt anyone would have ever tried serious writing on a CoCo.
You could do most of what you do today with the programs: cut and paste text, spell-check it (although often you had to exit to a separate program, due to limited memory), and even merge it with spreadsheets and databases. The features just required a lot more work - usually typing in a series of two-letter commands, for example - and results weren't as seamless as today's integrated applications.
By the way, these and a lot of other programs could run awfully slow, and a fast typist could easily lose a ton of work if they didn't pay attention to the screen. Today's concept of a type-ahead buffer to record keystrokes when the computer was swamped with stuff to do was something like air bags back then - a luxury option not found in a lot of models.
But VIP Writer still had enough horsepower to do serious stuff: I could write a 40- or 50-page term paper on a CoCo with all of 64K memory (a whopping amount for the time) and I could have chained documents together had I ever decided to write a book.
Other word processing programs on the CoCo could be pretty bad. Radio Shack's Scripsit ROM cartridge was a notorious example - it used the whole reverse video thing to display letters and if you set the margins wider than 31 characters per line the entire screen would jump and scroll around as you worked your way from left to right and back. The trick, of course, was to type everything in with narrow margins and widen them once everything was perfect. It was the sort of thing good for writing letters home maybe once or twice a month.
Of course, I'd never go back for anything in the world, but the length of this rant hopefully makes it clear our beloved CoCos and other '80s machines could do more than gobble dots and vanquish aliens in a nicely capable fashion.