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PowerPoint was not from Microsoft: this is the unknown story of one of the most used apps in the world

Microsoft PowerPoint does not need presentations. Jokes aside, we've all enjoyed or suffered from it at some point over the years. Its success is such that any self-respecting exhibition, talk or meeting has one or more of these documents that combine text and images. And the more adventurous even add YouTube videos. The slides or transparencies are a thing of a bygone past that few remember. In business and in college and university classrooms, PowerPoint is king of presentations, to the benefit of Microsoft.

Although, unfortunately, this resource has been and continues to be abused a lot in all areas. It is not always used well and has starred in iconic moments in the history of the Internet such as the mass delivery of presentations by email. In an era before YouTube and mobile phones, PowerPoint was used to send kitty pictures, jokes and pranks via emailbefore the word meme was applied to internet humor. Kitsch works of art that some still keep on their old computers.

We all have a past. And, of course, PowerPoint has it too. He was born in April 1987. His name should have been Presenter, presenter in English, but for legal reasons they had to change it to PowerPoint. And although this presentation design tool is so associated with Microsoft, in reality it was not created in its facilities. It was rather a purchase that absorbed a small startup like so many others that succeed in a few years. A success story similar to WhatsApp when it was bought by Facebook (now Meta), Skype when it was bought by Microsoft or YouTube when it was acquired by Google.

Source: Microsoft

An origin plagued with success

Microsoft PowerPoint sees the light in 1990. It will be a bombshell. Three years later, this presentation creation and design softwarewill earn Microsoft $100 million a year in sales. And, of course, it will be a fundamental part of the office suite Microsoft Office together with Word and Excel. First for Macintosh. Then for Windows. Flagship of a software giant founded in 1975 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And that since 1986 it had already made the leap to its campus in Redmond, Washington.

PowerPoint will be one of the great successes of Microsoft, as was MS-DOS at the time, an operating system that was based on other software, QDOS. For its part, PowerPoint as such had been born three years before of its presentation under the Microsoft brand. But a purchase announced on July 30, 1987 turned this conceived software into a small startup owned by the Redmond giant. All in exchange for 14 million dollars. According to Wikipedia, it would be equivalent to 32 million today.

Those who received this millionaire were those responsible for Forethought, a small California company founded in late 1983 by Rob Campbell and Taylor Pohlman. His first job was to create in 1984 a tool for the Macintosh to manage files and folders. They named it FileMaker, they released it on the market in 1985 and it became a great success. So much so that Apple included it in its computers and ended up taking over the software through its subsidiary Claris.

After this first success, Forethought's second project will consist of creating a tool that allows working with object-oriented bitmaps. Let's put some context. We are in the 80's and computing is basically bright text on black screens. Graphical interfaces are just getting started (Xerox Star, 1981; Mac OS System, 1984; Windows, 1985) and dealing with graphics is not easy. What Campbell and Pohlman are proposing is somewhat ambitious. And for this they will hire Robert Gaskins, a student at the University of California, and also the software developer Dennis Austin. Both will be in charge of the Presenter project. But for legal reasons, they will change the name to PowerPoint. The fruits of this project will see the light in April 1987. Three years of development to revolutionize computing from the graphic point of view.

PowerPoint 1.0 for Macintosh appears in April 1987. To give some context, Photoshop also appears that year but under the name Display. Three months later, in July, Microsoft knocked on Forethought's door to acquire PowerPoint and Forethought itself. As we saw before, for a not insignificant amount.

Source: WorthPoint / eBay

If you can't do it, buy it

Microsoft was born in 1975. Its founders are Bill Gates and Paul Allen. By 1987, the company has a huge headquarters in Redmond, Washington, which they moved to the year before. Precisely that year, 1986, Microsoft goes public, under pressure from investors. The offer was $21 per share. According to TechCrunch, a price higher than expected and more than what Bill Gates himself wanted. And the first day they reached a rise of 28 dollars per share. In short, Microsoft was already a big player in the sector.

Back to PowerPoint. Apparently, the Redmond giant was interested in such a tool but had not found the key to develop it themselves. Or rather, they didn't have enough time. The project was headed by Jeff Raikes, head of marketing for the apps division. The idea was to develop their own tool, but if that wasn't possible, they could buy it from other companies to speed up the process. The first candidate, in early 1987, was MORE, an outline processor for the Macintosh that could add layers, colors, outlines, and images. Come on, it could be adapted to the needs that Microsoft required. However, Jeff Raikes came across a program that already met his requirements and was being developed by a small company in California.

In February 1987, Raikes was able to see a private demonstration at the Forethought facility. Pleased with what he saw, Bill Gates apparently did not like the idea. Gates thought that why create a new software that would do that instead of integrating those functions in Word. For the good of all, Gates listened to Raikes and Microsoft ended up buying Forethought and its PowerPoint software.

Once the purchase was made, Microsoftcreated a dedicated graphics unit within the applications division. His first assignment was to adapt PowerPoint for sale under his own brand. And to lead the project, who better than Robert Gaskins, who had worked on PowerPoint from the beginning. He would be there for five years, between 1987 and 1992. At that time, they would release the first version of PowerPoint under the Microsoft brand, the second version for Macintosh (1988) and then for Windows (1990). And a third version (1992), the last to be sold separately. From now on, PowerPoint will be part of Microsoft Office, both on Macintosh and Windows. Other Forethought members who were part of the new unit in charge of PowerPoint at Microsoft were Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin.

Source: Robert Gaskins

A look at the first versions of PowerPoint

Today, PowerPoint works on Windows, macOS, iPhone, iPad, Android, and has a web version that can be opened directly in the browser. It allows you to add text, objects, drawings, photographs, local or YouTube videos and even 3D animations. And among its most recent functions, it has voice functions to give you orders or even translate what you say. It also allows working with styluses and touch screens. All of this and much more.

But to get there it has taken more than 30 years of development. Hits and misses. Interface changes, adding and removing features and, in short, adapting to current technology and trying to go a little further. Another thing is the use that the average user gives it. Microsoft developers are not to blame for that.

Source: WinWorld Let's go to the beginning. PowerPoint 1.0 for Macintosh. Back then, the interface was monochrome, so you had to play with patterns. Among its first functions, you could print the slides on paper or transparency or show it on the screen. For the rest, you could insert text and simple geometric figures.

The second version, PowerPoint 2.0, is the first to be fully managed at Microsoft facilities. It will be released first for Macintosh. And two years later, for Windows. This version will already know the screens in full color, with a palette of 256 colors. Although it will still continue to offer patterns and other graphic resources from the black and white era. It also introduces custom templates, help files, clip art and styles to standardize presentations at the level of text, font, size, etc. The technical part of the color was carried out by an external company, Genigraphics. Hence, along with PowerPoint, came a program called GraphicsLink.

Source: WinWorld If you want to know all the details about the birth and creation of PowerPoint in the first person, Robert Gaskins, its creator, wrote a book explaining the first years of life of this software for presentations. That is, the period between 1984 and 1992. Available in English, it can be purchased in paper, Kindle and ePub formats.

But there is also a free downloadable PDF version on the official website of Robert Gaskins himself. The title of the book is Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint. Along with that book there are other downloadable documents of equal historical interest, such as the documents they used to design and explain how PowerPoint should be and what it had to do.