In many parts of our world today, group communication centers on visual materials built with “presentation software,” often crafted by a speaker him or herself. As a result, meetings now generally depend on the use of personal computers, presentation software in the guises of product or service and display by digital projectors or flat-screens.
So central have these visual materials become that the intended functioning of digital files, programs, computers, and peripherals has become an almost necessary condition for public communication. Choice of presentation software has even become a mark of generational and other identities, as in whether one uses Facebook or Snapchat. Millennials and Generation Z choose Google Slides or Prezi. Everyone else uses PowerPoint, its mirror-twin by Apple called Keynote, or, for political expression and/or economic necessity, LibreOffice. Membership in a highly technical community can be signified by using the typesetting program LaTeX to build equation-heavy slides.
It is PowerPoint, nevertheless, that has become the “Kleenex” or “Scotch Tape” of presentation software. A “PowerPoint” has come to commonly mean any presentation created with software. Microsoft rightly boasts that there are currently 1.2 billion copies of PowerPoint at large in the world today: One copy of PowerPoint for every seven people. In any given month, approximately 200 million of these copies are actively used. PowerPoint is simply the dominant presentation software on the planet.1
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that PowerPoint was not the first presentation program. Rather, there were several programs for personal computers that performed similarly to PowerPoint in many respects, which appeared starting in 1982—fully five years before PowerPoint’s debut. PowerPoint’s ubiquity is not the result of a first-mover advantage.2
Further, many of PowerPoint’s most familiar characteristics—the central motif of a slide containing text and graphics, bulleted lists, the slide show, the slide sorter, and even showy animated transitions between slides—were not absolute novelties when PowerPoint appeared. These elements had been introduced in one form or another in earlier presentation software.
From 1982 through 1987, software makers introduced roughly a dozen programs for several different personal computers that allowed users to create visual materials for public presentations as a series of “slides” containing text and graphic elements. Frequently, these slides were printed on paper for incorporation into a photocopied report and transferred to a set of transparencies for use with an overhead projector. Other presentation programs allowed slides to be output as a sequence of 35mm photographic slides for use with a slide projector, a videotape of a series of slide images, or a digital file of screen-images for computer monitors. Makers and users called these programs “presentation software,” and just as commonly “business graphics software.” “Business” here is significant, I think.3
The six years from 1982 through 1987 saw the emergence of presentation software (including PowerPoint), with multiple makers introducing competing programs offering many similar capabilities and idioms. Why did multiple, independent software creators develop presentation software for personal computers at just this moment?
I believe that an analytical framework that I developed with historian Christophe Lécuyer to understand episodes in the history of solid-state electronics can also help us to unpack this very different case from software history. Our framework consists of three “contextual logics” that we argue shaped the emergence of the planar transistor, the silicon microchip, the simultaneous-invention of silicon-gate MOS technology, and, as Christophe and Takahiro Ueyama recently show, the history of blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).4
In their 2013 article, “The Logics of Materials Innovation,” Christophe and Takahiro describe these logics beautifully:
The implication seems straightforward: People from similar backgrounds, in similar organizations, facing a common, structured set of contextual logics, will do similar—but not identical—things. But can these logics that help make sense of the history of semiconductor electronics, a technology deeply about materials, also give insights into the history of the ne plus ultra of the digital—software itself? I think it can. Competitive logic, Market logic, and Material logic: Let’s consider them in that order, and see what they can mean for the “prehistory” of PowerPoint.
Competitive logic centered on software makers. In the first half of the 1980s, makers of presentation software were typically connected to companies. There were, of course, makers of non-commercial software of various stripes—hobbyist, open source, libre and the like—but they do not appear to have been a factor in early presentation software. Rather, the makers of presentation software were what I call “integrated software manufacturers,” “software publishers,” and “author houses.” Sometimes the boundaries between these maker-types are blurry, but I think the categories are useful.
Integrated software manufacturers, ranging from cottage firms to public companies, wrote code, manufactured it mainly on magnetic media, wrote and printed technical documentation and guides, and distributed it in shrink-wrapped boxes. For integrated software manufacturers of this era, think of Microsoft, Lotus Development, and MicroPro International. “Software publishers” did everything that the integrated manufacturers did, except write the code. Rather, they entered into contracts on a royalty basis with those who did write programs. Software publishers ran the gamut from stand-alone companies like Personal Software Inc. and the aptly named Software Publishing Inc., to computer makers like Apple, who published software written by others under their own label. Code authors ranged from individual sole proprietorships to “author shops,” partnerships between two or more programmers in an LLP or a small company.
