Is there any piece of software that’s more well-known than MS Paint? It’s been a staple of the world’s most popular operating system for decades, and surely must be one of the most widely used programs of all time.
Paint’s deceptively simple toolbox and palette interface made it easy for anyone to jump in and start creating. But it didn’t just fall out of the sky – it was the product of fresh ideas in the early days of graphical user interfaces, extensive focus testing, and some masterful engineering behind the scenes.
Before Paint, a program called PC Paintbrush emerged as software that anybody could use — and soon grabbed the attention of the biggest name in the nascent computer industry. A fledgling development studio called ZSoft, helmed by business school graduate and bedroom coder Mark Zachmann, created the bones of a project that’s still thought of fondly by millions today.
Over 30 years after its initial release, Paint remains emblematic of Windows as a whole. People love this software, and it was a labor of love for the people who made it.
Coding for Cash
Mark Zachmann’s journey into the world of software development started at Kodak, where he was working as a janitor. Halfway into his second summer scrubbing floors and sweeping staircases, he was offered the opportunity to start programming for the photography giant.
“I ended up programming on this PDP-8,” said Zachmann, speaking to Digital Trends. “It was so early that this was actually the computer that Kodak used to generate their payroll, because they didn’t have very many computers. So, the first thing I did after about two weeks was flip the wrong bit and completely delete their payroll for the week. Luckily, even in those days, they knew what a backup was.”
Zachmann says that he got into programming because it was “way better than cleaning toilets.” He worked at Kodak during his final years of high school, and when he moved on to study at the University of Rochester, he continued to code as a means of making money. For his first year on campus, his room was situated right across from the mainframe computer center, so it was easy for him to spend the wee hours making progress on his various projects.
“I really wanted to get into the business of producing software – I was really into computers,” said Zachmann. He used his trusty XV Sorcerer, a popular home PC, as an APL programming terminal to build business forecasting software for companies like Gillette and Mary Kay.
APL differs from most programming languages because it uses a broad range of symbols to make code as concise as possible. Zachmann needed a program that would let his system display the symbols, so he wrote it. He soon realized other people might need it, too, and would pay for it. The same went for a screen-capture printing program he wrote to help with his thesis.
“I desperately needed these things for myself. This was kind of what programmers in those days did. Today, it’s kind of like GPL – you see something you need, you write it, and you hand it out. In those days, you sold it.”
These two niche programs would embolden Zachmann to start his own software company, ZSoft. His third project would prove to have a much greater reach.
Picking Up Paintbrush
In the late 1980s, Zachmann was working with a company that sold IBM computers on the “gray market,” dodging restrictions on how hardware was sold by buying them up as a corporate order, then selling them individually. He was good friends with the CEO, who convinced him that there was a market for an art program, but he wasn’t excited about the prospect, initially.
“Microsoft was just coming out with mice, and they wanted something to make people buy mice.”
“This was the one case where I didn’t really need it,” said Zachmann. His previous projects had been conceived to solve immediate problems, but this had a very different impetus. The program would be used to help sell hardware like graphics cards, monitors, and an innovative new input peripheral called a mouse.
Zachmann was convinced to produce a paint program, which he named PC Paintbrush. Within a few months of its release, Microsoft got in touch and offered to bundle the software with every single mouse that it sold. PC Paintbrush was a great piece of software to show off the new graphical capabilities of the latest hardware, but it was just as capable of demonstrating the advantages of a mouse, which was still new to most users.
“Microsoft was just coming out with mice, and they wanted something to make people buy mice, because nobody knew what a mouse was,” said Zachmann. “So, for three or four years, every mouse that Microsoft shipped came with a copy of Paintbrush. It gave people something to do, a way to try it out, and make sure that things were working.”
It’s easy to see why this would be appealing to manufacturers making mice, or graphics cards, or any other type of component – but for this strategy to work, PC Paintbrush had to be compatible with a broad swathe of hardware. That’s where the unique framework that underpins the program comes in very handy.
“What Mark really said was, ‘what we’re going to do, is we’re going to do MacPaint with color, and support every piece of hardware out there,’” said Jeff Albertine, one of the very first employees to join ZSoft. “To have that vision at the time, and to figure out a way to do loadable device drivers, that was Mark’s brilliance, and the key to his success.”
