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By | Mark Whitehorn 19th December 2007 07:52

Why Borland trashed its spreadsheet

Finds hidden meaning

Myths and legends Always remember, the compiler is your friend. Programming is stressful but no matter how many f**ks and b***ocks you might occasionally feel the need to insert into the comments, the compiler will always strip them out. It's great.

Of course, it doesn't actually go looking for rude words. So it would be a mistake to use them haphazardly. But that's OK because programmers who work for large, well-established companies would never make that mistake.

Let me take you back to September 1992, when "collaboration" software was known as productivity software, ISVs wrestled with the decision of whether to support a relatively new thing called Windows from Microsoft, and when Borland Software shipped the mighty Quattro Pro for Windows version 1.0.

As one of the first Windows-based spreadsheets, Quattro Pro - since sold to Corel and now part of WordPerfect Office - was a fabulous product, way ahead of its time. Certainly ahead of Microsoft's then-young Excel and Office.

It featured multiple pages and right-click access to a properties menu, both of which are common features now but were staggeringly innovative then. It also, predictably, had a button bar but even this had a twist: it was fully customizable and you could create your own. Each new button bar was stored as a file on disk so if you created a bar called Penguin, for example, a file called PENGUIN.BAR appeared.

This was in the days of the change over from DOS to Windows, so it was still common to use the DOS prompt as well as the GUI. One of the commands available in DOS is "Type", which displays on screen the typeable characters in any file. Now there was no good reason to "Type" one of the .BAR files but, if you did so, the name of the file appeared - so it must have been embedded into the file header - followed by an assortment of random characters.

Borland supplied several sample button bars with arty names like PICASSO.BAR and MONET.BAR and also one called SECOND.BAR. The latter name seemed like an odd choice beside its artistic brethren so, in a moment of boredom, I "Typed" it. Instead of the expected SECOND appearing, the characters "FUCKME" appeared. I was shocked. No, that doesn't really cover it: I was traumatised.

At the time I was completing a review of the product and had been in daily contact with the UK product manager, the charming and unflappable Frances Reay (now Fawcett). I rang her immediately to share the trauma.

Mark Whitehorn: Hi, Frances, do you happen to have Quattro Pro installed?

Frances Reay: Of course, what else would you expect from the product manager?

MW: OK, would you do me a favour and pop down to DOS for a moment?

(Clattering of fingers on keyboard heard down the phone).

FR: OK, I'm there.

MW: Can you swap to the QPW directory?

(More clattering of fingers).

MW: Now "Type" SECOND.BAR.

(Even more clattering of fingers, followed by a long pause).

FW: Well now, that's interesting.

MW: Does your screen say what mine says?

FR: More than likely. I suppose I'd better make some calls.

I may have been the first to report this to Borland, but I certainly wasn't alone in discovering it. Before I could publish the story in a magazine (the long defunct PC User) the news was rapidly spreading via email.

Frances passed the news on to Borland US with the result that the production lines in Ireland and the States were shut down and, as I was later told, Borland had to trash all those boxed copies that hadn't escaped the warehouses. Early copies of 1.0 instantly became collector's items.

Ah, such happy days, but that kind of thing could never happen now, of course.

Oh, wait a minute

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