Tech Flashback: Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0 (1992) & 4.0a (1994)

Given it’s been a long weekend, what better way to spend it than to indulge in a hobby? Just this week, news of a new addition to the Microsoft Office suite came in the form of a new presentation application called Sway.

While this in no way means the death of PowerPoint, many denigrating expressions (e.g. death by PowerPoint) exist. The overuse, abuse and misuse of this presentation software has led it to become both iconic and an “annoyance”. Maybe Sway will (ahem) sway the crowds?

Regardless, it makes it an ideal time to look back on PowerPoint, which started life as a Macintosh software known as Presenter by Forethought Inc., acquired by Microsoft in 1987. The software was first released for Windows as PowerPoint version 2.0 and made computerized digital presentation authoring the preferred method. Today, it still currently holds the lion’s share of the presentation software market.

Thanks to the kind efforts of two OCAU members, in this post, I’ll be taking a quick tour of Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0 and 4.0a, released for Windows 3.1 in 1992 and 1994 respectively.

Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0


Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0 comes on six high-density 3.5″ floppy disks. This copy was sent to me thanks to one of the OCAU members doing a clear-out. The first disk seems to be different, and this seems to be a common trait in Microsoft software, as the disk is the one that’s regionalized, and contains the serial data.

The first step, as usual, is to install the software. It’s always easiest just to deal with floppy images taken with a Kryoflux and a virtual machine, so I’m running this in a Microsoft Windows 3.11/MS-DOS 6.22 virtual machine running on VMWare Workstation 8.


msppt3-pgmangroupThe install is a tedious process, even when it’s not restricted by the speed of a floppy drive and even when I don’t have to change floppies in real life. Once installed, the Program Manager group appears.


The main UI of PowerPoint looks similar, but somehow unfamiliar. The program itself occupies the whole screen, with the central window representing one presentation document open at this time. The slides themselves have their template design visible, ready for content, surrounded by toolbars on the top, left and bottom. Notable is that the slideshow button isn’t on the bottom toolbar, but instead the top, and the toolbar on the left allows you to navigate your stack of slides (in addition to the slide-sorter view).

msppt3-aboutA quick check of the About dialog shows the version as 3.0 dated in 1992.

The software makes reference to Genigraphics, which seems to be a print services provider, at the time offering prints to film/slides.

A good idea of what the software is capable of is seen from the menus.


msppt3-helpRather surprisingly, this piece of software seems to follow the more modern convention of cut, copy and paste being allocated CRTL+X/C/V shortcut keys, unlike the contemporaries of the time. Despite this, however, the right-click on the mouse does not evoke a pop-up menu.

Like all of the Microsoft software, there is an extensive help file which accompanies the software. This is the main means by which new users would become acquainted with the software.

msppt3-fontselSome memorable features of software from this time include the font-selection menus – a cluttered mess which requires dragging the mouse and careful check of the type of font (i.e. screen, print, TrueType).





msppt3-colourchooserA similar dialog is found for choosing colours, with a small selection of available colours presented for quick access. The full palette of colours can be found under Other Color…

One of the notable things is the use of dithering to produce the (poor) illusion of more colours. The software is actually running under a 16-colour (4-bit) regime, and thus any other colours are generated by dithering. The limited palette is there as these probably show up best.


msppt3-shapesAlso nice to see is the shape selection dialog – the modern autoshapes dialog is very much inspired by the set of shapes offered back then, it seems.

It’s also impressive to note, that for (what I consider) an early effort, Object-Linking and Embedding (OLE) was already available to allow for users to embed certain documents within others. In this case, OLE allows for embedding charts, tables, and even multimedia into your presentation, with those rendered by another program.


But wait, there’s more! I’m rather impressed to report that, for even such an early version of PowerPoint, slide transition effects already existed. By this, we mean the familiar blinds, wipe, and fly transitions. The slide advance timings can also be set.


Lets just scroll through that list of transitions and remind ourselves what we’re dealing with here …


Rather thankfully, this early version of PowerPoint doesn’t have annoying sounds or anything like that, or advanced custom animations which allow you to group, change and animate individual elements on entry, appearance and exit like modern versions of PowerPoint does. However, it does have the precursor to all of these functions under the Build command, which allows you to specify (without much granularity) how each element of the slide is introduced.


Again, I’d have to say, for a 22-year old piece of software, I am quite impressed. There is even a fairly big clip-art library, however, the mechanism by which it is accessed is rather unwieldy. The clip-art is stored in presentation files which are named by category, and you have to select the slide featuring the clip-art you wish in order to copy the graphic. A selection of most of the clip-art is shown in the animated GIF below (I got bored, so I didn’t systematically go through all of the library).


I decided to give it a little time and build myself a single slide just to test the features out.


msppt3-startslideshowIt’s ugly, it’s not colour co-ordinated, but it’s nice to see just how much is possible colour and shape-wise. Running the slideshow can be invoked with the button next to the zoom level, or via the File menu, which gives you the show options.

Running the show goes full-screen, as expected, with no fancy features to speak of.