Any Color You Like
“I grew up in Rochester, and Rochester is a two company city, or at least it was in those days,” said Zachmann. “One of those companies was Kodak, and the other was Xerox. The second person I hired was a friend of mine from Rochester that worked on the Xerox Star stuff.”
“I wrote this little program called PC Paintbrush and I’m moving down to Atlanta and starting a company”
That person was Albertine, who crossed paths with Mark at a regular card game they attended. “He said, ‘oh hey, I wrote this little program called PC Paintbrush and I’m moving down to Atlanta and starting a company, would you like to come and work for me?,” remembered Albertine.
Albertine jokingly describes the company’s humble beginnings as “rather romantic. They were working out of a basement using cardboard boxes for desks, surrounded by piles of the hardware that the software was intended to push on consumers.
ZSoft was sold PC Paintbrush to several video card manufacturers who were desperate for software that took advantage of their hardware. Zachmann built the program around loadable device drivers, which allowed him to write a new driver for each component that it needed to support, without having to rewrite the entire project from scratch.
“He had the vision to create a loadable device driver graphical program, and then market it to the people who really needed it – he was quite a visionary, at the time,” said Albertine. “The big thing about the IBM PC of course is that they opened up the backplane. They published the specs so that card manufacturers could create their own cards to plug into the backplane of the PC. There was this blossoming new market for that; hardware manufacturers were coming up with these cards, and graphics adapters were the big new thing.”
Zachmann’s use of loadable device drivers meant that PC Paintbrush could keep up with all the new hardware being released. Business was booming, but one partner had grander designs for the program.
The Microsoft Deal
Zachmann describes ZSoft’s early relationship with Microsoft as a “typical OEM deal” that saw the company receive a fixed amount of money whenever a mouse was sold.
“They just bought it, included it in Windows, and we never saw it again.”
“It was pretty good money,” chuckled Zachmann. “ZSoft did fairly well. Microsoft was without a doubt the most famous OEM, but not necessarily the largest, actually. We were also doing business with Hewlett Packard, and piles of other companies – we’d signed a deal with Dell. But Microsoft was always important to me, and I enjoyed doing business with them, honestly.”
Zachmann knew from the earliest versions of Windows that he wanted to make PC Paintbrush available on the operating system, but that proved to be challenging. He described the platform as being “pretty rinky-dink” in those days, with many limitations — like an inability to change the cursor — making it impossible to deliver the right experience.
An ambitious solution to this problem was dreamed up. ZSoft started a “skunkworks project” that created a duplicate version of the Windows OS the team could program to, and had the capabilities required.
“We knew we wanted to be there, we just couldn’t do it with what we had,” explained Zachmann. “As much as I had a very good relationship with Microsoft and even the higher-ups, I had limited influence on the Windows group. Yes, they agreed to do some things to help us, but they were futures – there was no way I could change version 2.x at that point.” The groundwork that had been laid made it trivially easy to port the existing version of PC Paintbrush to Windows when the next version of the OS was released. By that time, Microsoft was looking for its own competitor to the likes of MacPaint.
— Fiona (@McDoFi) July 24, 2017
“We were making plenty of money off them and other people, and I didn’t necessarily want them including a paint product [with Windows],” said Zachmann. “There was a lot of discussion about this, and we ended up not doing Paintbrush as a port – partly because it was more product than they wanted, and partly because I wanted to make money off it.”
ZSoft was on version 4.0 of PC Paintbrush, which Zachmann says was closer to Photoshop than MacPaint. At Microsoft’s request, they streamlined the software to produce the package that would be known as MS Paint. It ultimately wasn’t based on the Skunkworks project, but was built from the ground up. And that’s where ZSoft’s ties to the software came to an end.
“Unlike everything else, we sold it to them,” said Zachmann. “They just bought it, included it in Windows, and we never saw it again.”
Today, Paint is known as the most straightforward image editing software around, but that’s not how it was perceived at release. Programs with a graphical user interface of any kind were still in their infancy. “People were using these IBM PCs just in DOS; they’d boot off a floppy and they’d get this C prompt that would just sit there and blink at them,” said Albertine. “Now, it opened up this whole graphical user interface where they would run a program and boom, it would turn into graphics with a pointer on the screen.”
