The Improbable Origins of PowerPoint

Walking into the hall to deliver the speech was a “daunting experience,” the speaker later recalled, but “we had projectors and all sorts of technology to help us make the case.” The technology in question was PowerPoint, the presentation software produced by Microsoft. The speaker was Colin Powell, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

Powell’s 45 slides displayed snippets of text, and some were adorned with photos or maps. A few even had embedded video clips. During the 75-⁠minute speech, the tech worked perfectly. Years later, Powell would recall, “When I was through, I felt pretty good about it.”

The aim of his speech, before the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003, was to argue the Bush administration’s final case for war with Iraq in a “powerful way.” In that, he succeeded. While the president had already decided to go to war, Powell’s speech—inseparable from what would become one of the most famous PowerPoint presentations of all time—did nothing to derail the plan. The following month, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland launched their invasion.

Powell’s speech dramatized how PowerPoint had become, by 2003, a nearly inescapable tool of communication and persuasion in much of the world. Since then, its domination has only become more complete. The same tool used by U.S. State Department and CIA officials to pivot an international coalition toward war is also used by schoolchildren to give classroom reports on planets, penguins, and poets. Microsoft rightly boasts of 1.2 billion copies of PowerPoint at large—one copy for every seven people on earth. In any given month, approximately 200 million of these copies are used, and although nobody’s really counting, our cumulative generation of PowerPoint slides surely reaches well into the billions. So profound is PowerPoint’s influence that prominent figures have decried the software’s effects on thinking itself. Edward Tufte, the guru of information visualization, has famously railed against the “cognitive style” of PowerPoint, which he characterizes as having a “foreshortening of evidence and thought” and a “deeply hierarchical single-path structure.”

PowerPoint is so ingrained in modern life that the notion of it having a history at all may seem odd. But it does have a very definite lifetime as a commercial product that came onto the scene 30 years ago, in 1987. Remarkably, the founders of the Silicon Valley firm that created PowerPoint did not set out to make presentation software, let alone build a tool that would transform group communication throughout the world. Rather, PowerPoint was a recovery from dashed hopes that pulled a struggling startup back from the brink of failure—and succeeded beyond anything its creators could have imagined.

PowerPoint was not the first software for creating presentations on personal computers. Starting in 1982, roughly a half-dozen other programs [PDF] came on the market before PowerPoint’s 1987 debut. Its eventual domination was not the result of first-mover advantage. What’s more, some of its most familiar features—the central motif of a slide containing text and graphics; bulleted lists; the slideshow; the slide sorter; and even the animated transitions between slides—did not originate with PowerPoint. And yet it’s become the Kleenex or Scotch Tape of presentation software, as a “PowerPoint” has come to mean any presentation created with software.

With PowerPoint as well as its predecessors, the motif of the slide was, of course, lifted directly from the world of photography. Some presentation programs actually generated 35-mm slides for display with a slide projector. In most cases, though, the early programs created slides that were printed on paper for incorporation into reports, transferred to transparencies for use on overhead projectors, or saved as digital files to be displayed on computer monitors.

The upshot was that personal computer users of the 1980s, especially business users, had many options, and the market for business software was undergoing hypergrowth, with programs for generating spreadsheets, documents, databases, and business graphics each constituting a multimillion-dollar category. At the time, commentators saw the proliferation of business software as a new phase in office automation, in which computer use was spreading beyond the accounting department and the typing pool to the office elites. Both the imagined and actual users of the new business software were white-collar workers, from midlevel managers to Mahogany Row executives.

PowerPoint thus emerged during a period in which personal computing was taking over the American office. A major accelerant was the IBM Personal Computer, which Big Blue unveiled in 1981. By then, bureaucratic America—corporate and government alike—was well habituated to buying its computers from IBM. This new breed of machine, soon known simply as the PC, spread through offices like wildfire.

The groundwork for that invasion had been laid the previous decade, in the 1970s technosocial vision of the “office of the future.” It started, like so much of what we now take for granted in our contemporary world of networked personal computing, at Xerox’s legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) [PDF]. The site was established in 1970 to invent the computing systems that would equip the future’s white-collar office, an arena the company hoped to dominate in the same way it did photocopying. Many of the bright young computer scientists and engineers recruited to work at PARC knew one another from the major computer science programs funded by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Utah, and SRI.

In 1972, PARC researchers began to focus on a new personal computer they called the Alto. Led by Alan Kay, Butler Lampson, Bob Taylor, and Chuck Thacker, they were captivated by an extraordinary idea: that in the office of the future, every individual would have a dedicated computer like the Alto. Moreover, these computers would be networked to one another and to other, larger computers, both locally and far away. This networking would form a web of communication and computing resources well beyond the capacity of any single personal computer. In the pursuit of this vision, Ethernet emerged, as did the PARC Universal Packet protocol [PDF], or PUP, an important predecessor of the TCP/IP standard of today’s Internet.

