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Noble software that met an ignoble fate, XyWrite no longer is under development by that name. But many journalists and some publishers, professionals, and academics will use the software till--in Paul Andrews's words--"they uncurl our cold, stiff fingers from our keyboard," so let us speak of xyWrite in the present tense.

A famously fast, robust, command-driven text processor/file manager that publishers from Johannesburg to Jakarta, from San Francisco to Kansas City to West 43rd Street, relied on throughout the '80s and some do even now, the software is an unrivaled writer's tool. Derived from the Atex typesetting system by the same developers, xyWrite 3 pioneered (well-established in various courtrooms) the auto-replace feature that while you type substitutes a word or phrase for a user-defined abbreviation. Other equally clever features assist text manipulation, and the superb Microlytics spellcheck and thesaurus are integrated. But xyWrite's cardinal virtue may be that it stays out of the writer's way.

Writers have been praising (and sometimes cursing) xyWrite in print for better than 20 years. Economics analyst Robert Kuttner makes the case pro particularly well.

xyWrite has been described as a set of functions waiting to be programmed, plus the language to program them. But the app is as complex or as simple as you choose to make it. It runs just fine straight outtadebox and plenty of users never change a hair. Different installations thus can be as unlike as different products. A versatile internal script language, 100 per cent user-remappable keyboard, and other configuration aids make XyWrite a uniquely powerful and elastic text processor the user can reshape as a front end for any system that accepts raw ascii--e.g., the 'net--or tagged ascii source--e.g., www, dtp (and before dtp typesetting systems), interpreters, or compilers. You can run a XyWrite Programming Language script that shells out from the xyW command line to a C compiler, then optionally shells out again to run the pgm you just compiled from source written with xyWrite. While shelling out to dos utilities still is convenient, shelling out to Windows apps is more common now and as easy.

No conversion to ascii needed, thank you. The lone nonoptional character xyWrite itself--like some text editors and unlike any word processor--introduces to files, the only character the user can't see, is a hex 1A dos end-of-file marker (if that's a problem, remedies are available). Initial formatting is customized and held in memory. When a file's destination is an office printer, the user can insert formatting codes embedded in guillemets (with the tap of a key that exposes codes, as freely editable as html tags). Behold: The text processor as if by magic has become a word processor.

XyWrite's developers even marketed it as such, indeed bet the farm on its prospects in the overheated word processor arena where xyWrite's best features looked like weaknesses because they weren't in the corporate mainstream and its unintuitive default keyboard map handicapped it before the fact. More often than not, trade press critics used xyWrite as their personal text processor, if not by choice then on orders from their editors. Reviews were boilerplate that never failed to cite xyWrite 3's unmatched speed and flexibility, then to lament the "steep learning curve," telegraphing to MIS types, "Secretaries will run screaming from this app." A parade of temp typists in the newsroom where I worked at the time mastered in minutes more about xyWrite than at least one author knows, yet he's gratefully written a succession of books with--all too typically--a pirated copy. XyQuest begged pirates to chip in at a reduced price; they never understand, and why should they: Their pirated copies are as useful in the 21st century as when they first copied xyWrite to a floppy in the mid-1980s.

After XyQuest finally demo'd a new release with the hot dos feature of the previous moment, graphical preview, at a trade show, the cascade of XyQuest marketing blunders culminated in announcement of an alliance with IBM that proved to be suicidal. During the years dosWordPerfect ruled word processing and Microsoft was finishing win3, XyQuest was crippling graphical xyWrite to comply with IBM's notion of what would make a worthy dos successor to DisplayWrite. Literally on the eve of already disastrously late release, IBM left XyQuest holding the bag that contained the molasses-slow and in many respects xyWrite-incompatible software that had been renamed Signature. When XyQuest released the pathetic dog, the reception was merciless.

Tim Baehr, who as a XyQuest employee programmed xpl in good times and bad, describes the developer's decline and fall from an insider's perspective. Read it and weep.

XyQuest was exhausted. A Baltimore legal software developer, The Technology Group, bought the carcass, speeded up the IBM-compromised slug and renamed what actually was Signature 2 xyWrite 4, released it to a market stampeding from graphical dos to Windows word processors, and oversaw a remarkably literal port to Windows. DOS XyWrite 4's disreputable provenance and commitment to business office priorities gave publishers, journalists, and anyone else who uses xyWrite as a front end no cause to cast aside fast, compact, unobtrusive xyWrite 3. The trade press yawned too, and was no less chilly to Windows xyWrite 4.

Some xyWrite-the-dos-word-processor devotees endorse xyDos 4, which does tricks easily with office printers that are burdensome with v3, offers a larger-capacity clipboard, and handles very large files more gracefully than v3. The programming language has some syntactical refinements but retains Signature's incompatibilities with xyW3 xpl. xyWin has been used to prepare camera-ready books, still can be command-driven, and as Windows software goes is light and fast. But lack of hooks to services that Windows users have a right to expect isolates it. As a gui app its only singular feature is compatibility with the same-generation dos product. Tellingly, the same documentation supports both. In my experience, if your graphical hardware can handle it--not a minor consideration--xyWin has a certain charm.

Although TTG continued selling xyWrite 4 for dos or 16bit Windows direct, MS dominance convinced the developer that xyWrite's only commercial value was as a component of TTG's Windows legal software and that's where TTG concentrated its energies. TTG enhanced the kernel with 32bit VisualBasic enhancements [photo] and named it SmartWords. NotaBene, a New York City developer, markets an app built on the SmartWords engine, a word processor with add-ons for linguists and academics.

photo: adpFisher
The Tribeca building that houses NotaBene offices, late May 2002

xyWrite's legendary architect Dave Erickson continued as chief engineer at TTG from the IBM debacle through SmartWords, apparently till early 2001 (a contractual decade after the sale?). Erickson has invested in and is "working with" NotaBene as well as pursuing a number of other interests, NB president Anne Putnam announced to the xyWrite mailing list on 17 August 2001.

Ex-XyQuest programmer Tim Baehr reported to the xyWrite list 3 October 2001 that a correspondent had written that "I hear that TTG has closed up shop for good." Over the next week The Technology Group's Web site slowly crumbled till it reverted to the host site. Finally, Richard Henderson contacted a SmartWords dealer and learned that TTG had closed its doors as of 12 October. Seth Rowland, of Basha Systems, pointed Henderson to Law on the Web, which stated that " is back! Please read the Press Release about The Technology Group." The press release announced that "The Technology Group is in the midst of a reorganization, but it is our goal to keep this site and other [sic] TTTG products running and selling."

xyWrite is dead. Long live xyWrite.


copyright © 2000-2005 Diane Fisher
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adpFisher nyc 4 january 2004