A kind reader from a land formerly beyond the Iron Curtain recently supplied the OS/2 Museum with a curious word processor that calls itself WordSet. The files unfortunately lost their original timestamps quite some time ago, but it is apparent that this editor was released in the late 1980s, with copyright messages in different files referring to 1986 and 1988.
The editor runs on DOS, but there appears to have been a CP/M variant available as well, as evidenced by this manual (photo from an auction):
When the DOS version of WordSet (WS.COM) is started, the user is greeted by a screen that may look more than a little familiar:
It is not difficult to see that WordSet is really WordStar, superficially renamed and with user visible text translated to Czech.
Looking at the beginning of the overlay files provides further clues to the software’s origin:
The header of WSMSGS.OVR says (in Czech) “Stolen without compensation” and “Badly translated, but fixed!!!”. WSOVLY1.OVR clearly identifies who had done the stealing: JZD Agrokombinát Slušovice, an agricultural collective which—for reasons that make no sense to a contemporary reader—became one of the biggest providers of IT equipment and software in socialist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s.
But wait… what the heck is WordStar 3.41? Is that even real? Even after a lot of research, I’m not entirely sure. What I am certain of is that WordStar 3.40 (or 3.4) is very real, although not well known.
The reason for that is simple: WordStar 3.40 was never available in the United States. An English language version of WordStar 3.40 existed, but was only sold in the UK and Ireland. There were translated versions of WordStar 3.40 available in German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and other languages.
The difference between WordStar 3.40 and 3.3x is small but crucial: WordStar 3.40 can correctly handle 8-bit characters, something that older WS versions can not do because WordStar internally uses the high bit.
WordStar 3.40 uses escape sequences to fence off 8-bit characters. It has no special language or encoding support; its most important feature is that it simply does not destroy the high bit of all characters. WordStar 3.40 passes the 8-bit characters through from keyboard to screen and to file and thus works with more or less any codepage.
Thus WordStar 3.40 can do things WS 3.3 can’t:
The best (and perhaps only) good description of WordStar 3.40 can be found in the March 1986 issue of PC Magazine. It was reportedly created at MicroPro Ireland and released in September 1984.
There is a second-hand copy of Dutch WordStar 3.40-1.0 on archive.org. There is an archive of Spanish WordStar 3.40-4.0 files on vetusware. There is a German language addendum to WordStar 3.4 on archive.org; it claims a 1982 copyright, but if other information is to be believed, it must be newer. There is also an image of a German WordStar 3.40-1.0 floppy; it shows a 1984 copyright.
I could not find any evidence that WordStar 3.41 existed, only one single reference to WordStar 3.41 that may or may not be a typo. However, given how poorly documented WordStar 3.40 is, and how obscure version 3.41 would have been, it’s not at all impossible that WordStar 3.41 was released circa 1987. WordStar 3.31 did exist, so 3.41 might have as well.
Then again, it is also plausible that WordSet 3.41 was copied from WordStar 3.40. Finding a surviving copy of WordStar 3.41 would answer the question.
There is one oddity noticeable when examining the WordSet menus:
The Czech text in WordSet does not use diacritical marks and is strictly limited to ASCII characters. That was no doubt done deliberately, so that users could use different encodings for their text. Perhaps the Kamenický brothers encoding, perhaps codepage 852, perhaps something else. The program itself would always look the same, regardless of the encoding used.
It is also apparent that the translators fought with the problem that the translated Czech text was often longer than the original English, which led to many abbreviations that weren’t always easy to understand. It is quite likely that the translation was created by binary editing of existing files, and text could not be lengthened or shortened—even if there were space for it on the screen, and there often wasn’t.
It is highly probable that JZD Slušovice simply copied WordStar 3.4, translated it into Czech, renamed it to WordSet, and sold it to end users, almost certainly for a fairly high price. MicroPro International most likely had no practical chance to do anything about it—if MicroPro even knew about it in the first place, which is far from a given.
It’s very likely that WordStar was not the only program that JZD Slušovice copied in this manner. For example, it is known that their 8-bit operating system TNS-DOS was a modified copy of TurboDOS from Software 2000 Inc. There is a curious backstory about that.
A former programmer at Slušovice recalls that in late 1987, TurboDOS was only available to them in object code form, and she further says: Pokusili jsme se získat zdrojové texty od autorské firmy v Německu, ale ta už neexistovala. (We attempted to acquire the source code from a German company that wrote it, but it no longer existed.) That, she further recalls, complicated the developers’ life quite a bit because JZD Slušovice wanted to reduce TurboDOS memory consumption through the use of paging, and had to disassemble and re-assemble modified source code to achieve that.
“A German company” implies JZD Slušovice perhaps tried to acquire the TurboDOS source code from a German company called Software 2000… which could not have worked because it was a game development company. In reality, TurboDOS was written by a completely different company, Software 2000 Inc. in California. The Californian Software 2000 Inc. not only existed in the late 1980s, it still exists even now (June 2022).
If JZD Slušovice really tried to buy a TurboDOS license at all, they certainly didn’t try very hard. But the reality of the time was such that just like with WordStar aka WordSet, even if Software 2000 Inc. knew about TNS-DOS (and they may well not have), their chances of doing anything about it were slim.
Times were certainly different back then in Central and Eastern Europe. But maybe not too different from the situation in some countries today.