Dennis Austin, software developer who created PowerPoint, dies at 76


Dennis Austin, who played a seminal role in shaping how information is communicated in modern society as the principal software developer of PowerPoint, the ubiquitous and occasionally scorned program employed by office workers, teachers and bureaucrats, died Sept. 1 at his home in Los Altos, Calif. He was 76.

The cause was lung cancer that metastasized to the brain, said his son, Michael Austin.

Released in 1987 by Forethought, a small software firm, PowerPoint was the digital successor to overhead projectors, transforming the labor-intensive process of creating slides — a task typically assigned to design departments or outsourced — to one where any employee with a computer could point, click and rearrange information with a mouse.

“Our users were familiar with computers, but probably not graphics software,” Mr. Austin wrote in an unpublished history of the software’s development. “They were highly motivated to look their best in front of others, but they weren’t savvy in graphics design.”

Working alongside Robert Gaskins, the Forethought executive who conceived the software, it was Mr. Austin’s job as the software engineer to make PowerPoint (originally called Presenter) easy to operate. He accomplished this with a “direct-manipulation interface,” he wrote, meaning that “what you are editing looks exactly like the final product.”

Originally targeted for Macintosh computers, which had a graphical interface, Presenter included ways for users to incorporate graphics, clip art and multiple fonts. In addition, the slides could be uniform with graphic borders, corporate logos and slide numbers. The goal, Mr. Austin wrote, was “to create presentations — not simply slides.”

In his book “Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint” (2012), Gaskins wrote that “Dennis came up with at least half of the major design ideas,” and was “completely responsible for the fluid performance and the polished finish of the implementation.”

“It’s a good bet,” Gaskins added, “that if Dennis had not been the person designing PowerPoint, no one would ever have heard of it.”

A few months after PowerPoint debuted, Microsoft bought Forethought for $14 million in its first major acquisition. By 1993, PowerPoint was generating more than $100 million in sales. Microsoft eventually added PowerPoint to its emerging suite of Office programs, including Word.

PowerPoint is now used to create more than 30 million presentations a day, the company says. But on its path to workplace dominance, the software has been derided by corporate executives, business school professors and military generals for dumbing down presentations into a mind-numbing morass of interminable bullet points.

“I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,” Apple’s Steve Jobs said in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography. “People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”

He banned the software. So did Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “And it’s probably the smartest thing we ever did,” he said at a leadership conference in 2018. Instead, Bezos made executives write narrative-style memos to share before meetings started. (Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim Post chief executive Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

At the Pentagon, PowerPoint is both pervasive and reviled.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. Jim Mattis, secretary of defense under President Donald Trump, said at a 2010 military conference, according to the New York Times in a story about the software headlined, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told the paper. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

A commission convened by NASA to investigate the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 identified a PowerPoint slide that used “sloppy” and “vaguely quantitative words” that obscured “life-threatening” safety issues with the vehicle.

“The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA,” the commission’s report said.

Mr. Austin and Gaskins acknowledged the complaints, but thought they were unfairly aimed at the software and not the people who were using it to make lazy, poor presentations.

“It’s just like the printing press,” Mr. Austin told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. “It enabled all sorts of garbage to be printed.”

PowerPoint’s ubiquity and especially its facility in creating tedious, unending presentations made it the rare piece of software to cross over into the cultural lexicon.

The program has been satirized on “Saturday Night Live,” in Dilbert comic strips and by New Yorker magazine cartoonists, including Alex Gregory, whose drawing of an executive devil interviewing another devil is captioned, “I need someone well versed in the art of torture — do you know PowerPoint?”

Dennis Robert Austin was born in Pittsburgh on May 28, 1947, and grew up in the suburb of Rosslyn Farms. His father ran an association for executives, and his mother was a typist and later a homemaker.

He studied engineering at the University of Virginia. While there, he worked with a room-sized computer protected by glass. Students wrote programs on a machine that generated punch cards that were then fed into the computer by specially trained computer operators. The programs ran all night, and students returned the next day to see the output.

Eventually, Mr. Austin befriended the operators, who allowed him behind the glass at night to work directly with the machine.

After graduating in 1969, he did graduate work at Arizona State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Santa Barbara. He then worked for companies including General Electric, Honeywell International, Burroughs, National Cash Register (now NCR) and Tandem Computers.

In 1984, after being laid off by a start-up working on battery powered laptops, Mr. Austin was hired by Forethought, which was founded by two former Apple employees.

After Microsoft acquired Forethought, Mr. Austin continued to lead development of PowerPoint. He retired in 1996.

Mr. Austin married Janet Ann Kilgore in 1972. In addition to his wife and son, survivors include a granddaughter and brother.

Mr. Austin’s friends and family said he never minded the jokes about PowerPoint. He was also well aware his software was being used for presentations far beyond the ones he had intended it for, including wedding proposals, teenager pitches for higher allowances and even as props in stand-up comedy routines.

In 2005, Mr. Austin was in the audience at a University of California at Berkeley event where David Byrne, frontman of the rock band Talking Heads, gave a PowerPoint presentation about using the software to create art.

“PowerPoint is the Rodney Dangerfield of software: It gets no respect,” Berkeley engineering professor Ken Goldberg, the event’s organizer, said. “It’s easy to ridicule it for its corporate nature, but the real story is about how participatory and democratic it is. High school kids use it, rabbis use it, people even use it for wedding toasts.”


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