The year is 1984 and computer scientists Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin have set themselves a seemingly impossible task. They are attempting to bring the old-fashioned projector slide into the 20th century by building a piece of software that allows users to present ideas from their computers. After a few false starts, the fledgling entrepreneurs are successful, and on the April 20, 1987, their opus goes on sale. The software becomes an instant success, making $1 million (or $2.18 million in modern money) in its first month.
Born in California, the programme has gone on to achieve global acclaim with 1 billion copies sold. And last Thursday, PowerPoint celebrated its 30th birthday — one of the very few apps to achieve longevity of this kind. Before PowerPoint — or “Presenter”, as it was known in the early days — creating individual slides or transparencies to show colleagues in meetings could take hours. Digitising the process so that people could properly demonstrate their ideas in a fraction of the time has been hailed as one of the greatest technological achievements of the decade.
PowerPoint was also created amid major hardware constraints. Originally built for an early Macintosh desktop computer, Gaskins’s vision vastly outstripped the available computing power. Today’s Apple Watch has around 1,000 times the computing power of the 1980 “Fat Mac”. This meant that the early version of PowerPoint was highly simplistic, and only available in black and white but, by 1992, the release of PowerPoint 3.0 brought vivid colours into the mix. That same year, Gaskins gave one of the first public demonstrations of a PowerPoint presentation from a laptop computer, using video as well as static images.
He recalls: “The first audiences to see this were totally amazed at what we have all now seen thousands of times.”
Since then, PowerPoint has evolved through countless iterations: the grandaddy of enterprise software is now compatible with Android and Apple phones, and accessible through the cloud. Today there are an estimated 500 million users of PowerPoint across the globe, creating more than 30 million presentations each day. Its popularity has yet to wane, with new research showing that it remains as popular with young tech-savy users as it is with the Baby Boomers. An online poll by YouGov showed that 81 per cent of UK Snapchat users agreed that PowerPoint was a great tool for making presentations. Children still learn PowerPoint in schools, and it remains part of everyday vernacular, not just among office workers but with people of all ages from every walk of life, from vicars giving sermons to diplomats at the UN.
According to Gaskins, the secret to PowerPoint’s success is its adaptability. “PowerPoint does something that many people want to do: expressing a sequence of ideas, one after another in order, using all kinds of graphics and language,” he says. The rise of social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram show that long-form prose has become increasingly unpopular with modern users.
PowerPoint, with its capacity to be highly visual, bridges the wordy world of yesterday with the visual future of tomorrow. Indeed, the average PowerPoint presentation features just 40 words. While critics complain that PowerPoint has taken the magic from oral presentations, and warn of “death by slides”, PowerPoint remains an essential tool for the modern workplace. “[It] put control of presentations into the hands and minds of the presenters, which could vastly increase the quality of the result while cutting out the levels of designers and graphics producers and secretaries who had added so much delay and expense and diffused the presenters’ control,” says Gaskins.
He adds that PowerPoint helped to democratise technology, putting the tools for expressing ideas into the hands of anyone with access to a computer. But even he recognises that it has the potential to alienate audiences as well as engage. “PowerPoint is not magic,” he says. “It doesn’t automatically improve the thinking or writing of its users. PowerPoint presentations can be as bad as any prose document.” However, it is unlikely that PowerPoint will be superseded by a new software programmes, Gaskins claims. ”We’ve seen some attempts, but I think that so far they all miss some essential features of the market, resulting in fatal flaws,”
Will PowerPoint remain a crucial resource? Gaskins believes there will be a “continuing need for what PowerPoint can do”.
The inclusion of artificial intelligence in PowerPoint 365’s ‘Designer’ feature shows that Microsoft remains committed to its future — but it will likely be the innovators who will keep PowerPoint truly relevant. In the midst of a new industrial revolution, where technology is disrupting everything — even itself — PowerPoint keeps adapting to the new landscape. “It feels like I was extremely fortunate that my idea from 1984 found so many able collaborators who have made major contributions over 33 years to produce that longevity,” says Gaskins. “In the 25 years since I retired, there have been hundreds more Microsoft people who have been able to continually improve the product in ways that I didn’t envision.
“Without steady innovation, PowerPoint would now be as long-forgotten as most of the other products introduced 30 years ago into that very different world.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017