These author shops, publishers, and integrated manufacturers were, by 1982, competing in a growing market for personal computer application software: Spreadsheets, word processors, databases and “business graphics” programs that often used data from spreadsheets to generate line-graphs, pie-charts, bar-graphs, and other standard plots used in business, science, and engineering. This battle for market share in applications for personal computers was the ‘competitive logic’ for presentation software’s emergence.5
“Market logic” centered on the intended users of software, and, in the case of presentation software, focused to the communication practices of white-collar workers in the United States (and, perhaps, elsewhere), particularly “managers” and “executives.” Contemporary commentators noted that personal-computer “business” software like spreadsheets represented a turn in “office automation,” the opening of a new phase in which software users would expand beyond specialists and secretaries to managers and executives. Personal computers with new software would be in the offices of Mahogany Row in addition to the accounting department and the typing pool.
For example, in September 1982, John Unger Zussman, a columnist for InfoWorld, noted: “…the market is changing. An examination of the changing word-processor marketplace can tell us a lot about the maturation of microcomputers and give us a clue to the role of micros in the office of the future. ‘There’s an expanding concept of reality in the modern office,’ says Gary Smith, NCR’s director of marketing. Software oriented toward managers, such as spreadsheet and slide-show programs and electronic mail, has increased the demand for distributed data processing. It is now legitimate for a computer to appear on a manager’s desk—or a secretary’s. The personal workstation, says Smith, is becoming ‘the major focus of white-collar productivity.’ This was not always the case. In the past, computers were the province of the data-processing department…and, besides, managers wouldn’t be caught dead typing at a keyboard…word processing became a stepping-stone into the automated office…the introduction of microcomputers into the office of the future seems to be more a process of infiltration than one of direct assault.”6
In a 1984 article in the Proceedings of the IEEE titled “A New Direction in Personal Computer Software,” MIT Sloan School professor Hoo-Min Toong, with his postdoc Amar Gupta, identified the crux of the market logic to which presentation software was a response: The time that executives and managers spent in meetings. They write: “Top managers are noted to spend four-fifths of their time attending meetings—delivering or receiving presentations and reports, communicating, and gathering information for subsequent meetings. Meetings are the most prominent, time consuming element of an executive’s job.” They continue: “At present, business personal computers only represent information in numeric form, in text, and in simple charts and graphs. A crucial missing component is the ability to present and manipulate visual, pictorial data…A new layer…will bridge the gap from the present position…to supporting business communications with sophisticated images and color.”7
Toong and Gupta then discuss a newly released example of such “presentation graphics software,” VCN ExecuVision, offered by the book publisher Prentice-Hall. VCN ExecuVision, which ran on the IBM PC, cost $400 but also required libraries of images and icons, that is, “clip art,” at $90 per floppy disk. Users could create “slide shows” of multiple “slides” that the user could craft with text, clip art, and geometric shapes, as well as pie, bar, and line graphs, with the completed slide show either printed or displayed on the PC monitor.
The idiom of the slide was directly adapted from the world of 35mm photographic slides. “Seeing a single slide is one thing,” Toong and Gupta write, “seeing an aggregate of slides is another. VCN ExecuVision supports slide shows in which the transition from one slide to another can be controlled either manually (pressing a key causes display of the next slide) or automatically… More significant is the support of animation techniques which give an illusion of seeing a running movie rather than a slide show…VCN ExecuVision brings sophisticated graphical capabilities to the realm of personal computers thus vastly expanding the horizons of personal computer applications in all four domains – office, home, science, and education.” Continuing their celebration of ExecuVision, Toong and Gupta illustrated their journal article with three full-color pages of ExecuVision slides, replete with images having the unmistakable aesthetic of clip art. Presentation software and clip art may have been born together.
Evidently, ExecuVision was the creation of Toong himself—in a Cambridge, Massachusetts author shop called Visual Communication Network Inc.—before the program had been sold or licensed to Prentice Hall. Toong filed articles of incorporation for the firm in October 1983, with his brother and a former MIT industrial liaison as the other directors. His brother was listed as the president and a Sloan School building was the firm’s address. Toong’s connection to ExecuVision is not mentioned in the article.8
Toong’s ExecuVision was, in late 1983, a new entrant into the presentation software market that two new integrated software manufacturers, located in neighborhoods on opposing sides of the MIT campus, had already enjoined. On one side was Mitch Kapor’s startup, Lotus Development. Kapor created his new firm on a windfall from two programs he had written that were published by Personal Software, Inc., later renamed VisiCorp. VisiCorp was also the publisher of the breakthrough spreadsheet program VisiCalc, written in Cambridge by Software Arts Inc., the “author shop” of Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston.
