Our editor Clay Chandler interviews Robert Gaskins, the inventor of PowerPoint.
BENTO: Thank you for talking to us! Your invention of PowerPoint has made you quite the tech celeb. Tell us about how you came up with the idea for PowerPoint: What were your goals?
GASKINS: PowerPoint was created to disrupt and enlarge an already thriving industry: business presentations. It aimed to put control of presentations into the hands of presenters to help them express their own ideas. This was no small thing. Before personal computers, presenters worked through secretaries, graphics producers, or technical specialists to build presentations. All these intermediaries blurred the message and introduced delays that made it impractical to get everything right.
When we began PowerPoint in early 1984, we knew what the program should do. The innovation of PowerPoint was to notice that presenting was a common and valuable task that could be made much easier, quicker, and better by using the graphics of Mac and Windows. PowerPoint sought to disrupt an established business model, much like Uber is doing now to licensed taxis. We offered a superior replacement for a familiar capability.
Hence, PowerPoint did not invent presentations or “presentation style.” We were far from the first use of computers to make presentations and were not even the first presentation application for personal computers. My early marketing analyses identified more than thirty competitors already shipping on Apple II and MS-DOS machines (five of them being sold by IBM!). PowerPoint was merely the first good application, because it could wholly exploit the graphic revolution of Mac and Windows.
BENTO: How did you coin the name “PowerPoint”?
GASKINS: We called our product “Presenter” for the three years of its development. But when we went to register our product name as a trademark, our intellectual property lawyers told us that “Presenter” had been claimed for presentation software shipped by some company in New Jersey. So suddenly, we needed a new name.
One morning, as I was taking a shower (where most of history’s great discoveries seem to have occurred), the name “PowerPoint” just came to me for no obvious reason at all. I went to work and proposed it. No one else liked it much, but I became attached to it. Later that same day, Glenn Hobin, our VP of Sales, returned from a sales trip and offered an idea for a name. On his return flight, he had glimpsed a sign along the runway reading “POWER POINT.” I took his independent discovery as a favorable omen. In any case, we were truly out of time, so I forced the issue, and we sent the name PowerPoint off to our lawyers. Use of the extra internal upper-case letter was mandatory in those days for Mac software, based on Apple’s style in product naming.
In retrospect, “PowerPoint” turned out to be a much better choice than “Presenter.” It was so distinctive that it could come to mean “any presentation” or “any materials for delivering a presentation.” It named our specific product, and at the same time, it was so abstract that it could survive the obsolescence of overheads and 35mm slides. Plus, it suggested our goal of putting power into the hands of the individual content-originator. The “Power” in “PowerPoint” wasn’t meant to convey the idea that it made presenters “powerful.” Rather, it made them “empowered.” And yet, the truth is, if “Presenter” had been available, we would never have considered anything else.
BENTO: Why do you think PowerPoint has become so enormously popular?
GASKINS: PowerPoint succeeded so quickly because it spread rapidly by viral transmission from user to user. In those days, the great majority of business presentations were given to other people who were also presenters. So every time early adopters used our product effectively, they demonstrated its value to other potential customers.
PowerPoint made it especially easy for colleagues within the same company to share materials and incorporate one another’s slides into their presentations with automatic formatting. This created networks of cooperation that benefited everyone. Early PowerPoint customers loved the product and became a formidable sales force. Presentations were much the same all over the world (and much desired everywhere), and we were very aggressive in localizing and translating PowerPoint into international language versions from the beginning.
PowerPoint has been successful for so long because it was created to do all the things the existing presentation industry was already doing. It was general, not specialized, and able to adapt to changes without abandoning its own structure. There were no arbitrary, built-in standards for “good” presentation style. PowerPoint was able to evolve as computer hardware, user populations, and styles of use evolved.
BENTO: Do you ever regret selling it to Microsoft?