With that in mind, the team at ZSoft knew how important it was for the program to feel approachable and easy-to-use. It was meant to demonstrate the capabilities of the user’s new hardware, so learning how to operate it wouldn’t feel like hard work.
“We did focus groups with kids,” Zachmann told me. “Our feeling was that if a kid couldn’t run the software, we were doing something wrong. I continue to this day, producing software, believing that it’s really important to watch people use the software.”
ZSoft typically held one or two focus group sessions per version of PC Paintbrush. There were strict rules in place. No one from the company could give testers the slightest help or hint. Participants were given a task and then observed. In many cases, they weren’t even watched. Video footage was taken for analysis after the fact, as Zachmann didn’t want their behavior to be influenced by eyes burning a hole in the back of their neck.
“Our feeling was that if a kid couldn’t run the software, we were doing something wrong.”
Apparently, ‘obvious’ was a word that the team kept at the forefront of their minds. “Oh, hell yeah,” Zachmann replied when I asked whether it was important that the software didn’t require the user to consult the manual. “As soon as somebody opens the manual, everybody’s losing money. It’s just a really bad thing for an app like that – one of our goals was to make it so that you could ship it without documentation, which was a really big argument in the early computer days.”
One of the ways ZSoft accomplished that was by offering more than one way to accomplish tasks. That set it apart from MacPaint, which relied almost entirely on the mouse. PC Paintbrush typically offered three different solutions to any given problem; the mouse, the keyboard, and a third, scripted option. Just by tinkering with what was on-screen, most people could figure out a way to complete the task at hand, whether they were eight years old, or eighty.
Anyone who grew up with a computer in the house since PC Paintbrush or MS Paint became commonplace will have wiled away at least one afternoon creating colorful chaos using the software. The fact children can use it with ease is no accident, and it’s the reason for Paint’s lasting legacy.
Layers of Paint
Though Zachmann no longer played a role in the development of MS Paint after the first version was handed over the Microsoft, he kept a watchful eye over his software. “I actually watched them pretty carefully,” he said. “I actually watch them to this day, I feel a little bit committed to it.”
In 2017, there were widespread reports that MS Paint was set to be discontinued, which later turned out to be erroneous. People were outraged by the idea that the stalwart software might be retired, Zachmann among them.
“I was rather happy to hear that they didn’t discontinue it, even if it isn’t really my product anymore,” said Zachmann. “We spent our souls creating this stuff – you’ve got to understand, this was the early days of computers. We had a tiny little team, and we worked our asses off to try and produce the world’s best in whatever we were producing. The fact that it is still so popular, yeah, it’s very heartwarming.”
I asked Zachmann whether he ever saw something drawn using PC Paintbrush or MS Paint that surprised him, and he laughed as he said that it happened many, many times. “I saw numerous things created with Paint where I said, ‘can you really do that?’”
It’s the software equivalent of a set of Crayola wax crayons.
An artist named Neal White III that was employed by ZSoft, and remains a friend of Zachmann’s to this day, was responsible for several of these standout artworks. He tackled programming for the company, but he never failed to impress his co-workers with the things he could do with the software.
“I remember working with an artist that we hired to do additional artwork, and he was working at the unbelievably high resolution of 1,024 by 768, which we’d never seen before,” joked White when I spoke to him on the phone last month. “He was doing the Statue of Liberty, and what I remember most is that I amazed the artist with the really good visual acuity I had at the time. I’d point at the screen and say, ‘you missed a pixel,’ and he’d be like, ‘no!’ He’d zoom in and, sure enough, he’d missed a pixel.” White recalled a few of his own creations, including a standout goldfish created using one of the later versions of PC Paintbrush.
MS Paint is that rare creative tool that doesn’t have any barrier to entry. It’s the software equivalent of a set of Crayola wax crayons. In the hands of an artist you might get something remarkable, but even a child will be able to produce something worthy of display on the kitchen fridge.
ZSoft built something that didn’t just facilitate creativity but encouraged it – and people still appreciate that 30 years later.
- AMD and Nvidia have tried to limit GPU sales to crypto-miners. It isn’t working
- How Google’s Pixelbook broke the laptop mold with a Swedish design
- The untold story of how the XPS 13 defied odds to become the world’s best laptop
- Inside Cellink, the Swedish company building 3D printers for living tissue
- Technology makes our lives easier, but is it at the cost of our humanity?