So far, so good it seems, but every early piece of software comes with a Microsoft specialty – instability. This was most apparent when running the GREATEST.PPT sample presentation that was bundled in. I don’t know exactly what the cause is, but PowerPoint will unrecoverably freeze at certain slides …


… and other slides will elicit overflow/divide by zero errors.


This may be because the software is somehow being tripped up by the time/date, or maybe it relies on certain 16-bit CPU quirks which don’t hold true under VMWare running on an AMD Phenom II x6 1090T. Whatever it is, I found that running the presentation in PowerPoint 4.0 had no problems and the transition effects were much faster, so here is the sample presentation as run under that. Because of the way it was recorded, it isn’t being played back at quite the right pace – but at least you can see what it looks like with all the pretty dithering a VGA display gives you.


Microsoft PowerPoint Version 4.0a

Earlier, I had received a Microsoft PowerPoint Version 4.0a upgrade pack from another OCAU member, and I thought I’d never see the day when it would be reunited with a copy of Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0 which would make it eligible for installation. Alas, we don’t need to wait any more – the day has come! Installing it proved to be no trouble at all, although it was a little tedious at eleven 3.5″ high density floppies.


Already, from the installer, you can see the window decoration itself is of a slightly different style, with grey fill, instead of white fill, and a grey border around the blue title-bars. This seems to be something which became more commonplace with Windows 95, however, this version was released in 1994, prior to Windows 95 being public.

msppt4-progmgrgrpAfter installation, the program manager group shows it to be part of Microsoft Office – an effort to integrate and unify their productivity applications.

Opening the software leads to a suggestion that you view the introduction, which is an animated presentation that helps you get acquainted with the features of PowerPoint 4.0a.


Once you’ve either quit or sat through the introduction, you are greeted by the annoying feature that seems to have crept in as part of the Office suite – that of user friendliness. In their overzealous attempt to help users, they decided to produce tips that would show on start-up, getting in the way of work (which you could turn off) … later this eventually turned into full-time help, aka clippy.


Then, you are greeted by a selection of wizards … rather familiar ones, some of which (e.g. the Autocontent wizard) no longer exist.


More advanced users will dismiss the dialog in favour of a blank presentation, and they will be left with the autolayout window (which is still around with us).


Then, they will finally reach the main UI window, which appears much more familiar to those who have used Office suites up to, and including, Office 2003 (when they ditched the toolbar arrangement in favour of ribbons).


The UI has significantly developed over the one of PowerPoint version 3.0 with shortcut buttons available in the bottom toolbar. The presentation button has moved next to the Outline view button which is much more familiar to more recent users. The improvement in the toolbar icons is dramatic, as is the use of a proper font picker (no more crammed up menus).

msppt4-rightclickmenumsppt4-rightclickmenu2Amazingly, they even managed to find a use for the right-click button – we now get right-click shortcut menus!

That’s not all though, by hovering over the buttons on the toolbars, we even have tooltips!



A quick check of the About dialog dates this effort to 1994, just shy of when Windows 95 was released.


As with the other version, lets take a quick gander through the drop-down menus:


Many features haven’t really changed much under the hood, per se. The build, transition and OLE dialogs have been refreshed but are functionally equivalent.

msppt4-build msppt4-transitionmsppt4-ole

The colour picker and font dialogues have been improved.

msppt4-slidetheme msppt4-colourpicker msppt4-fontdialog

Impressively, there is a real clip-art gallery now, instead of the stack of presentations in the previous version, which is searchable. On first invocation, it takes some time to index the available clip-art.

msppt4-properclipartgal msppt4-properclipartgal2

Improvements were made in the OLE plug-ins, such as a newer version of Microsoft Graph. One of the key differences I could see was the existence of another one of those “overused” features – WordArt.


The WordArt is fundamentally very similar to the WordArt that’s here with us now, but featured less pre-set options. Instead, you needed to do some work of your own to stylize the colour, shadow and border.

msppt4-wordart-shading msppt4-wordart-shadow msppt4-wordart-border

That being said, there’s nothing to stop you from ending up with something really garish, such as this:


Lets take a look at the other wizards which can be used to make a presentation – the template one isn’t very noteworthy as it just launches a file open box looking for a template file. There’s a guided one named Pick a Look, and this one is a (many) step process. In some ways, it seems to ask too many questions.


The other one is known as Auto Content, and pretty much aspires to build your presentation for you, minus all the important details. This definitely was an audacious move, in an attempt to make it easy for the casual user to build a presentation, but also contributed to the over-templatization of PowerPoint presentations, and added to the boredom factor.


In a little bit of a mockery, I decided to make a presentation about nothing at all – which is in fact what many presentations are about. I didn’t bother to fill in many details, and just hit the run show button.


Interestingly, this is where another feature, absent in 3.0, makes an appearance – the annotation pen. You can use it to draw all over the slide, but there’s really not much to it – I couldn’t find a proper way to save or erase annotations.


