User interface from Mesozoic – My first software ever built

December 20, 2009

While digging through some backups, one of CD's I found contained the first software I, together with my cousin, ever built. It was some 18 years ago, in the Mesozoic era of information technology evolution. Dinosaurs vanished after an asteroid impact, but the software we created somehow survived. I was so excited by this discovery that I would like to share it with you.

A brief history

Somewhere between 1991 and 1992 my cousin Dragan and I started with the development of a small address book software called Adresar. Over the years it evolved to a full blown personal organizer that we sold at numerous places. It was developed in Clipper 87 programming language and dBase database, and run only under DOS (you know, the resolution of 80×25 bricks). The latest installation we did was in late 1995. Soon after this, Windows 95 (a big asteroid) hit the market and soon, many DOS-based applications vanished.

I am really proud of this software. Not only because that was our first serious software poduct we built, but also because we did it in conditions that are unimaginable today. Serbia was at war, we didn't have enough money for living, we often developed sitting on the floor, spending sleeples nights. All we had are two early PC's, extensive knowledge of technologies mentioned and a desire to succeed.

So what was it?

It was a personal organizer including an address book, a simple word processor, organizer with tasks, calendar and many more. Placed in 80×25 character box it had almost anything one could ever need back in that time. All features were available from a drop down menu revealed by pressing F10 key (Oh, I forgot to mention you were able to use only the keyboard).

Address book was simple and straightforward. Users could store all the necessary data through simple forms. They had the ability to search for contacts by keywords and to filter data by predefined filters. Actions on multiple contacts were also possible, such as edit and delete. The application had the ability to export contacts in several predefined formats.

Organizer was also simple. Users were able to add tasks and reminders for any given date and the application would alert that there are tasks due on a particular date. Word processor was really simple, having similar functionality as Windows Notepad. There was a small file manager that made document management quite easy. Everything could be printed – documents, contacts and tasks, by choosing one of the predefined printers (at that time there were "drivers" only for a few well known matrix printers such as Star LC-10).


As you can see in some of the screenshots, Adresar supported modal windows. You know this isn't completely true, right? It only emulated windows by using different colors and shadows. But the most interesting fact is that we built this on monochrome 14" monitors not knowing what it looks like in color!

Move to recycle bin

One of the features that still fascinate me is restauration, weak methaphor that we used for well-known Recycle bin. Users could restore anything they deleted, unless they purged the bin. I still believe this was really an advanced feature for that time. We're talking about Mesozoic, remember?

Context-sensitive help and manual

By pressing F1 key, users could get a context-sensitive help for the active operation, with short explanation on how the feature should be used. For more thorough explanations, users had the printed manual. On 25 pages manual explained everythng one would need including a list of accelerators, available printers and tips.

That's not all

We conducted primitive usability testing without knowing what usability is. We were watching users using the software and made corrections based on what we saw. We carefully planned each interaction trying to achieve, what we believed is, user-friendly user interface (I know, the term suck, but it was WOW in that time).

But, despite the fact that we are proud of what we did, the software had some usability and interaction flaws. Still, with the amount of information one could have in that time, we're satisfied. We could write a book about this software and our experiences while we were creating it. It was a lot of fun, but there were some hard moments as well. The hardest moment was when we realized that users don't want to use it anymore because a new, more sophisticated player was in the game – Windows 95. Damn you, Microsoft :

Your say

So, in the era of wireless networks and touch screens, how does this seem to you? Do you have a funny story to share about your first project?

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  • Guta (December 21, 2009)

    huh, those were the days :)

  • (December 21, 2009)

    Nice entry! The beauty of DOS applications on the 80×25 brick screen is like your childhood girlfriend – no matter how sexy your current or future girlfriend could be she will never beat that dreamy beauty from the past.

  • vromo (December 21, 2009)

    Excelente Blog Saludos desde Mexico

  • Design Informer (December 21, 2009)

    Man, your computer skills go way back. It’s interesting to learn about your background and this kind of gave us some insight on that.

  • sachin (December 21, 2009)

    great work … and in my country back in 1991 computers were still a myth … lol … well no one can deny the beauty of DOS softwares… i have worked a bit on borland compiler for c++ (Turbo C) and still feel it was the best

  • Dan Eskildsen (December 21, 2009)

    WOW, dBase, that seems so long ago. One of the early programs I wrote was in dBase 4.

  • Janko (December 21, 2009)

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

    mrdungx: I have exactly the same feelings :)

    Design Informer: Thanks!

    sachin: I only worked with C for a while, but it never attracted me. But India had great expansion in previous years, which is good!

