PowerPoint co-creator Dennis Austin passes away at 76

11 Sep 2023

Image: © Andreas Prott/Stock.adobe.com

Initially released only for Mac, PowerPoint came to Windows after Microsoft snapped up a small Silicon Valley company in 1987.  

Dennis Austin, one of the two creators of Microsoft PowerPoint, died earlier this month at the age of 76.

Austin created PowerPoint with Robert Gaskins and released it in 1987. The pair of software developers were part of software company Forethought, which was acquired by Microsoft for $14m months after PowerPoint – then called Presenter – was launched.

Initially only available for the Macintosh, PowerPoint soon gained popularity as an alternative to overhead projectors for presentations after it was bundled with other tools in the Microsoft Office suite, including Word and Excel.

Today, 33 years after it was first launched on Windows, the Silicon Valley software has become ubiquitous in meetings, classrooms and online collaborations with a near-monopoly over the global presentation software market.

News of Austin’s death, which occurred on 1 September, was first reported by The Washington Post and covered by multiple media outlets on Friday (8 September). His son told the paper that Austin died of lung cancer that metastasized to the brain.

According to the outlet, Austin said in an unpublished history of the development of PowerPoint that during its inception, users were familiar with computers, but “probably not graphics software”.

“They were highly motivated to look their best in front of others, but they weren’t savvy in graphics design,” wrote Austin.

The idea was simple: to make presentation software easy to operate. Austin, who was the main software engineer behind designing PowerPoint, said he accomplished simplicity with a “direct-manipulation interface”, meaning that what users edit looks exactly like the final product.

Gaskins later credited Austin with “at least half of the major design ideas” in a 2012 book and said he was solely responsible for “the fluid performance and the polished finish of the implementation.”

Before PowerPoint, creating individual slides or transparencies to show colleagues in meetings could take hours. Digitising the process so that people could properly demonstrate their ideas in a fraction of the time became a gamechanger.

“PowerPoint is not magic. It doesn’t automatically improve the thinking or writing of its users. PowerPoint presentations can be as bad as any prose document”, said Gaskins ahead of the software’s 30th birthday in 2017.

“If Microsoft had not kept up steady innovation, PowerPoint would now be as long forgotten as most of the other products introduced thirty years ago into that very different world.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic