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William F Buckley and WordStar

The New York Times had a wonderful piece by Christopher Buckley today about his mother and father – you can read it here.

I enjoyed this on many levels, as a son and as a father. But it also brought back some great memories.

newwordIn 1987, I negotiated the sale of Newstar Software to MicroPro, and we made NewWord into WordStar. It was a big industry event, with lots of press coverage. If you’re curious, you can read John C. Dvorak’s account of the event here. At that time, WordStar was still the leading word processor.

In those days, computers were still relatively uncommon, and CP/M was still going strong, although MS-DOS was clearly going to be the winner. If you were a pioneer, your software and hardware choices were a big deal, and there was a lot of emotional baggage that accompanied your choice.

wmfbuckleyWordStar was a product that you either loved or hated. It had a large and devoted following, and William F Buckley was one of the most passionate followers. From a Time Magazine article: “I’m told there are better programs, but I’m also told there are better alphabets.” Vintage Buckley…

In fact, there was an informal WordStar user’s group that included Buckley, Christopher Lehman-Haupt (then book editor of the NY Times), and several other people at the Times. This wasn’t a secret; Buckley was very vocal about his love for WordStar, and it was covered in the press several times.

After the Newstar acquisition, MicroPro brought in some major marketing talent, which was spearheaded by Tom Keyser. The MicroPro people wanted to change the name of WordStar, because the staff thought the brand image was of an old fashioned, obsolete program. I had different ideas, and Tom did a brand personality study on WordStar – the only good market research I’ve ever seen in the software business. It was no surprise to find out that WordStar was perceived as the best word processor both by users and non-users.

Tom created a fantastic campaign: “Word Stars on WordStar.” And we got many famous people to stand up and sing the praises of the product in a mult-page ad. I can’t remember everyone now, but Buckley was one of our stars. Tom Wolfe was another, and Arthur C. Clark another. None of these stars received any compensation for lending us their personal brands.

I kept up with some of these stars for a while via MCI Mail, which predated Internet mail as we know it – and even AOL It was the first commercial email system, developed by Vinton Cerf and his crew. You got to MCI via dial-up modem, and the only thing you could do was write or read email. And there was NO spam in those days.

Buckley was a lot of fun – his emails always made me laugh. And I was always surprised at how bad his spelling was.

So that’s a little trip down memory lane for me. But since I like to keep these posts related to personal branding and job search, your take-away is that it’s actually surprisingly easy to get through to most people. And many of these people will enjoy the conversations if you have something interesting to say or can help them in some way. After all, famous people are people just like you and me!

One final note: I had a special code I had to use if I sent anything to Mr. Buckley by mail or FedEx – if I put it on the label, it would get past all the filters he had set up at the National Review. Guess he picked that up at the CIA. (I’d tell you the code, but then Christopher Buckley might have to kill me.)

Posted in Back in the day, Marketing.

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6 Responses

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  1. Mike Petrie says

    Interesting story. I’ve tried to put together a brief hostory of WordStar. You can read it here: A Potted History of WordStar.

    • Walter Feigenson says

      Mike, your history of WordStar is great. I’ve read it a few times, and just re-read it. Although I’m not mentioned in the article (shame on you), one of my Newstar marketing pieces is linked to the article. (Mike, I have more if you’re interested.) The whole story of how we came to be acquired by Micropro was quite interesting. Maybe I’ll write about it some day…

      But here’s one to add to your story: Seymour Rubinstein told me a slightly different version of how he lost control of MicroPro. It’s interesting that you say Glen Haney had him sign the paperwork – and it probably makes more sense. But in Seymour’s version, it was Fred Adler who stuck some papers inside the oxygen tent and told him to sign. He ended the story by telling me that he would piss on Adler’s grave, and if he died before Adler, one of his family members would pour a bottle of urine he’d saved on Adler’s grave.

      Too bad, because the personal enmity between these two nuts was a big part of the company’s downfall. They turned down some pretty good offers, including – I was told – by Ashton-Tate. All because neither Adler nor Rubinstein would let the other get the better of him. I saw them both in a board meeting once in Adler’s fancy New York City offices. It was embarrassing. They were just like two little children calling each other names.

      • Mike Petrie says

        Thanks Walter. The history was pulled together from all the leads I could find at the time. Some of them dried up before I got all the details I needed, and some others, as you illustrate above, led to variations of a story. It’s been a while since I did any work on the article – perhaps I should have a go at another update?

        Regards, Mike

    • Walter Feigenson says

      Well, if you ever decide to update, let me know. I’m still in touch with Peter Mierau, Stan Reynolds, and Rick Post (who I replaced). I could probably clear up a few details in the story. I could also clear up the Morrow connection a bit – your details aren’t quite right. Plus I ran into a fellow who shared the house in Berkeley where Barnaby wrote the code. He’s got more stories to add, I’m sure.

      Here’s a short one I’m sure you never heard: I was product manager of SuperCalc, which was often bundled with WordStar – as in the Osborn computer. We had a Japanese affiliate (“Sorcim Japan”) and a Japanese version of SuperCalc. When I got to Newstar, I found that there was also a Newstar Japan, which was run by – doh – the same person! And then I found out that some/most of the Japanese localization of SuperCalc was done by Peter Mierau, in Pleasant Hill. We had no idea any of this was happening back at Sorcim.

  2. Mike Petrie says

    Hi Walter. If you would do me the honour of pointing these guys at the article and asking them to forward their comments/corrections/additions I would most certainly like to fill in some gaps and get the story corrected where it’s wrong.

    The problem before was that I ran out of contacts, and those that I’d found and pestered – I think – had given all they had to offer at that time. If I do any updates I’ll try running it past them all again to see if any other memories get triggered. Their names, as you know, are all at the end of the article.

  3. Patrick Caubet says

    J’ai lu votre article rappelant la création de Wordstar. Sachez qu’il y a encore des adeptes de ce logiciel, qui reste le meilleur traitement de texte. En tant qu’éditeur, je l’utilise tous les jours après l’avoir installé sur mes mac ! Si vous m’indiquez une adresse mail, je peu vous adresser une photo d’écran d’un MacBook Pro avec Wordtar !

    Google translation:

    I read your article referring to the creation of Wordstar. Know that there are still fans of this software as the best word processor. As qu’diteur, I use it every day after you install it on my mac! If you give me an e-mail address, I just send you a photo of a screen MacBook Pro with Wordtar!