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Did you know? Microsoft created a word processor for kids in the 1990s



Microsoft Creative Writer splash screen

When it comes to Microsoft and writing, Microsoft Word hasn’t always been the only game in town. In 1993 Microsoft released a crazy word processor for kids called Creative Writer. This is what made it memorable.

Creative writer: Bob for Bob

In the 1

990s, Microsoft began experimenting with software for children and computer beginners. Of these products, an operating system shell called Microsoft Bob (1995) remains notorious for its indulgence. Bob represented a bold, alternative view of beginner computers that fell flat on the market. With Bob, users communicated with their computers through the metaphor of a house, using interactive assistant characters.

Few remember that some of Bob’s original principles also appeared in an earlier Microsoft product called Creative Writer, released in December 1993 for Windows 3.1 and Macintosh computers.

McZee tries
The Creative Writer lobby, with the mascot McZee on the left.

According to a 1993 New York Times article, Creative Writer came into being as part of Microsoft’s attempt to use home computing products as a result of a slowdown in the business productivity market. Microsoft predicted an imminent multimedia boom (thanks to affordable VGA graphics, CD-ROM drives and digitized sound) and wanted to take advantage of this potentially untapped consumer market.

In 1993 Microsoft reorganized its consumer products division under the Microsoft Home label, which included mice, keyboards and edutainment titles on CD-ROM (such as Microsoft Dinosaurs), and home reference products (Encarta). Creative Writer and a sister product, Fine Artist, were Microsoft Home’s first two productivity applications.

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Creative Writer Innovative Features

So why would a child use Creative Writer instead of Microsoft Word in 1993? For starters, it was much cheaper, retailing for around $ 65, but often available in stores for much less. (In 1993, an upgrade to Word 6.0 alone cost $ 99.) It also included an all-new kid-centric interface.

An example of a Creative Writer document.
Microsoft Creative Writer in action with a sample document.

At startup, Creative Writer takes over the entire screen of your computer, minimizing distractions and preventing children from accidentally leaving the program in Windows or harming Mom and Dad’s PC.

Then you interact with functions of the program using the metaphor of a four-story building. The lobby on the first floor is an introduction space. On the second floor, you create new documents (or load older ones) and write. On the third floor you will find tools to create specially formatted banners, newspapers or cards. And on the fourth floor you can interact with “Magic Combobulators” who help break writer’s block.

Once you get into the second-floor writing studio, you’ll see a whimsical toolbar across the top of the screen that rethinks computer GUI tropes with everyday objects, some of which are dumb. For example, to copy text, click a camera icon, while to paste it, click a paste icon. To run a spell check, click on a bee (a spelling bee, get it?). And to undo it, click on a chick hatching from an egg. (OK, that makes no sense.)

The whimsical toolbar in Creative Writer as seen on the back of the box.
The Creative Writer Toolbar, as explained on the back of the box. Microsoft

Creative Writer and Fine Artist are a match. If you have both apps installed, you can switch between apps with the click of a button. You can also share documents and images between them. Creative Artist has user profiles that you log in to before starting work, so you can organize your work and keep it separate from other users of the computer.

The Lore of Creative Writer

If you follow Creative Writer’s backstory (which presents the program in a comic format), you’ll learn about a wacky-looking purple character named McZee, who Creative Writer says is the inspiration for all human ideas (that’s pretty tough, Microsoft.).

The McZee Backstory in Microsoft Creative Writer.
McZee’s Backstory in Creative Writer.

One day, McZee whirled into the lives of two children: a writer named Max and an artist named Maggie. He took the kids to a wonderful and crazy city called Imaginopolis, where Max settled in the library and Maggie in the museum. Now Max can use the tools in the library to help him write (in Creative Writer), and Maggie can create art in the museum (in its sister program Microsoft Fine Artist).

Quirky Features of Creative Writer

Encrypt text in Microsoft Creative Writer.
Encrypt text in Microsoft Creative Writer.

Creative Writer includes dozens of crazy features or crazy renderings of typical word processing software conventions. Here are just a few.

  • Clip-Art stamps: Microsoft has included hundreds of playful cartoon illustrations that children can insert and manipulate in their documents.
  • Sound Effects: Creative Writer allows you to insert crazy sound effects into your word processing document from a sound library provided with the application.
  • Blow up your words: To delete all text on the page and start over, you can click an explosion icon and then click the text. The whole document explodes with a sound effect and goes blank.
  • Magic combobulators: If you have writer’s block, Creative Writer includes 8,000 writing prompts to help you brainstorm in the form of random silly sentences or pictures. They come from a special machine or picture frame on the fourth floor.
  • Encrypt your work: If you click on a secret agent icon you can enter a password and Creative Writer will mix up all the letters (and hide the images) in your document. You must enter the correct password to view the document properly.

Disadvantages of Creative Writer

Creative Writer is a fun program for kids, but it wasn’t a great success. After using it for a while, we can speculate on a handful of possible reasons why. The first is that while the interface is nice, it’s not as intuitive as you might think. It takes trial and error to learn what most things do, and once you learn, the interface is so non-standard that those skills aren’t translated to any program other than Microsoft Fine Artist.

In addition, Creative Artist’s sound and image rich documents use a proprietary file format called .MAX that is not compatible with other Microsoft products. It is possible to import Microsoft Word .DOC files, but not to save them. So you are always stuck with Creative Writer unless you print the documents on paper. The program also darkens the file system, so you don’t know exactly where these documents are stored.

The Looney Library in Microsoft Creative Writer.
Imaginopolis’ crumbling architecture does not inspire confidence.

Speaking of lock-in, when you think about holding hands and hiding documents you get with the app, you start to feel a distinct I-trapped-in-a-crooked-building-with-McZee vibe which certainly isn’t. It’s not intentional, but it can give us a nightmare if we think about it too much.

And finally, if you hated Clippy and other assistants in Microsoft products, the endless dialog bubbles that every time you click on something in Creative Writer can get on your nerves. Everything you click is explained by on-screen characters like an interactive manual with hypertext tutorials. Fortunately, it is possible to disable them, but the non-intuitive interface becomes a complete mystery without the interruptions. Even with these drawbacks, it is still a great fun program for kids to experiment with.

The Creative Writer Legacy

While Creative Writer wasn’t a big hit for Microsoft, it did make an impact. It is now clear in hindsight that Creative Writer’s hand-held approach with dialog balloon interfaces provided a trial run for both Microsoft Bob (as mentioned earlier) and Microsoft’s experiments with Office assistants (think Clippy) in Microsoft Office 97 and beyond .

The original 1993 Microsoft Creative Writer box.
The original 1993 Microsoft Creative Writer box. Microsoft

After the initial release of Creative Writer in 1993, Microsoft released an add-on product that ties into the TV show Ghost Writer and a major update in 1995. It followed in 1996 with a Windows 95 native sequel called Creative Writer 2. The character McZee got the ax (only appears as a special font) and the application got windows only), supported higher resolutions and stood read and write to some standard file formats such as RTF and TXT files.

As for the cultural impact, we wouldn’t be surprised if most of the kids who grew up with Creative Writer in the 1990s now lovingly look back on their time spent in a crooked library with a strange purple dude named McZee.

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