    Dan: At that time I wondered how databases could ever be better LOL. We worked in dBase III+. I don’t know why we didn’t switch to IV.

  • Alek (December 22, 2009)

    Hey Janko, You are an amazing person my man. Since the moment I used one of your posts to tweak one of my friend’s website, you’ve been inspiring me and you keep on doing so. You created this fine piece of software, even before I was born, which is amazing. I personally do java and php only, so I’ve never even tried to do any DOS, but my brother told me he studied that in high school. It is quite exciting and I congratulate you for the job well done.

    Keep up the good work.


  • Jean-Baptiste Jung (December 22, 2009)

    Hey Janko, this is such a great story to read! It is really motivating to see people succeeding with a great app (ok it looks old now, but I remember the early 90’s when my dad shown me the DOS!) while difficult conditions.
    Well done :)

  • Tom (December 24, 2009)

    wow i feel old now.. been doing stuff like this since the 80’s and now we are going into the 10’s… its crazy to even image what will be going on in 30 years….2040????

  • Marc Grabanski (December 27, 2009)

    My first programming experience was in ’97-98 on my TI-98 calculator. I created text-based RPGs and simple text-based fighting games using ascii characters as swords and items. I also made programs using my math and physics equations to do my homework. I even remember working a couple [i]months[/i] on one game and then accidentally deleted it from memory. =(

    It wasn’t until around ’03 before I started programming again.

  • Marc Grabanski (December 27, 2009)

    Oh crap, I mean my TI-89 calculator.

  • Scyfox (December 27, 2009)

    Hi there.

    This article reminded me some university classes. I had a teacher that used games as a way to learn C/C++ easier. So we made pong, pong2 (with sliders everywhere), drew some chess boards and finally a Minesweeper game.

    This one was tough ’cause he wanted to know if there were any bombs near the position you marked. I believe it was the perfect way to learn you’r way arround arrays xDD x-i-2 or x+3+i xDD.

    And as you said, it evolved to a full featured game, full 8 bit color and ASCII window effects.

    Not sure if i still got it somewhere but surely now i’ll try to find it.
    (Is there any Winxp or Win vista C++ Compiler??)


    Merry Xmass and Happy new year.
    Greetz from Chile

  • Janko (December 29, 2009)

    Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts, it’s great to read your stories and see some similar experiences from the past decade!

  • Vladimir Remenar (December 30, 2009)

    Ahhh the good old DOS days :) Reading about it still can make a smile on my face. My first programming was in Basic on Orao, than Commodore and later on PC 286 in QBasic :) I still have somwhere an attempt to crete a full blown OS in Basic (first made on Commodore and than ported to QBasic) :) LOOOLLLLL What were we thinking?! Ahhh, the days of "GO TO" :) :)

  • Gerasimos (January 6, 2010)

    Clipper used to be my favorite language. Back then it was really easy to build rather complex application for DOS.

  • Emir (January 9, 2010)

    Nice one Janko, gr8 blog by the way I just started following/reading few months ago. Keep it up.

    P.S. In Balkans regions those apps are still very much popular . cheers

  • Clay Borne (January 13, 2010)

    Wow! That looks like Advanced Revelation (AREV), but it’s clipper 87 and DBase? Neat. Apps that look like this are still being used more than you know in businesses. With the advent of Windows 7, though, many of them are going to die…

  • Slobodan Kustrimovic (January 26, 2010)

    Haha, cool :)

    My very first touch with programming was on Commodore 64 :) haha i’m not sure at what age that was, but i’m 21 now so i must have been really young back then :)

  • Slavisa (January 29, 2010)

    Izgleda kao Norton Commander :)

  • Janko (January 29, 2010)

    Thanks everyone for comments! Yes, Clipper was the mother of all languages for business applications at one moment. And probably many user interfaces looked like Norton commander :D

  • Braca (February 8, 2010)

    Izgleda dobro i nekako retro :)
    Looking good and has some retro beauty :)

  • alphonse (February 13, 2010)

    from one clipper ’87/dBase IIIplus programmer to another… I am hats off… i remember that time, it was the windows 3.0 era.. we used to emulate what windows 3.0 could do…

    i also remembered creating lots of programs for my personal use.. and called these dosBase… i would have different exe files for most dbase commands… commands like browse, dispstru, etc..

    Anyway, enough said already… remember, it is not how we lived our lives but how we programmed our work that counts… hehehe..

  • hardik dangar (February 28, 2010)

    i remember those old days after reading this post…
    it was college days, i have created dos small app similar to your app using c and c++.