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PowerPoint Turns 20
June 20, 2007

One of the most elegant, most influential and most groaned-about pieces of software in the history of computers is 20 years old. There won't be a lot of birthday celebrations for PowerPoint; the program is one the world loves to mock almost as much as it loves to use.

While PowerPoint has served as the metronome for countless crisp presentations, it has also allowed an endless expanse of dimwit ideas to be dressed up with graphical respectability. And not just in conference rooms, but also in the likes of sixth-grade book reports and at

As it happens, what might be called the downside of the culture of PowerPoint is something that bemuses, concerns and occasionally appalls PowerPoint's two creators as much as it does everyone else.

Robert Gaskins was the visionary entrepreneur who in the mid-1980s realized that the huge but largely invisible market for preparing business slides was a perfect match for the coming generation of graphics-oriented computers. Scores of venture capitalists disagreed, insisting that text-based DOS machines would never go away.

With major programming done by Dennis Austin, an old chum, PowerPoint 1.0 for Macs came out in 1987. Later that year, Microsoft bought the company for $14 million, its first acquisition, and a Windows version followed three years later.

[Go to forum]
Are you a PowerPoint user? How often do you use it? Is it possible for people to use PowerPoint too much? Share your tales of PowerPoint uses and abuses.

Messrs. Gaskins and Austin, now 63 and 60, reflected on PowerPoint's creation and its current omnipresence in an interview last week. They are intensely proud of their technical and strategic successes. But to a striking degree, they aren't the least bit defensive about the criticisms routinely heard of PowerPoint. In fact, the best single source of PowerPoint commentary, both pro and con -- including a rich vein of Dilbert cartoons -- can be found at, his personal home page.

Perhaps the most scathing criticism comes from the Yale graphics guru Edward Tufte, who says the software "elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch." He even suggested PowerPoint played a role in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster in the U.S., as some vital technical news was buried in an otherwise upbeat slide.

No quarrel from Mr. Gaskins: "All the things Tufte says are absolutely true. People often make very bad use of PowerPoint."

Mr. Gaskins reminds his questioner that a PowerPoint presentation was never supposed to be the entire proposal, just a quick summary of something longer and better thought out. He cites as an example his original business plan for the program: 53 densely argued pages long. The dozen or so slides that accompanied it were but the highlights.

Since then, he complains, "a lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don't like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work."

One of the problems, the men say, is that with PowerPoint now bundled with Office, vastly more people have access to the program than the relatively small group of salespeople for which is was intended. When video projectors became small and cheap, just about every room on earth became PowerPoint-ready.

Now grade-school children turn in book reports via PowerPoint. The men call that an abomination. Children, they emphatically agree, need to think and write in complete paragraphs.

Still, the men don't appreciate PowerPoint being blamed for crimes it didn't commit. Mr. Gaskins studied a vast collection of presentations before designing the program. Bullet points, he says, existed long before PowerPoint.

While the two certainly know how to use PowerPoint, neither consider themselves true power users. They don't even know many of the advanced features it has come to sport. They also have no patience with cubicle warriors who, in the guise of doing actual work, spend endless hours fiddling with fonts. And they like telling the joke that the best way to paralyze an opposition army is to ship it PowerPoint and, thus, contaminate its decision making, something some analysts say has happened at the Pentagon.

Both left Microsoft in the 1990s and now pursue personal projects. Mr. Austin attended every day of last week's Apple developer conference, keeping up with the kids. While the two agree there is probably room for a PowerPoint-like program for building high-end Web sites, neither has any desire to create it.

Not being the self-promoting type, neither of the men are particularly bothered about being much less famous than their creation. Whenever they do tell a stranger what they did in life, they usually hear how much the person can't live without the program.

If they have a lament, it's that complaints about PowerPoint are usually not about the software but about bad presentations. "It's just like the printing press," says Mr. Austin. "It enabled all sorts of garbage to be printed."

As Mr. Gaskins puts it: "If they do an inadequate job with PowerPoint, they would do just as bad using something else."

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