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Tracing the History of the Computer - WordStar Word Processor


WordStar was a word processor application, published by MicroPro, originally written for the CP/M operating system but later ported to DOS, that enjoyed a dominant market share during the early-to-mid-1980s. Seymour I. Rubinstein was the principal owner of the company.


WordStar was originally developed for CP/M, one of the most popular microcomputer operating systems of the pre-MS-DOS era. It was the most feature-rich and easy-to-use word processor available for this OS, and became a de facto standard. Notably, WordStar was the last commercial word processor supporting the CP/M operating system. Release 4, the final CP/M compatible version was sold with 5-1/4" floppy disk as a default, and an 8" version as an option.

The DOS version was very similar to the original, and although the IBM PC featured arrow keys and separate function keys, the traditional "WordStar diamond" and other Ctrl-key functions were retained, leading to rapid adoption by former CP/M users. The first DOS version was a direct port of the CP/M version, and therefore only used 64K of RAM even though DOS supported up to 640K. Users quickly learned they could make this version of WordStar run dramatically faster by using the ability of DOS to create a "RAM disk" in memory, and copy the WordStar program files into it. WordStar would still access the "disk" repeatedly, but the far faster access of the RAM drive compared to a floppy disk yielded a substantial speed improvement. However, edited versions of a document were "Saved" only to this RAM disk, and had to be copied to physical magnetic media before rebooting.

By the mid-1980's WordStar was the most popular word processing software in the world. But IBM dominated the "dedicated word processor" market with its "DisplayWrite" application, which ran on machines dedicated to writing and editing documents. There were many dedicated word processing machines at the time, but IBM's main competition was Wang Laboratories. Such machines were largely expensive and were generally accessed through terminals connected to central mainframe or midrange computers.

When IBM announced it was bringing to market a PC version called "DisplayWriter", MicroPro focused on creating a clone of it which they marketed as "WordStar 2000". Neither program was as successful as its developers had hoped, and the lack of attention MicroPro had paid to the original WordStar in the meantime, coupled with WordStar 2000's poor support for WordStar formats and keystrokes, had allowed competing products an opportunity to take over market share. WordPerfect especially took much of the word processing application market. Its default setting used a smaller portion of the screen for menus than WordStar, and had a much cleaner, uncluttered look. WordPerfect also used the same key sequences as the popular Wang line of dedicated word processor computers, which made it popular with secretaries switching from those to PCs.


MicroPro International restructured as WordStar International, and rehired many of the WordStar programmers who had left the company during the WordStar 2000 diversion. WordStar then progressed through upgrades of 4.5 to 5.0 to 5.5 to 6.0, rebuilding some of its lost market share. An internal struggle between the "old timer" developers of version 6.5 (aimed at MS Word users), and the "young turks" working on version 7.0 (aimed at WordPerfect users), led to the former product being scrapped and the latter product released years ahead of its originally scheduled launch date.

Like many other producers of successful DOS applications, WordStar International delayed before deciding to make a version for the commercially successful Windows 3.0. The company purchased Legacy, an existing Windows-based word processor, which was altered and released as WordStar for Windows in 1991. It was a well-reviewed product, and included many features normally only found in more expensive desktop publishing packages. However, its delayed launch meant that Microsoft Word had already firmly established itself as the corporate standard during the two previous years.

WordStar is still actively used by several hundred people in the WordStar Users Group Community. They provide technical support, updated macros and scripts, printer and mouse drivers, and so forth for each other via the long-running WordStar mailing list which started in May 1996 and has continued without interruption (but with one move from Cuenet to WordStar2 in 2002). Several programs have been written to allow WordStar commands to be used in the Windows environment, and even as an integral part of Microsoft Word.


WordStar is still considered by many to be one of the best examples of a "writing program". Because it was designed for text-only display devices with only a single, functional typeface, the primary focus was on the text, without direct onscreen WYSIWYG formatting. Because typesetting and layout were secondary or tertiary functions left for after the document was written, edited, and proofread, the writer was not distracted by the many formatting possibilities presented by later word processors.

The original machines for which WordStar was developed did not have an array of separate function keys or cursor control keys (e.g. arrow keys, Page Up/Down), so WordStar used sequences of alphabetic keys combined with the "Control" key. For touch typists, in addition, reaching the function and cursor keys generally requires them to take their fingers off the "home keys" with consequent loss of typing rhythm.

