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Originator of Excel, Word leaves MS for startup

Simonyi finally Chucks it...

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Charles Simonyi, the man who laid the cornerstones of Microsoft's applications software empire, is leaving the company to do his own thing, a software startup. Simonyi was one of Microsoft's longest-serving employees, joining in 1981 from Xerox PARC, and has in his list of credits Multiplan, Word and Excel.

Which are pretty impressive things to have on your CV. But there's an interesting body or two buried there, if you go right back to the start of the process. When Simonyi joined, Microsoft was just at the start of its relationship with IBM, and the IBM PC was about to go mega. Microsoft was just becoming an operating systems company (remember, Dos was bought in), and he was basically setting up the apps division. And he and Bill bear a great deal of responsibility for the faulty vision that ensued.

In the early days Microsoft thought - and told a lot of hardware companies - that Dos was the platform. This notion spawned many different pieces of hardware running MSDOS, but until 'genuine' IBM clones were invented there was only one successful piece of hardware, the IBM PC running PCDOS. And specifically, the one piece of software that made the PC, and that was habitually used by the press in the 80s as a benchmark of PC compatibility, was Lotus 1-2-3.

With Multiplan Microsoft was atttempting to supplant VisiCalc, while with Word it wanted to bring Wordstar's reign to a close. The products that actually nailed the previous generation were however respectively 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Multiplan in particular (which predated Word) was envisaged as a multi-platform product, and The Register once even owned a ROM version of it designed to run on the Tandy 100. That was before The Register was The Register, of course.

Simonyi had envisaged a more generalised form of software design that allowed the software to run on multiple platforms, whereas one of the reasons 1-2-3 did so well, so fast was that it hit the hardware direct and used every dirty trick it could. In addition to this slight disadvantage for Multiplan, the original Microsoft Word was designed to be compatible with the Multiplan UI (which explains why The Register could never understand Word 1.0). As Richard Brodie, who was on the original team, said: "My mission: write the world's first wordprocessor with a spreadsheet user-interface. It took five years to repair the damage."

Still, it all came out right (depending on your point of view, that is) in the end, and Microsoft apps now rule the world. Simonyi, who was chief architect until 1999, is now off to start the Intentional Software Corporation. This does not mean that his portfolio so far has consisted of unintentional software, but that he will be pursuing the "intentional programming" focus he's had at Microsoft for the past few years which, to cut a long story short, is intended to produce easier to use development tools. ®

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