MARCHintosh 2021: General Productivity on a “minimal” 1988 SE

When people think of vintage computers, they see something relatively useless in the high-tech modern world where even the most basic computers can connect to the internet and browse the web. However, you can still do quite a bit with a 30-year-old computer.

For instance: basic productivity, such as word processing and spreadsheets.

One thing that almost any computer – of any age – can do well is basic productivity tasks. Word processors, spreadsheet programs, presentation programs, and more have all been around since the heyday of personal computing. For instance, VisiCalc was the “killer app” that thrust the Apple II into the spotlight with people outside of the microcomputer hobby.

On today’s installation of my MARCHintosh “1 Megabyte Challenge” I’ll be writing about a couple popular productivity apps for the Macintosh from the mid-late 1980s.


For this first app, we’ll be going all the way back to the beginning of the Macintosh. When Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh to the world on January 24, 1984, it was a novel concept – a computer with a graphical user interface instead of a command line. However, a computer is useless unless it has software to go along with it.

Apple worked with Encore Systems (Randy Wigginton, Don Breuner, and Ed Ruder) to develop MacWrite, which was one of two apps launched aside the original Macintosh. (The other being MacPaint.)

MacWrite was written to be the Macintosh’s first “killer app.”

MacWrite clearly demonstrated the Macintosh’s industry-changing GUI by allowing users to easily change fonts, alignment, and other formatting options. MacWrite also used a “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) display, allowing users to see formatting right on the screen. (Other, command-line-based word processors popular at the time, like WordPerfect and WordStar, had formatting “cues” that did not clearly display the formatting. For instance bold text would be displayed as “^Bold text^B” in WordStar.)

Early word processors, like WordStar, required you to use special cues and syntax to format text. (Image: Wikipedia)

MacWrite, MacPaint, the Apple LaserWriter printer, and later third-party apps like Aldus PageMaker helped start the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s. (I will be going into more detail about the desktop publishing revolution in next week’s installment.) Images created in MacPaint and elements from other programs could be copied into a MacWrite document.

While MacWrite was one of the first GUI-based WYSIWYG word processors, the layout and many features it introduced are still present in modern word processors. For instance, most modern word processors still feature a ruler with tabs, buttons for aligning text, and more.

MacWrite’s spartan graphical user interface was revolutionary in 1984, when it was introduced alongside the original Macintosh 128k.

However, MacWrite also lacked many features that later word processors had. MacWrite didn’t feature its own spell checking feature, although third-party apps could do spell checking in MacWrite. MacWrite also lacked paragraph styles, which allowed for easy yet consistent formatting of different elements in your document.  Less than a year after the Macintosh and MacWrite were released to the world, Microsoft developed its own competing word processor the Macintosh. (Which also happens to be the same word processor I’m using to type this post on.)

Microsoft Word 4.0

It wasn’t long after the introduction of the Macintosh and MacWrite that third-party developers created their own word processing software.

One such company was Microsoft, with their now-ubiquitous Word word processor. Microsoft Word was originally released for their own operating systems, MS-DOS and Xenix, in 1983. However, the company quickly ported the software to the Macintosh platform shortly after it was released.

The original version of Microsoft Word for the Macintosh was released on January 18, 1985. However, the version I’ll be discussing – Word 4.0 – was not released until 1990.

Microsoft Word 4.0 was released in 1990.

Microsoft Word has a similar layout and features to MacWrite, although Microsoft Word is more modern and features its own spell checker. Word allows you to create paragraph styles, add tables to your document, create an index or table of contents, and even create graphs, just to name a couple features.

I use Microsoft Word 4.0 to create content for my blog on my four vintage Macs. Word also has a nice feature that allows me to export a Word 4.0 document into a format that my modern MacBook can read. Word 4.0 can export documents to a variety of formats, including plain text or – what I use – Rich Text Format (RTF.)

(The native Word 4.0 format cannot be read by the modern version of Microsoft Word.)

Word 4.0 files cannot be directly opened in modern Word, but Word 4.0 allows you to export files to Rich Text Format (RTF) that can be opened in modern operating systems/software.

Word 4.0, like MacWrite, will run comfortably on all of my vintage Macs.

In addition to MacWrite and Microsoft Word, there were other word processors developed for the Macintosh platform. T/Maker continued development on WriteNow, Claris would continue development on MacWrite and would later develop their own ClarisWorks productivity suite, and Microsoft would also release the Microsoft Works productivity suite. In the end, Microsoft Word became the de facto standard for word processing on both the Macintosh and PC platforms – which it continues to be today.

Word 5 – which replaced Word 4 in 1991 – introduced the more modern Word UI, allowing for easier access to formatting options, fonts, and more.

Even vintage Macs are still plenty useful for word processing. In addition to writing almost all of my blog posts since November on one of my four vintage Macs using Word 4.0, I have written essays and done other homework assignments on my vintage Macs using Microsoft Word. The vintage Macs offer a distraction-free environment to write documents without ditching amenities such as spell check, word count, or formatting.

Microsoft Word 4.0 allows for a no-frills, limited-distraction writing environment, perfect for writing blog posts or essays for class.

Microsoft Excel

Another component of productivity is spreadsheet software, which allows you to easily keep track of things and do arithmetic functions. (Before I go further, a slight disclaimer: I’m not a Excel or spreadsheet “power user.” I use Excel for inventory purposes and other small projects, but never work with large, complex spreadsheets with fancy functions, formulas, or macros.)

After the aforementioned VisiCalc took off, spreadsheet software for other platforms became commonplace. Lotus 1-2-3, Informix’s Wingz, and Microsoft Excel all competed to become the de facto standard on the Macintosh platform. As with Word, Microsoft’s Excel won.

Excel was first released for the Macintosh platform, predating the Windows version by two years. Excel 3, the version I use, was released in 1990.

Excel 3.0 has a similar feel to modern spreadsheet software, such as modern Excel, Google Sheets, or Apple’s Numbers. Excel 3 has most of the common functions, and can export data to CSV and other formats. Unlike Word 4.0 files, native Excel 3 spreadsheets can be opened in modern Excel running on a modern computer with no issues – no translation or special steps required.

Excel 3.0 has a similar GUI to modern spreadsheet software, such as modern versions of Excel, Google Sheets, or Apple Numbers. Excel 3 can even create graphs.
The spreadsheet and graph I created in Excel 3.0 on the 1988 Macintosh SE open in modern Excel on my 2019 MacBook Pro.

Like modern versions of Excel, you can create a graph directly in Excel 3. These graphs, along with other data and tables in Excel, can be easily copied into other applications like Word.

Although creating spreadsheets on my 1988 Macintosh SE is possible, it can be sluggish and you can run into memory issues. As previously mentioned, I don’t use a lot of spreadsheets in my personal life, and when I do I use modern Excel running on my 2019 MacBook Pro.

This concludes a look at just a couple common productivity apps for the Macintosh from “back in the day.” Next week, I’ll be looking at something a little less boring: desktop publishing on a 31-year-old computer using 30-year-old software.

Written on a 1988 Macintosh SE using Microsoft Word 4.0.

#MARCHintosh Event Logo concept and design by Javier Rivera | YouTube: | Twitter: @javierivera