For example, the "diamond" of Ctrl-S/E/D/X moved the cursors one character or line to the left, up, right, or down. Ctrl-A/F (to the outside of the "diamond") moved the cursor a full word left/right, and Ctrl-R/C (just "past" the Ctrl keys for up and down) scrolled a full page up/down. Prefacing these keystrokes with Ctrl-Q generally expanded their action, moving the cursor to the end/beginning of the line, end/beginning of the document, etc. Ctrl-H would backspace and delete. Commands to enable bold or italics, printing, blocking text to copy or delete, saving or retrieving files from disk, etc. were typically a short sequence of keystrokes, such as Ctrl-P-B for bold, or Ctrl-K-S to save a file. Formatting codes would appear on screen, such ^B for bold, ^Y for italics, and ^S for underscoring.

Although many of these keystroke sequences were far from self-evident, they tended to lend themselves to mnemonic devices (e.g. Ctrl-Print-Bold, Ctrl-blocK-Save), and regular users quickly learned them through physical memory, enabling them to rapidly navigate documents by touch, rather than memorizing "Ctrl-S = cursor left".

Some users believe that the relocation of the Ctrl key from the position just to the left of the A key on the PC XT-era keyboard (where Caps-Lock is found on modern keyboards), to the far lower left, interferes with this tactile approach, unless the keyboard is remapped in software to swap these keys. Other users prefer to have two control keys on either side of the space bar, which facilitates eight-finger touch typing. Indeed, WordStar can be regarded as a third keyboard interface: 1) the lower-case letters and numbers, 2. upper-case letters and symbols accessed by the Cap key, and 3) editing and formatting made possible by the Ctrl keys.

WordStar had relative weaknesses, such as an inability to reformat line justification as text was typed or deleted. Thus paragraphs had to be reformatted by command after edits and changes. But a command could be given to reformat the entire document after it had been edited or re-written.

The WordStar interface left a large legacy. This includes many text editors running under MS-DOS, Linux, and other UNIX variants, which can emulate the WordStar keyboard commands using Ctrl-key combinations. The popular Turbo Pascal compiler used WordStar keyboard commands in its IDE editor. WordStar Keyboard Command Emulators exist for current versions of Microsoft Word, and Word in turn can open WordStar documents when the appropriate filter is added, enabling users to move back and forth between the old standard and the new one.


MailMerge was an add-on program which allowed a "merge printing" for mass mailings of letters. Pertinent data, like name, address, city, state, zipcode, and so on was stored in non-document datafiles. Documents like business letters could be printed in series by inserting data fields in "master documents". These master documents contained "boilerplate" text, like business letters, with data fields in place of addressee pertinent information. By printing "x" number of versions of the master document, for example, letters customized for various recipients could be printed in series by drawing information from the datafiles and inserted in place of the fields. Thus mass mailings could be prepared with each letter being individually addressed.

Other add-on programs included SpellStar, a spell checker program, later incorporated as a direct part of the WordStar program; and DataStar, a program whose purpose was specifically to expedite creating of the datafiles used for merge printing. These were revolutionary features for personal computer users during the early-to-mid-1980s.

WordStar identified files as either "document" or "nondocument", which led to some confusion among users. "Document" referred to WordStar text files containing embedded and hidden word processing and formatting commands. "Nondocument" files were pure ASCII text files containing no embedded formatting commands. Using WordStar in "Nondocument Mode" was essentially the same as using a traditional "text editor", but with more advanced text editing features than found in some mainframe-based editors.

Filename extensions

DOS WordStar files by default have no extension; some users adopted their own conventions, such as the letters WS followed by the version number (for example, WS3). Backup files were automatically saved as BAKs.

  • WordStar for Windows files use the extension WSD
  • WordStar for Windows templates use the extension WST
  • WordStar for Windows macros use the extension WMC
  • WordStar for Windows temporary files use the extension !WS
  • WordStar 2000 for DOS and UNIX PC don't have a fixed extension but DOC was common

Note: There isn't a WordStar 2000 for Windows.

WordStar for Windows was also released under the name WordStar Personal Writer, and is a development of WordStar Legacy itself developed from a program called Legacy. Xoom also released a version of WordStar for Windows 2.0 called Xoom Word Pro.

(Information provided by the WordStar Resource Site)




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