GASKINS: On the contrary! The decision to sell PowerPoint to Microsoft in 1987 gave us the resources we needed to develop the application for Windows. We were first on that platform, at a time when other funding would have been impossible. And because we were Microsoft’s first acquisition, and their only development group outside of Redmond, we were left on our own for most of the first five years to work out PowerPoint’s evolution and future direction. We benefited from periodic advice from Bill Gates and other smart people at Microsoft, but they didn’t meddle.
For the first big breakthrough version of Windows (version 3.0, shipped mid-1990) Microsoft promoted PowerPoint as the “killer app” that would provide the incentive to buy a new Windows 3.0 machine. We got lots of attention from Bill Gates and from senior Systems Division people working on Windows 3.0 to be sure that we (and they!) were doing the right thing.
At the multiple introduction galas held around the world for Windows 3.0, PowerPoint 2.0 for Windows—introduced simultaneously—was used for all of the presentations. All the press coverage of Windows 3.0 was illustrated with PowerPoint slides. Microsoft’s public relations team made sure that PowerPoint was named in every story and every caption.
Windows 3.0 was great, but by itself didn’t offer a decisive reason to buy a new machine and upgrade immediately. Apps like Word and Excel continued to work on MS-DOS as before. But to get PowerPoint, you had to buy the new Windows 3.0. Windows sales responded. Windows 3.0 (1990) sold about 4 million copies in its first year alone, a rate ten times higher than the rates from the directly-preceding 1985−1989 period. The same thing repeated when Windows 3.1 was introduced in 1992. Windows 3.1 sold about 20 million copies in its first six months. The new PowerPoint 3.0 was again introduced simultaneously, again requiring the new Win 3.1. It dominated the Win3.1 events (introducing transitions, animations, video, and sound). Within a few years, PowerPoint had around 95% of the worldwide presentation software market.
It was essential for Windows to succeed in order for PowerPoint to succeed, but the reverse was also true: PowerPoint was one of the key reasons Windows prevailed in the Graphical User Interface competition. By being part of Microsoft itself, we helped make that victory happen.
BENTO: Over the last ten years, as PowerPoint has become more widely used, it has attracted many critics, such as Edward Tufte and Jeff Bezos. What do you make of these attacks?
GASKINS: Both Tufte and Bezos are exceptionally smart, and both have urged that PowerPoint presentations are often used in the wrong contexts. For the kinds of meetings they have in mind, they both recommend (and Bezos enforces) distributing copies of a multi-page full-text essay at the beginning of the meeting, having everyone read the essay together silently for twenty minutes or so, and then proceeding. I agree with the desirability of this practice. More generally, anyone who presents anything with PowerPoint should probably have written such a full-text essay, if only for personal preparation.
But in different circumstances, other smart people stress that PowerPoint can be used well. Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has said, “If anything, PowerPoint, if used well, would ideally reflect the way we think.” The renowned neuroscientist Stephen M. Kosslyn has written, “For many purposes, PowerPoint presentations are a superior medium of communication, which is why they have become standard in so many fields.” And in fact even Jeff Bezos makes conventional presentations at new product introductions, emulating the “Steve Jobs” style.
“Death by PowerPoint” usually has to do with different complaints—unnecessary meetings, bureaucratic goals and agendas, lack of preparation, writing slides as speaker’s notes, wandering trivia, copies of cartoons, and cheesy clip-art—that is, just lack of preparation and/or lack of communication skills and/or lack of intelligence. There’s a lot of those lacks around, and they are equally fatal to all formats, including PowerPoint.
BENTO: What advice would you give to people—especially recent graduates just starting their business careers—about how to get the most out of PowerPoint?
GASKINS: I say what Queen Gertrude says to Polonius (in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet): “More matter with less art!” That is, more intellectual substance, with less rhetoric and gratuitous decoration. Anyone worth talking to will closely analyze your ideas, not your stock photos or fonts or clip-art.
Also in Issue #7: Powerpointless?
Escaping Death by PowerPoint
Why the ubiquitous slide presentation software sucks—and what you can do to fix it.
A medley of our seven favorite resources and presentations including the good, the bad, and the hilarious.
A Brief History of PowerPoint
The journey of a thousand presentations begins with a single slide.