This week marks the 70th birthday of Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian-born software executive behind Microsoft Office and Excel. Born on September 10, 1948, Simonyi is also responsible for an innovation the modern computer user might take for granted: WYSIWYG word processing, or the “what you see is what you get” interface that makes desktop publishing so user-friendly.
Simonyi and colleagues developed the first WYSIWYG word processor in 1974 while working at the Xerox PARC. The program was called Bravo and written for the Alto. In this video for the Computer History Museum, Simonyi describes wowing Xerox PARC visitors with a WYSIWYG demo. Xerox employees would type a generic memo on the screen featuring the Xerox logo. Then, they would place a printed transparency over the screen, showing that, indeed, “what you see is what you get.”
Who coined the term WYSIWYG?
Who came up with the term “WYSIWYG” is a bit of a mystery. Simonyi mentions a Xerox visitor first using the phrase, noting that “what you see is what you get” was the popular catchphrase of a Flip Wilson Laugh-In character. His colleague Chuck Thacker credited his wife Karen with the term during a 2007 Computer History Museum event. Still others say industry newsletters coined the term.
Simonyi eventually left Xerox for Microsoft, where he worked for more than two decades and developed flagship Microsoft products. In 2002, he left Microsoft to form Intentional Software—which Microsoft ultimately acquired in April 2017. Today, Simonyi is back working at Microsoft. He’s also the only tourist to have visited space twice, having paid $60 million to visit the International Space Station on Russian rockets in 2007 and 2009.
Photo: Shaiith / Shutterstock.
Actually, I know who came up with WYSIWYG, as I knew him personally. Don Smiley, who was a commercial graphic artist, creator of such icons as the TravelLodge Sleep Bear, had a self-promotion poster in 1963 or 1964, showing thumbnails of all his famous designs. It was about 11″ wide and about 30″ tall, as I recall. The thumbnails were in a column about 4 across and 15 or so down, on a white background.
Beneath that column was one word: “WYSIWYG”.
Back then no one knew what it meant, so they had to call him to find out.
That was the whole point, eh?