Saturday, November 18, 2017

"The Improbable Origins of PowerPoint"

Power corrupts
PowerPoint corrupts absolutely
—Edward Tufte, Wired Magazine, September 1, 2003 

From IEEE Spectrum, October 31, 2017:

Here’s the surprising story behind the software that conquered the world, one slide at a time 
Walking into the hall to deliver the speech was a “daunting experience,” the speaker later recalled, but “we had projectors and all sorts of technology to help us make the case.” The technology in question was PowerPoint, the presentation software produced by Microsoft. The speaker was Colin Powell, then the U.S. Secretary of State.

Powell’s 45 slides displayed snippets of text, and some were adorned with photos or maps. A few even had embedded video clips. During the 75-⁠minute speech, the tech worked perfectly. Years later, Powell would recall, “When I was through, I felt pretty good about it.”

The aim of his speech, before the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003, was to argue the Bush administration’s final case for war with Iraq in a “powerful way.” In that, he succeeded. While the president had already decided to go to war, Powell’s speech—inseparable from what would become one of the most famous PowerPoint presentations of all time—did nothing to derail the plan. The following month, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Poland launched their invasion.

Powell’s speech dramatized how PowerPoint had become, by 2003, a nearly inescapable tool of communication and persuasion in much of the world. Since then, its domination has only become more complete. The same tool used by U.S. State Department and CIA officials to pivot an international coalition toward war is also used by schoolchildren to give classroom reports on planets, penguins, and poets. Microsoft rightly boasts of 1.2 billion copies of PowerPoint at large—one copy for every seven people on earth. In any given month, approximately 200 million of these copies are used, and although nobody’s really counting, our cumulative generation of PowerPoint slides surely reaches well into the billions. So profound is PowerPoint’s influence that prominent figures have decried the software’s effects on thinking itself. Edward Tufte, the guru of information visualization, has famously railed against the “cognitive style” of PowerPoint, which he characterizes as having a “foreshortening of evidence and thought” and a “deeply hierarchical single-⁠path structure.”

PowerPoint is so ingrained in modern life that the notion of it having a history at all may seem odd. But it does have a very definite lifetime as a commercial product that came onto the scene 30 years ago, in 1987. Remarkably, the founders of the Silicon Valley firm that created PowerPoint did not set out to make presentation software, let alone build a tool that would transform group communication throughout the world. Rather, PowerPoint was a recovery from dashed hopes that pulled a struggling startup back from the brink of failure—and succeeded beyond anything its creators could have imagined.

PowerPoint was not the first software for creating presentations on personal computers. Starting in 1982, roughly a half-dozen other programs [PDF] came on the market before PowerPoint’s 1987 debut. Its eventual domination was not the result of first-mover advantage. What’s more, some of its most familiar features—the central motif of a slide containing text and graphics; bulleted lists; the slideshow; the slide sorter; and even the animated transitions between slides—did not originate with PowerPoint. And yet it’s become the Kleenex or Scotch Tape of presentation software, as a “PowerPoint” has come to mean any presentation created with software.

With PowerPoint as well as its predecessors, the motif of the slide was, of course, lifted directly from the world of photography. Some presentation programs actually generated 35-mm slides for display with a slide projector. In most cases, though, the early programs created slides that were printed on paper for incorporation into reports, transferred to transparencies for use on overhead projectors, or saved as digital files to be displayed on computer monitors.

The upshot was that personal computer users of the 1980s, especially business users, had many options, and the market for business software was undergoing hypergrowth, with programs for generating spreadsheets, documents, databases, and business graphics each constituting a multimillion-dollar category. At the time, commentators saw the proliferation of business software as a new phase in office automation, in which computer use was spreading beyond the accounting department and the typing pool to the office elites. Both the imagined and actual users of the new business software were white-collar workers, from midlevel managers to Mahogany Row executives.
PowerPoint thus emerged during a period in which personal computing was taking over the American office. A major accelerant was the IBM Personal Computer, which Big Blue unveiled in 1981. By then, bureaucratic America—corporate and government alike—was well habituated to buying its computers from IBM. This new breed of machine, soon known simply as the PC, spread through offices like wildfire....MUCH MORE