Monday, August 4, 2014

HomeWord - Sierra Online's Easy to Use Word Processor

Ken Williams, who founded what would become Sierra Online in 1979, was a programmer. He had worked service bureaus selling computing services to businesses.  He programmed on mainframe computers, and bought an Apple II with a disk drive to develop a FORTRAN compiler.  His wife Roberta loved playing computer text adventure games, and persuaded him to program her idea for a game on his Apple II.  The result was Mystery House and the rest was history.  Within a year of Mystery House's 1980 debut, Sierra had published a Word Processing program called ScreenWriter, but felt there was a market for a more family-friendly program.

The end result of Sierra's efforts was HomeWord, released for the Apple II and ported to the IBM PC and PCjr.  Sierra's program was not going to compete with WordStar, WordPerfect or even Microsoft Word.  In fact, it was marketed toward people who would have been too imtimidated by WordStar's command shortcuts or WordPerfect's brick-thick manuals.  Many, many home-market friendly computer companies released word processors.  Broderbund's Bank Street Writer was one of the products against which HomeWord would compete.  Sierra would later release HomeWord II, which would have full hard drive support.  HomeWord came with a tutorial cassette to walk the novice user through his first word processing session.

In this blog entry I am going to take a look at HomeWord for the IBM PCjr., released at the end of 1983.  It was sold through IBM for $75.00. This version only ran on a PCjr., it will fail to load if it detects the presence of DMA, which would indicate a PC.  It came with an overlay for the PCjr. chicklet keyboard that looked like this :

The disk was formatted for DOS 2.1, but was copy-protected.  It required the user to save his files to a formatted floppy disk.  It could exit to DOS and contained programs like FORMAT and DISKCOPY to allow the user to do that without needing his DOS disk.  The program did not support hard drives.  Hard drives were extremely expensive in 1983 and were not intended for the consumer PCjr.

When you boot the HomeWord disk, you will see the following :

Doesn't this look familiar...
 then this :

I sincerely doubt they sold nine hundred million copies
After the title screen, the disk's AUTOEXEC.BAT file will automatically execute the DOS DATE and TIME commands, in order to remind you to set them.  The PCjr. had no real-time clock, but even so, many people were probably too lazy to set the date and time.  After the date and time prompts, the program would show you this screen :

The menu is using a tweaked 4-color graphics mode 04h, which requires less RAM than a 16-color mode but more flexibility than the PCjr. text modes.

HomeWord is pretty functional for a basic word processor, and the commands are easy to use.  The program is will describe what you need to do, and you can see the results fairly quickly to make sure you have it right.  The program will allow you access to most, if not all, of them via the menu.  However, learning the shortcuts makes things easier (refer to the overlay in the image above).  Instead of going through all its capabilities, let me allow the program to show some of them to you :

Beginning of the Document
Menu Selections
Scrolling Down is done by the Cursor Control (Arrow) keys
The program also supported 80-column "text", in reality graphics mode 06H :

80-column mode, note the use of inverse text to identify functions
The PCjr.'s graphics capabilities were not quite ready for WYSIWYG, but Sierra did try to give the user a good idea of what the document would look like before they used the print command.  On the bottom right of the screen, there is a miniature version of the page, showing the text alignment as it was being typed.  There is also a "show document" command that will display the whole document as it will appear on the printed page.  The scrolling happens automatically, and you need to press the spacebar to pause it.  Unfortunately, there is no obvious option to have it pause screen by screen.

The program supports custom margins, combining documents, headers and footers and page numbers.  It does not support automatic footnotes, but that was a function of high-end Word Processors.  The resulting files are very small and almost plain-text, so only the formatting would be lost.  If you want to show off your mastery of printer escape codes, there is a function which would allow you to insert them into the document.  You can also see the raw ASCII for the document.

Most keyboard functions are handled by the Control key, but the Alt key is sometimes required and the Fn key will also be frequently used.  Since I don't have the manual, I am not aware of the function that will bring the cursor to the beginning or end of the line.  Once you turn a function on, like Bold or Underline, the function will apply to all text until you use the Normal function to turn those attributes off.  No support for italics, but that was not a common feature of the printers of the day.

Here is the end result as printed on my IBM Compact Printer.  Although this program has explicit support for a serial printer, it refused to print anything more than two lines with that selection.  It would stop printing, saying my printer wasn't ready.  The hell it was!  I believe it was confused because I had an Internal Modem and the Parallel Printer Attachment installed.  Instead, I tricked it into thinking it was printing to a parallel printer via the DOS mode command.  Using the MODE command found in DOS 2.1, I used the following commands to fool the program (you have to exit the program first, type the commands in DOS, then restart it):

mode lpt1:=com2:
mode com2: 1200,n,8,2,p

With that, the printer printed as well as the Compact Printer can, and here is a scan of the results :

To Boldly Go, or maybe Not
This program was designed to run on a 128KB PCjr., and suffers from the performance limitations of that machine.  Even so, the program is not as slow as you might expect.  I do not know if the speed can be improved by loading it after using a device driver to allow it access to the fast memory contained on a PCjr. attachment, but I suspect it would.


  1. this was the word processor i bought from radio shack in lincoln mall matteson il 1987 and ran on my tandy 1000sx on a cm-11 640k but no HD, dual floppy.

    i had deskmake did not know it was also a word processor and did not spell check

  2. This got me through high school - running HomeWord on an Apple ][+

  3. Homeword was also ported to the C= 64 and sold by e.g. Langenscheidt in Germany.

  4. Wow, brings back memories!
    I did the page preview in the lower right corner many years ago.
    Along with a bunch of other stuff.