My ode to Microsoft Paint

The best app available in Windows 1.0 is going away. Forever.

Microsoft Paint is going away forever
Mark Hachman / IDG

We were all a little giddy at the time.

In 1985, I was in college trying to focus on my journalism classes and avoiding any responsibility for any future work endeavors.

I’d often sneak into the computer lab in the afternoon and hammer away on a clunky IBM keyboard. I wrote an entire science fiction novel at the time. I hacked into the computer lab back end, the system that locked computers after hours. In these early days of computing, it was all DOS all of the time. You had no other options.

Then, one glorious sunny day that fall, two new computers arrived that looked and acted differently from the rest. They were outliers. The screen flashed an awkward Windows logo at first, the mouse moved a pointer with instant precision, and there was an app called Microsoft Paint that seemed to live on a wholly different periphery of existence. You could paint anything. You could draw anything. It was remarkable. If the hand of God had reached down through the dust-stained windows in what was an old Catholic monastery converted into a college and revealed the infinite epoch of time immortal, it would have been a distraction (and perhaps a little weird). I was in love. MS Paint was here and nothing would ever be the same again.

Did I mention you could paint anything? Cows, horses, flowers.

Life before MS Paint

It’s hard to picture what that was like back in 1985. For those of us old enough to remember, it was like coming out of a cave and removing the blinders. It was a perfect transmogrification of what was in your head to what was on the screen. That was not possible before. In DOS, you could type out a sentence describing a giraffe. Truth be told, you could also run a paint program, but it was not the same level of instant gratification. Paint was always there at the ready. It was an icon click away, a trusted friend on the desktop, ever vigilant and always happy to oblige.

The paradigm in DOS was too technical, too obtuse. You had to drop down to something called the C: menu, which if you think about how esoteric that is, you realize it seems like you’re discussing a rare skin condition or a tax filing. Once you remember what to type—and this was all from memory—you could fire up a program, but maybe it would crash. Maybe the mouse would work. Maybe you’d have enough memory to draw something more complicated than a happy face. I do remember being able to multi-task in DOS, but Windows and the first apps to ship with the operating system gave you the feeling of incredible flexibility. The internet did not exist yet for public use, but the local apps provided enough stimulus. Maybe too much.

I remember when Aldus Pagemaker came out that fall as well. To say it “ran” on Windows 1.0 was perhaps a vast overstatement. Being an editor in charge of a college newsletter, I still remember “designing” a logo in MS Paint and dropping it into the page layout program. I was mesmerized by this productivity workflow. I remember moving the header of the newsletter around on the page, grabbing handles and resizing it, watching in sheer awe and wonder. You could see the future unfolding right in front of you, the entire field of graphic design expanding, the faint glimmer of social media, the rush of excitement when you take a picture (at the time, using a film camera, of course) and then importing it onto a local drive. There it is! A picture of your girlfriend on the screen! In a program that comes free with the operating system!

We tend to forget that this was an incredible novelty at the time. Moving images on a screen, the inauguration of copy-paste, the ability to transmit a logo over email.

And now it has come to this. A bland statement of fact from Microsoft:

“Will be available through the Windows Store. Functionality integrated into Paint 3D.”

The great and powerful Paint, now a footnote in a fall update. A “deprecation” they call it, as though an icon of the computing industry can be dismissed so easily.

It can’t be. Microsoft Paint will forever live on as the entryway to the digital age, to technological advancements that have turned artificial intelligence into a household phrase, to a vast collection of enterprise-grade apps and services, to the IT field itself.

Don’t call it a deprecation. Call it a demarcation—the beginning of everything. A line in the sand. The first useful app in a fledgling operating system.

It will never be the same again.

Side note: That newsletter logo really sucked. What was I thinking?

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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