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Tales In Tech History: PowerPoint

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

30 years of PowerPoint. Useful presentation tool or bane of office meetings? Discuss…

Microsoft’s ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation software has celebrated its 30th anniversary this week.

But many people may be unaware that in actual fact the presentation software which is mostly associated with the Windows PC, was initially designed for its arch rival, the Apple Macintosh.

Nowadays, no office meeting, training session or seminar tends to happen without a PowerPoint presentation in one form or another, as the software enjoys an estimated 95 percent share of the global presentation market.

PowerPoint30 Years Old

Yet PowerPoint began life under another name (Presenter) and its initial developer was a former Berkeley Ph.D. student known as Robert Gaskins.

Gaskins idea was to develop an easy to use presentation program based on a series of slides and he later joined an American firm called Forethought Inc (established back in 1983) to further develop the software.

Forethought did gain some working capital from Apple, but life proved tough for the company. And it is not as if there wasn’t any competition. Rival products included Harvard Graphics (from Software Publishing) and Lotus Freelance.

Development of PowerPoint continued however, but the original Presenter name had to be scrapped due to trademark issues, and was renamed PowerPoint in 1987, when the software was first released for the Mac OS.

The developers of the initial release were Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin.

In August that same year Microsoft acquired the struggling Forethought for $14 million, in what proved to be one of the most significant acquisitions for Redmond.

Microsoft at the time was a relatively small firm that specialised in operating systems, and was not particularly acquisitive. It did however have the most popular word processing package (Word) for the Macintosh.

PowerPoint 2Talent Spotter

And Microsoft had recognised the potential of PowerPoint and it saw the acquisition as a way to instantly enter the presentation market.

It had acquired Forethought just four months after PowerPoint had launched on the market.

Microsoft quickly established a graphics business unit in Silicon Valley to further develop the application. Indeed, Gaskins headed the group for five years, further enhancing the PowerPoint application.

It took until 22 May 1990 for a Microsoft version of PowerPoint to launch (with Windows 3.0), and it was included as a part of the Microsoft Office suite.

PowerPoint quickly became the most widely used presentation software around the world, and versions of it are now available for the Windows, Mac OS, and even Android operating systems.

It should be remembered that before the advent of PowerPoint, people had to use very analogue devices such as blackboards, flip charts, or even overhead transparencies (or viewfoil), in order to give a presentation.

PowerPoint gave computer users the ability to develop their presentation, plug it into a laptop at the venue, and speak using the presentation as a visual aid for their subject matter. It transformed the world of meetings, and some may argue not for the better.

The software itself has been through a number of iterations, perhaps the most notable was the addition of the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) language with PowerPoint 97 (part of Office 97). Later versions added the ability to include animation, special effects, and backgrounds.

But like it or loath it, there is no doubt about the impact of PowerPoint. It was a key part of the ‘big three’ Office offerings from Microsoft (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), and its presence helped drive the global domination of the Microsoft Office suite.

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