Mitch Kapor had written a statistical analysis and data graphing program for the Apple II called TinyTROLL, which he sold through a partnership with his friend and then MIT finance PhD student Eric Rosenfeld who had suggested the program to Kapor. The partnership was called Micro Finance Systems, and Kapor was approached VisiCorp to adapt TinyTROLL to work with data imported from VisiCalc. Kapor soon delivered VisiPlot and VisiTrend, programs that took VisiCalc spreadsheet data and generated pie, bar, and line graphs from them, as well as performed various finance-relevant statistical functions on the data. Kapor and Rosenfeld’s Micro Finance Systems received hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties for VisiPlot and VisiTrend before VisiCorp bought them outright for $1.2 million. With his share in the windfall, Kapor set up an integrated software manufacturer of his own, Lotus Development, and, in 1982, the firm released its first product, Executive Briefing System, for the Apple II. Todd Agulnick, a 14-year-old high school student, had been hired by Kapor and wrote the BASIC code for Executive Briefing System under his direction.9
Lotus’ $200 Executive Briefing System was centered on the color video display of the Apple II. In brief, a number of programs for charting and graphing like VisiPlot offered the “BSAVE” command. Instead of routing data to immediately render an image on the video display, BSAVE sent the very same data to a stored file. In this way, a “screen shot” could be rendered on the video display at a later time, shared with others, archived for future use, etc. Lotus’ Executive Briefing System treated BSAVE’d files—these screen shots—as “slides” that could be modified and then displayed on the Apple II’s video display as a “slide show” for a “presentation.” Executive Briefing System users could edit slides of charts and plots by adding text and/or clip art of lines, geometric shapes, or “ornamental” motifs. Slides were arranged in slide shows, and saved to floppy disk. While the program allowed a slide show to be printed—as a paper report or for transparencies for overhead presentation—it focused on slide shows for the video display. A variety of animated “transitions” between slides were available, such as fades, wipes, and spinning-into-view.10
David Solomont’s Business and Professional Software Inc., another integrated software manufacturer developing products for the Apple II, was located at 143 Binney Street just a 25-minute walk across the MIT campus—and past Hoo-Min Toong’s office—from Kapor’s Lotus Development office at 180 Franklin Street. Like Kapor, Solomont’s firm had earlier developed a plotting and charting program for the Apple II to work with VisiCalc spreadsheets. Solomont struck a deal with Apple to license the plotting program, which was sold by Apple under the company’s brand as “Apple Business Graphics.” Soon thereafter, arriving on the market about the same time as Lotus’ Executive Briefing System, came Solomont’s “Screen Director” program in 1982.11
Screen Director, made for the then-new Apple III computer, fully embraced treating a computer running Screen Director like a 35mm slide projector. Users could organize BSAVE’d image files from programs like VisiPlot and Apple Business Graphics into various “slide trays” for presentation on the video display. While Screen Director did not allow for the editing of existing image slides, it did provide for the creation of text slides and for a limited set of animated transitions between slides. Screen Director even shipped with the standard two-button wired controller for slide projectors, but modified to plug into the Apple III for controlling Screen Director slide shows.12
So far I have described a meaning for “competitive logic” and “market logic” in the case of presentation software, and some early programs from 1982 through 1984. But what of “material logic?” Material logic here includes personal computers themselves, specifically personal computers with graphics capabilities that were expanding in the early 1980s. The computers’ physical performativity, their material agency, constituted a resource, medium, and constraint for software makers and users. Existing programs widely used on these computers, like spreadsheets and plotting programs, were themselves a critical part of the material logic. Software, like hardware, has an unavoidable materiality. At the most abstract, a computer program can be considered to be a specific pattern. In practice, every instance of a program is a pattern in something material, including the body of an author.
Finally, the material logic for presentation software included operating systems centered on the graphical user interface, or GUI. This style of computing had been pioneered at Xerox PARC in the late 1970s, most famously on the Xerox Alto computer. The Alto inspired other efforts to bring the GUI into personal computing during the first half of the 1980s: Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh computers, Microsoft’s Windows software, and VisiCorp’s VisiOn software to name but a few.13
This material logic was especially important in the creation of PowerPoint. In 1983, two Apple managers, Rob Campbell and Taylor Pohlman, left the firm and created a new integrated software manufacturer, Forethought Inc. Simply put, they left Apple to bring a Xerox Alto like GUI operating system to the IBM PC. By 1986, however, Forethought Inc. had a change of plans. This story—of Forethought’s creation of PowerPoint—and other stories about what PowerPoint and its competitors can tell us about software history, will be the subjects of upcoming essays by me on the @CHM blog.
For more information about the development of PowerPoint, please see our Guide to the Dennis Austin PowerPoint Records.