Still, it’s much of a start, and a great effort in improving the usability of PowerPoint for the casual user. It’s surprising how many of the regularly used features were in place by 1994, although notably, non-linear presentations were not a feature until much later, and neither was embedded sounds, custom animation and timings.

Viewing Old Presentations in Microsoft Office 2003 and above

There’s a good chance that if you’ve ended up here, you might have some older PowerPoint 3.0 or 4.0 files you want to view. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the backwards compatibility of proprietary file formats is not assured. As of Microsoft Office 2003 SP3 and newer, converters for many older file formats have been removed or disabled, thus resulting in this error message when attempting to open old files.


Workarounds for Microsoft Office 2003 exist in terms of changing registry keys, however, if you use anything newer, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. The best way would be to have an old machine with Office 2000 and open the old files there and save to the Office 2000 format which will still open in modern versions of Microsoft Office.

Another way is to use the online conversion service called Zamzar, following this guide. I can confirm that the conversion does work, although some fidelity is lost in terms of how the presentation appears (some dim effects are different, some bullet points are different, some bullet points misplaced).

This is the same sample presentation (just the first one) from PowerPoint 3.0 rendered in PowerPoint 2007 after conversion through Zamzar. No more dithering, although some colours have been changed due to the limited colour palette of GIF.



Every time I have the chance to experience “retro” versions of productivity software, I’m thoroughly impressed by how featureful they were, especially given the computing and space limitations of the time. It lends credence to the common annoyance of bloat in modern software, where the size of the software expands, as does the system requirements, without any really critically user-relevant features being added to the mix. In this post, we could see how PowerPoint evolved from being a standalone software package, to being one that was integrated into the Office family, with features and standardization that made it even more friendly and accessible to mainstream users.

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5 Responses to Tech Flashback: Microsoft PowerPoint Version 3.0 (1992) & 4.0a (1994)

  1. sparcie says:

    Thank you for documenting these old bits of productivity software. It seems to me that most people have forgotten that they ever existed. Without stuff like this there would be little evidence on the internet of their existence at all.

    I remember using early versions of PowerPoint in computer studies class at school to make basic frame by frame animations. We set the slide transition time to 0 and then animated stuff by duplicating the slide and making changes. It was a really rough way of doing it, but it worked.

    Windows 3.x can actually run in a 256 colour mode if you install the correct graphic driver (probably really hard to find now). That would reduce the dithering quite a bit. I don’t remember many machines doing this though.

    If I remember correctly we also used the lotus suite for quite a while at school as well, not migrating to Microsoft office until after windows 95 made it to our computer labs. I vaguely remember the @ notation, but it was a long time ago and I didn’t use it much.

    I’ll have to have a look around and see what old productivity software and utilities I have, see if there’s something interesting to look at.


    • lui_gough says:

      Thanks for the comment, as usual. I agree – documentation on this seemed sparse, which is partly why I have been motivated to do some documenting.

      I did try playing with Windows 3.11 setup and trying various incarnations of SuperVGA drivers (the bundled ones) to have no real luck, instead seeing the dreaded text which suggests a driver issue. I suppose it’s probably just down to the VM and the emulated hardware not co-operating in the mode, but alas, I really only remember running Windows 3.11 as 16-colour (or even worse, monochrome!)

      That being said, I suppose I wouldn’t have such an issue if I just decided to do it all as Windows 95 or newer, but then I’d lose some of the authenticity of running it how a user back then would most likely experience (minus the slowness and the physical floppy/hard drive slowness).

      I had a hand in playing with Lotus stuff even after Windows 95 came out, partly because Lotus Smartsuite was bundled as an OEM inclusion with an Acer laptop a relative bought. It caused a hell of a compatibility issue with Office documents, and its SmartCenter (or whatever it was) acted as a second start bar anchored to the top of your screen “stealing” precious screen space, so it wasn’t my most favourite software, but I did keep it alive longer than it needed to be only because there were some Ami Pro files my Dad had from a government agency he was working at, at the time.

      I’ve still got a couple of packages (some fairly memorable) to explore, the floppy disk ones, and then … well, I have a pile of old Macintosh CD-ROMs too. Not enough hours of the day, I say!

      – Gough

      • sparcie says:

        I actually thought the use of windows 3.x was the best choice for this, as you said it’s more authentic. I think the only way to get 256 colours was to use a third party driver (usually one for the graphics card). I think windows under dosbox can do it via a S3 driver on the vogons forum.

        I remember those annoying start up toolbars, I think Office had one as well, but it may have been a later version like Office 97. I usually disabled them to free up the resources.


  2. Pingback: Tech Flashback: Microsoft Word Version 5.5 (MS-DOS) and 6.0a (Windows) | Gough's Tech Zone

  3. yuhong says:

    I should also mention that the last security updates for PowerPoint 2000 and 2002 also disabled the PowerPoint 4.0 converters by default too, with a reg key to reenable of course. It is recommended that the reg keys only be used as long as needed to open the old files BTW (the converters were disabled after real security bugs was reported).

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