The Alto’s creators emphasized the machine’s graphics capabilities, dedicating much of the computer’s hardware and software to rendering high-⁠resolution imagery onscreen, including typography, drawings, digital photographs, and animations. It was a huge step up from the mainstream computers of the day, which still used punch cards, paper printouts, teletypes, and “dumb” terminals. Alto users interacted with it through a graphical interface to access, generate, and manipulate information. Even the text was treated as an image. The computer was controlled through a standard keyboard and the then-novel mouse that had emerged from Doug Engelbart’s SRI laboratory.

This graphical turn in computing was perhaps most pronounced in one of the Alto’s programming languages, called Smalltalk. Developed by Kay, Dan Ingalls, Adele Goldberg, and other collaborators, Smalltalk wasn’t just a programming language; it was also a programming and user environment. It introduced the graphical user interface, or GUI, to personal computing, including a metaphorical desktop with overlapping windows, contextual and pop-up menus, file browsers, scroll bars, selection by mouse clicks, and even cut, copy, and paste.

While such innovations were ostensibly proprietary, by the end of the 1970s, Xerox managers and PARC staff were routinely discussing their findings with outsiders and publishing details of the Alto system in journals. PARC researchers were, after all, still part of the broader ARPA community of computer scientists and engineers. Many visitors who saw the Alto system considered it transformative.

One such visitor was Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. Following Xerox’s investment in Apple in 1979, PARC researchers gave Apple engineers and management detailed demonstrations of Smalltalk and other programs previously reserved for Xerox insiders. Jobs was so enthralled by what he saw that he decided to reorient the Lisa, a business computer Apple was developing at the time, to fully embrace the PARC idiom. A few years later, when Jobs was transferred out of the Lisa project, he seized control of another effort aimed at creating a low-cost computer and pushed it, too, toward the PARC idiom. That computer became the Macintosh.

What does all this have to do with PowerPoint? Apple lavished resources—people and cash alike—to embrace the PARC paradigm with the Lisa and the Macintosh, but not everyone at Apple was happy about that. In particular, those working to maintain the existing Apple II and III lines felt that their efforts were being shortchanged. By 1982, the product marketing manager for the Apple III, Taylor Pohlman, and the software marketing manager for the Apple II and III, Rob Campbell, had had enough. They quit and went into business together, founding the company that would create PowerPoint.

But PowerPoint was not at all in their original plan.

One thing that united Pohlman and Campbell—but alienated them at Apple—was that they were cut from a different cloth than the computer-science types working on the Lisa and the Macintosh. Though both Pohlman and Campbell were technically minded, they were also oriented toward marketing and sales. Before Apple, Pohlman had worked in marketing at Hewlett-Packard, and Campbell had run a small accounting software company.

The pair left Apple late in 1982, and by early 1983, they had secured US $600,000 in venture capital to create a software company, which they called Forethought. Ironically, the startup’s aim was to bring the PARC idiom to the IBM PC and its clones—in essence, to outplay Apple at its own game. That year, the Apple Lisa appeared, priced at nearly $10,000 (more than $25,000 in today’s dollars). Two years earlier, Xerox had brought its own personal computer, the Xerox Star, to market, at an even higher price. Pohlman and Campbell’s idea was to bring a graphical-software environment like the Xerox Alto’s to the hugely popular but graphically challenged PC.

Forethought’s founders intended to go beyond the Star and the Lisa by incorporating an important dimension of Alto’s Smalltalk: object-oriented programming. In simple terms, traditional programming of the day treated data and the procedures for manipulating it separately. In object-oriented programming, data and procedures are combined in “objects” that interact with each other by passing messages between them. Proponents held that the modularity of object-oriented programming made for speedier development, flexibility, and dynamic change. For example, skilled Smalltalk programmers could quickly alter the GUI while the program was running. Object-oriented programming has since become the prevailing paradigm for the most widely used programming languages.

Pohlman and Campbell envisioned an object-oriented software platform called Foundation, which was centered around documents. Each Foundation document would act like an object in Smalltalk, which a business user would stitch together with other documents to create, say, a report containing a graph of recent sales, a statistical analysis of customer traits, drawings of proposed changes to a product, and a block of explanatory text. Each element would be live, malleable, and programmable. Spreadsheets, databases, drawings, word processing—Foundation would handle it all. Users would select a document with a mouse click, and contextual menus would then offer choices appropriate for that type of document. Foundation would be, in essence, Smalltalk for the office worker.

Forethought staffed up, bringing in software developers from Xerox PARC who were familiar with object-oriented programming and WYSIWYG applications, in which the text and graphics displayed on screen look very similar to the way they will appear in print. To create certain functions, the startup inked deals with outside suppliers; Forethought also purchased a powerful VAX computer from Digital Equipment Corp. for the software-development effort.

