Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 18 / APRIL 1988  / PAGE 49




by D.F. Scott

D.F. Scott is an artist, writer, educator and programmer living in Oklahoma City. He is currently engaged in the study of quantum physics, computing and other ways in which elementary particles interact with each other. Otherwise, he fills infinite pieces of paper.

Last year, Atari and Microsoft signed a pact which would let Microsoft port its Macintosh version of Write over to the ST, and let Atari market it under the Fuji symbol. Atari viewed this as an official endorsement of the ST by the world's largest and most respected software conglomerate; Microsoft has, over time, openly implied it was all a waste of time.

Then along came a small software company in Orem, Utah, whose only claim to fame was that it produced the best-selling software package in the U.S.—for a few years running. Its name was SSI Software. But, perhaps in a move to thwart phone calls asking how to overcome a bug in Gemstone Warrior, the company renamed itself in 1986, after its premiere software feat, to become WordPerfect Corp.

Now Atari is playing down its own Write product—which is on revision seven, going on eight, in the labs—and pushing WordPerfect instead. It might seem to some that the introduction of mass market software to the ST realm would initiate the inevitable collapse of the one- or two-man software production houses.

WordPerfect Corp. does not feel, however, that it can just march into the ST software market as the all-powerful conqueror. In fact, in conversations with the company's representatives, one might receive the impression that it is making a dangerous move in an already saturated market.

At the last Dallas AtariFest, WordPerfect Corp.'s marketing stance was, at once, defensive. To describe themselves and their program, they used the term unlimited repetitively. Ease of use has been their trademark, but that quality—with respect to the ST word processing foray—isn't as unique as it is in the IBM superpower melee. WPC had to find distinctions to draw between themselves and other companies; so they began by introducing a totally new WordPerfect, written entirely in assembly language and sharing only the name with its predecessors.

The WordPerfect package contains six disks; its structure is so large that WPC's advertising suggests using a Supra 20-meg hard drive to run the program. Printer drivers alone consume two single-sided disks; and, besides the program disk, there are separate spelling checker and thesaurus disks, plus a tutorial disk. The spelling checker contains 115,000 words, some of which are divided into separate "specialty" categories, with room for additions. The thesaurus disk displays both synonyms and antonyms.

This is the first WordPerfect to be GEM-dedicated. It uses the standard GEM windows and menu bar, leaving desk accessories available. The information line has been moved to the bottom, and registers the current cursor location.

WPC has spawned its own Atari Products Division to handle this one product. Todd Ashman, the division manager, recently discussed his company's marketing philosophy: "We're going to be targeting the high-end market in word processing. ‘Full-featured,’ to us, is something that has much more than just a 50,000-word dictionary, outlining capabilities and merge. What we incorporate in WordPerfect is speed. It's fully functional from both the keyboard and the mouse.

"Some of the outstanding features that we have incorporated include on-screen columns—the ability to have up to five columns on-screen, just as they'll print to the printer. We've got macro capabilities which are unlimited and unlimited document size—we're not limited to RAM. Table of contents and index generation is done for you. Also, footnotes and endnotes are unlimited—you can have one footnote, for instance, that's 16,000 lines long.

"To show you the flexibility [of footnotes], we automatically renumber them as you edit, delete or add them. You can change the spacing between the notes, spacing within the notes, [decide whether to use] lines separating text and footnotes—so you've got full control over footnotes.

"A lot of the difference that you'll see," continues Ashman, "is in the high-end market. The people we've talked to have at least three or four word processors. One does one thing very nicely, another does another thing very nicely—there's no one that does it all. That's the kind of market we're going after. We're priced a little high for this particular market, but people need to realize, if they want this type of software, it requires an investment in support of this type of development. We're going to have a toll-free technical support line, so they can call us direct. We'll support up to 200 different printers, 10 different laser printers—we'll support Atari's laser printer when they get that out."

The program also uses its own interpretive macro language, through which multiple keystrokes may be represented as statements and engaged in one chain via a single keystroke. The language structure is such that macros may be invoked, or invoke others, conditionally.

The "merge" feature might also be employed as a storage and retrieval database of sorts, as Ashman explains: "Our merge is much more than just ‘take an address file and make a form letter.’ That's easily done with WordPerfect. What we allow you to do is create a form on your screen, and do a form fill-in input from the keyboard. You can also embed macros in the merges and make it a conditional type of merge. It's very simple if all you want to do is merge an address file with a form letter; very complex if you get into assemblage of documents where you're switching primary and secondary files."

Individual paragraphs may be numbered or labeled in a variety of ways, for use with the built-in outlining system, or for the alphanumeric sort procedure. Paragraphs may represent "index cards," in a way, and may be sorted and stored as such. Internal math tables may also be generated as columns within a document. For instance, the user may select which items to add and subtract from each other for the "total" column.

The full GEM character set is supported, including accented characters for foreign languages. In fact, WordPerfect employs a Flash-like translation table, allowing the user to map which control key invokes which special character. Functions or macros may be invoked using alternate (ALT) keystrokes, as well as through the menu bar.

Internal memory is managed in such a way that the last three deletions may be retrieved from the brink of extinction, and documents which overfill the user data buffer automatically spill over to disk. Files created with the last-most-recent IBM version of WordPerfect, (version 4.1) may be converted to ST format, using the program's internal translator.

Perhaps the most controversial part of this program is its suggested retail list price—$395. While one may wonder why WPC feels the ST user will gladly spend a majority of the cost of a 520 monochrome system for just a word processor, WPC is busy using its PC-realm sales tactics to encourage dealers not to sell at suggested list. To be precise, they're telling dealers to hold permanent 65-percent-off sales.

Ashman explains their line of reasoning: "Obviously, the price is substantially higher than some of our competitors, but we don't feel they are in the same league as we are—feature-wise or performance-wise. The street value of the products will be substantially less; we let the dealers take a look at how much support they want to give, and then they can determine how much they want to charge.

"Take, for instance, our IBM PC product. The suggested retail is $495. You can pick up several magazines and find it priced anywhere from $200 to $250. That represents substantially more than 50 percent off. So, when you're talking suggested retail at $395, what it's really going to be selling for will be substantially lower than that. The market that the price will actually address is about the $180 market.

"Even at $395," states Ashman, "I feel that it's worth it, because I've worked with it, I know it; I've worked with some of the other packages that are currently out on the market, and what we offer and what they offer are substantially different. It will take a little bit of time for the end user to realize the difference. Right now, if we were selling our product by price alone, it wouldn't have achieved the number one position it has in the IBM market."

It was only a matter of time before the "high-end" software market met the ST. It will be interesting to see how a relatively large corporation fares against the ever-growing array of word processing dynamos conceived by individual computer artists in their backyards. We can predict this: With WordPerfect, expect to smell smoke, to see comparison lists ablaze within advertisements, and to set aside a Saturday to attend a 65-percent-off sale at a software dealer near you.