Researching file formats 7: WordPerfect Document Family

This blog post is part of a series on file formats research. See this introduction post for more information.

Update: The official format definition is now online here: WordPerfect Document Family. Comments welcome directly to the Library of Congress.

This is a challenging format to work on because it’s an entire family, and the family changed so much over time (and the EndNote Citation Library format was even worse, in this regard). It’s challenging because the file formats themselves change so much over the course of a format lifetime, and this software program went through a really volatile time for word processing, with so many fundamental transformations to the operating systems on which they lived. (In this context, it’s the 1980s-2000s.)

“Does anyone use WordPerfect anymore?” That’s what I got as a recommended question c/o Google.

WordPerfect is yet another example in this set I’m currently working in where a company has just gone wild for a long time, with dozens of opaque variations over several decades, and it’s just hard to summarize all of that complexity and changes into one trustworthy and well-cited document.

I’m so comforted by open source and version control, and it’s so challenging, with none of that being present in commercial proprietary software.

My only personal memory with this format is my mom having a horrible time dealing with compatibility issues between WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, and WordPerfect in particular becoming buggy and corrupt and making a huge mess. Foreboding.

If you need to dig into this format, author Edward Mendelson runs an incredibly detailed site dedicated to all things WordPerfect. (And his website is a perfect minimal web chic, I must add!)

Word Processing feels like a big ugly corporate battlefield, and WordPerfect sits in between WordStar and Microsoft Word.

The history of WordPerfect seems compelling, or maybe just to me because I am weirdly hypnotically interested in 90s-era corporate disasters. You can read a bit of the anecdotal history generally in this thread but also specifically the post I linked there.

I’m interested in reading this book: Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing in addition to this one called AlmostPerfect about the WordPerfect history that I’m sure is gleefully biased.

Here’s a couple of blurbs from BYTE magazine about the format:

Overall, a monumental format that ended up becoming a bit messy in its later years.