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A loss penalty in MacWrite

Jour Sometimes it just works. Sometimes it just does not. And sometimes users make the most curious of things. Welcome to an Apple-flavored section of Jour.

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Apple Macintosh Plus at Catalonia’s National Museum of Science and Technology

Our story comes from a reader branded as “Mark”, well into his fourth decade in the IT industry, and is about the time when Apple brought its beige all-in-one Macs into the classroom for the very first time.

Because he worked on computer customer support at an educational institution, Mark was very much at the forefront of Apple’s moves.

“The response to Mac on our campus was amazing,” he said, “the university built a lab full of just Mac Pluss to handle demand.”

Although it may be 45 years since Apple II appeared, the effects of the Mac and its user interface continue to echo today. Plus came with a powerful megabyte of RAM and shook one Motorola 68000 CPU. It also had the iconic monochrome screen in its case and had a range of productivity tools. One of these was MacWrite, which appeared along with the first iteration.

The graphical interface, although not entirely original, was a revelation of the time (although modern users take such what-you-see-is-what-you-can-get-wonders for granted today.) It was also an object for abuse.

“One of the enthusiastic users thought that a document could be improved if you added as many different fonts as possible,” Mark explained. We only know the type (and the font.)

“One day he came to me and said that one of the Macs in the lab was broken,” Mark continued. “He wrote a paper with MacWrite and it no longer allowed him to write more text.”

Eran’s MacWrite was not known to be particularly fragile, so Mark dug deeper.

“He could not edit or enter any text of any kind regardless of the font,” he continued, “of course the first thing that came to mind was the font or perhaps the length of the document.”

“You could create new documents but you could no longer work with his.”

Mark sat down in front of the affected machine and created a new file. Everything was fine. However, the user insisted that Apple’s best interests misbehaved. So Mark did what any good support technician would do. No, do not go on a long liquid lunch. He asked the user to show what he did.

“On each line, when he got to the edge of the screen,” Mark said, “he MISSED to the next line. Just like you would hit back with a typewriter when you got to the edge of the page.”

The document approached 30 pages and the user had tabs at the end of each text-filled line. One piece was on the receiving side of two tabs.

We had a hard time recreating this problem ourselves using one of the popular emulators, and we can confirm that after this type of abuse, MacWrite occasionally stops accepting new input (it also gradually becomes less and less responsive, suggesting the problems with to come.)

Mark speculated that MacWrite must have some kind of tab limit, where no more data could be entered. It did not crash, it simply ignored additional input.

“I told Apple about this,” he said. “They were unaware of the border.”

“Of course,” he admitted, “it could have been the document size and the tabs caused the document to exceed it.” But he had never encountered this problem before or since.

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Mark cautiously suggested that the user remove the tabs and trained him on how MacWrite (and the vast majority of modern word processors) worked. Everything was fine.

“His document was still ugly with all those fonts.”

It was the only time Mark ever needed to teach anyone how to use the program. “I thought MacWrite needed no explanation.”

“I was wrong.”

There have been few major disasters in computer use than when users were given the opportunity to decorate their documents with poor font choices. And even with the most famous interfaces, a user can still trust to do something stupid. Have you ever found yourself handing out training when you assumed no one was needed? Tell us, with another email Jour. ®

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