Micro Pro International - Interface


WordStar is still considered by some 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.

As initially installed, in text-mode versions of WordStar, approximately the top 1/3 of the screen was a menu of commands, with the very top line being a display of the position within the file and the user's text occupying the lower 2/3 of the screen. A user-configurable option to set the help level released this space for user text. The help system could be configured to display help a short time after the first key of a command sequence was entered. As users became more familiar with the command sequences, the help system could be set to provide less and less assistance until finally all on-screen menus and status information was turned off.

The original computer terminals and microcomputers 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 as ^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 muscle 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 Caps 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.

Many of these weaknesses were corrected with a new interface in WordStar 2000. Reformatting of paragraphs became automatic. Most of the mnemonics were made simpler so that ^RW would Remove a Word, ^RR would Remove the Right side of a line (right of the cursor), ^RS would Remove a Sentence, and so on. WordStar 2000 was also rare among word processing programs in that it permitted the user to mark (highlight) a block of text (with ^BB for Block Begin and ^BE for Block End) and leave it marked in place, and then go to a different section and copy it (with ^BC for Block Copy). Many users found it much easier to manipulate blocks with the block commands rather than the Microsoft Word system of highlighting with a mouse. The main problem with these improvements was that users of legacy WordStar (non-WordStar 2000) were quite happy with that interface and did not want to change to a new one.

The WordStar interface left a large legacy. This includes modern cross-platform word processing software like TextMaker and 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. Modern word processing software like Write&Set not only use the WordStar interface, but have been based on WordStar DOS file formats, allowing WordStar users who no longer have a copy of the application to easily open and edit their files. There are WordStar keyboard command emulators and keymappings, both freeware and shareware, for current versions of Microsoft Word. Popular modern word processing software like WordPerfect, StarOffice and Microsoft Word (with the proper filters) can open and save to WordStar documents, enabling users to move back and forth.

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