Microsoft Memories: Experiences Of An Early Computer


 This article was originally featured in tmrw magazine #25.

Imagine a time before smartphones. Before tablets. Before city wide WiFi and hyper speed bandwidth. Where shopping required physical excursion and an outfit that consisted of more than just your pants. Dating was less about swiping and more about a matching song lyric in your MSN Messenger status. If you wanted to hear an endless list of derogatory phrases about your mum and how she spends her evenings you had to get your uniform on and get to school on Monday morning.

In an age where we’re on the precipice of the sorts of experiences that were once confined to the pages of science fiction like fully integrated virtual reality it might seem a little strange for us to get misty eyed about a simpler online experience but those early joys of the digital age are what inspired future creators to take us further. As I type this up on my iPad, train bound to my day job, it’s astounding the changes we’ve witnessed in such a short amount of time. There’s a cavalcade of different electronic devices all available to try and rid a traveller of the minutiae of their commute. For some this will be no real shock, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for so long that it’s now ingrained. In primary school, our computer room were regarded by some as an oasis. As most schools had Microsoft machines, Bill Gates became paramount to a living god - the lighthouse amongst the crashing waves and rocks of an early noughties curriculum. For those who openly questioned the importance of their eleven times tables, they had the pleasures of educational games to explain it in a far better way than red notebook full of graph paper ever could. Anyone with a future in social media management or marketing probably spent their days scanning the annals of Clip Art. Perhaps like me you were one of the unlucky few to be inflicted with left handedness. Forever unable to cut anything due to the one pair of left handed scissors being too blunt to cut even butter, some tasks leave us unfortunate few as perennial penmanship pariahs. When the nightmares of cursive writing came around it felt like there was no escape. But you can’t smudge ink on Microsoft Word! A world of literary wonder was awaiting, but even the sweetest of fairy tales has to have an antagonist.

Before Alexa and Siri, there was one creepy digital helper that ruled over all: Clippy. Earnestly helpful, this animated paper clip with the thousand yard stare, this stationary accessory that has been witness to the world’s worst (grammatical) atrocities was the electronic equivalent of the annoying trainee teaching assistant who assumed you didn’t know how to write a letter so attempted to show you every time even though you’d written some all day yesterday. And of course there were alternatives. The bouncing ball. The dog in a cape. The caricature of Albert Einstein. They all were worthy alternatives but everyone always went back to Clippy. And we hated him for it. Even though it was just a paper clip, we anthropomorphised him, assigning a gender and in turn potentially creating the first mansplaining AI. That’s not to say Microsoft Word was all bad. There was still a way to show off your creative side. A solitary banner of colourful protest against the entirely beige world that the likes of Clippy wanted you to stay in. I’m of course talking about Word Art. No piece of writing was truly complete without it. With an endless (about 30) supply of designs you could now make that short memoir about what you did over the summer holidays really mean something. Want to tell that special someone how you feel? We suggest the classic black outline. Got a big event planned? Maybe try the wavy blue one. Perhaps you want to produce a set of dummy hostage demands in an attempt to fake your own death and you need the right mixture of maniacal yet fun? Rainbow font baby!

When discussing nostalgic creativity it’d be remiss of me to ignore potentially the most important programme from computers gone by. When you had ten minutes left of free time at the end of the lesson, it was the one we all rushed to. Microsoft Paint has been a staple of Microsoft programmes since the very first version of Windows 1.0 in 1985. For some, like the artist behind Jimll Paint It, it’s these memories that started the creative spark. Jim'll Paint It is an ongoing collaboration between Jim and the thousands of complete strangers who send him their ideas. Using Microsoft Paint, Jim has painted hundreds of these suggestions and has amassed a Facebook following of over 700,000 fans. Like many others, he first learned of the wonders of Microsoft Paint at school. “My earliest MS Paint memory is from around 20 years ago. It was on the chunky, beige CRT monitors in my junior school. I can even remember where I was sat. I’d developed a bit of a James Bond obsession thanks to Goldeneye on the N64 and I remember trying to recreate the famous opening gun barrel motif using the curved line tool (my go-to tool nowadays). In my memory I made a fairly good job of it but I’m sure if I could see it now it would be hilariously crap.”

Everyone you ask seems to have a nostalgic, almost wistful memory of using it. That’s probably why when the news broke that Microsoft would no longer be continuing with the programme there was outrage. Newspapers concocted obituaries whilst Twitter reminisced with many users returning to app to show off their skills. The protests seemed to work, with Microsoft releasing an official statement and making the programme downloadable on the store for future traditions to continue the Paint heritage. It’s with people like Jim that are continuing the programmes legacy and through talking to him about why he continues to use it that it shines through. “When I first started Jim’ll Paint It the enjoyment came from challenging Paint’s obvious limitations. Especially in the framework of being asked to paint very specific things. But now I’ve been using it for over 5 years on a daily basis I can see how these limitations have been essential to shaping my illustrative style. Compared with Photoshop, the path of an idea from brain to screen has far less obstacles in the form of distracting choices about brush types, feathering, what layer you’re on etc. In that way, even if it takes longer overall, it still feels a lot more stripped back and natural - like actual painting. I make more mistakes, perhaps, but mistakes can always be drawn over and sometimes end up being the best bit”.

This at its core is why we get nostalgic about outdated software. Seeing how far we’ve come in such a short space of time highlights the immense work that has gone on in technology brands and reminiscing about the past helps us appreciate the future just that little bit more.

Daniel Eggleston