Within a year, the company ran into difficulties. For one, the developers grew deeply concerned about which personal computers, if any, would be powerful enough to run Foundation. The Apple Lisa had the horsepower, but it was already failing in the market, while the Macintosh was deemed too feeble. And the IBM PC was still far behind where Forethought had hoped and planned it would be.

More worrying was Oracle’s announcement that it would need another year to deliver on its contract for the database code. This meant that the launch of Foundation would be intolerably delayed. Forethought was running perilously low on funds, and it didn’t have the resources to develop a database on its own. The company was facing, literally, an existential crisis.

Rather than liquidate the firm, management and investors decided to “restart” Forethought—a “pivot” in today’s Silicon Valley parlance. Work on Foundation was set aside, while the firm focused on software publishing—that is, manufacturing, marketing, and supporting computer programs written by others. Forethought’s publishing arm produced software for the Apple Macintosh under the brand Macware. And it was a success. Its biggest hit, oddly enough, was a database program called FileMaker.

With brightening finances from sales of FileMaker, Forethought began to develop a new software product of its own. This new effort was the brainchild of Robert Gaskins, an accomplished computer scientist who’d been hired to lead Forethought’s product development. Gaskins was a polymath who had simultaneously pursued Ph.D.s in English, linguistics, and computer science at UC Berkeley before joining industry. He in turn hired a bright young software developer named Dennis Austin, who had previously developed compilers at Burroughs and contributed to a GUI operating system at a laptop startup.

Gaskins and Austin worked closely to conceptualize, design, and specify Forethought’s new product. Gaskins spotted an opportunity in presentation software and believed they could apply the PARC idiom to this application. He envisioned the user creating slides of text and graphics in a graphical, WYSIWYG environment, then outputting them to 35-mm slides, overhead transparencies, or video displays and projectors, and also sharing them electronically through networks and electronic mail. The presentation would spring directly from the mind of the business user, without having to first transit through the corporate art department.

While Gaskins’s ultimate aim for this new product, called Presenter, was to get it onto IBM PCs and their clones, he and Austin soon realized that the Apple Macintosh was the more promising initial target. Designs for the first version of Presenter specified a program that would allow the user to print out slides on Apple’s newly released laser printer, the LaserWriter, and photocopy the printouts onto transparencies for use with an overhead projector.

Austin quickly got to work programming Presenter in Apple Pascal on a Lisa computer, eventually switching to a Macintosh. He was joined in the effort by Tom Rudkin, an experienced developer, and the pair hewed as closely as possible to the Macintosh’s user interface and modes of operation. Indeed, the source code for Presenter included Apple-provided code for handling text, which Apple used in its own word processor, MacWrite.

In April 1987, Forethought introduced its new presentation program to the market very much as it had been conceived, but with a different name. Presenter was now PowerPoint 1.0—there are conflicting accounts of the name change—and it was a proverbial overnight success with Macintosh users. In the first month, Forethought booked $1 million in sales of PowerPoint, at a net profit of $400,000, which was about what the company had spent developing it. And just over three months after PowerPoint’s introduction, Microsoft purchased Forethought outright for $14 million in cash.

PowerPoint then became Microsoft’s presentation software, first just for the Macintosh and later also for Windows. The Forethought team became Microsoft’s Graphics Business Unit, which Gaskins led for five years, while Austin and Rudkin remained the principal developers of PowerPoint for about 10 years. Wisely, Microsoft chose to keep the Graphics Business Unit in Silicon Valley rather than move it to Redmond, Wash. The unit became Microsoft’s first outpost in the region, and PowerPoint is still developed there to this day.

While PowerPoint was a success from the start, it nevertheless faced stiff competition, and for several years, Lotus Freelance and Software Publishing’s Harvard Graphics commanded larger market shares. The tipping point for PowerPoint came in 1990, when Microsoft unleashed its bundling strategy and began selling Microsoft Office—which combined Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—as a $1,000 set. Previously, each part had been sold separately for about $500 apiece.

Because most users of personal computers required both a word processor and a spreadsheet program, Microsoft’s price for Office proved compelling. PowerPoint’s competitors, on the other hand, resented the tactic as giving away PowerPoint for free. And for more than a quarter century, Microsoft’s competitive logic proved unassailable.

These days, the business software market is shifting again, and Microsoft Office must now compete with similar bundles that are entirely free, from the likes of Google, LibreOffice, and others. Productivity software resides more often than not in the cloud, rather than on the user’s device. Meanwhile, the dominant mode of personal computing globally has firmly shifted from the desktop and laptop to the smartphone. As yet, no new vision of personal computing like the one that came from Xerox PARC in the 1970s has emerged. And so for the moment, it appears that PowerPoint, as we know it, is here to stay.


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