It's no secret that in the early days of computers, they had only 1-4MB of RAM. I found an article stating you needed only 4MB of RAM to run Word, Excel and PowerPoint simultaneously. How was that possible, considering that nowadays you need at least 2GB, 1000x times more RAM to do the same thing? Sure, the new apps have more features, but at the core it's the same thing.

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    TextEdit in the first MacOS version was 1.5 kilobyte.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 21:52
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    <grandpa voice> 4 Meg? My first computer had 4K! And we were happy to have that! </grandpa voice> Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 21:59
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    Things were a lot simpler when buttons didn't need fading transparency gradients and smoothed fonts to render. Commented Jul 23, 2018 at 22:03
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    I don't know if there's a name for this phenomenon it but up until recently, software would grow to consume more RAM, CPU and disk as the hardware got better. Software was constrained by these limits. Software developers adjusted as the constraints were loosened. Eventually we stopped worrying about it and software became more inefficient and bloated as hardware started outpacing the needs of desktop software.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 14:43
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    I wrote a full featured graphical factory automation program with trending, alerting, recipes and thousands of digital and analog control points. It ran on a PC with 1MB RAM. I still work as a developer today, and fully understand what the answer to your question is, but it’s hard to summarize in a few paragraphs.
    – bikeman868
    Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 14:49

2 Answers 2


How did heavy software in the early days managed to run on 4MB RAM computer?

It wasn't heavy.

That's it. There is no magic to it. Your question is based on a false premise.

I remember that my mom was using my dad's old IBM PC/AT with 512 KiByte of RAM and a 20 MiByte HDD well into the 1990s for word processing using Volkswriter and then later StarWriter. Considering that she was able to run a word processing program in 512 KiByte of RAM, I have no trouble believing the claim that you can run 3 programs in 8 times that.

The first word processors were written for computers whose RAM was measured in bytes, so why would it be surprising that you can run one in a million times that?

  • Yes, but requirements and user expectations were different as well. Volkswriyer (and earlier: Wordstar on less than 64KB RAM CP/M machines) did not have to offer true WYSIWIG and most fonts were fixed length (or if variable, only at the size supported by the printer, which was in charge of the rendering) :-)
    – Christophe
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 18:03
  • @Christophe - Winword versions 1 and 2 were hardly different from Wordstar, at least not to that degree -- sure, they supported WYSIWYG, but that's mostly a by-product of running under Windows which provides all of the facilities required to do that, rather than CP/M which was a purely character-oriented system. Windows added a little bit of overhead, but only a few hundred KB at most. Winword version 2 ran perfectly happily on machines with less than 1MB, and version 1 was lighter still.
    – Jules
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 9:16
  • @Christophe since the purpose of word-processing was to print things, I think it's pretty fair to only let the user enter what the printer supported Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 16:42
  • @user253751 indeed. And some printers supported proportional spacing already, e.g. these wonderful daisy wheel printers that made your report look more like a book rather than these okd-looking fixed sized fonts ;-)
    – Christophe
    Commented Jul 16, 2021 at 17:13

Microsoft Word for Windows was by today's standard a very small program. Its size is 13.07 MB on installer disks (1.44 MB each), which you can download to check for yourself.

Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows ran first on Windows 3.1 (released April 6, 1992) and looked nothing like Microsoft Word do today:

Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows

Internet wasn't available, so updates to software where shipped in floppy disks. But it was a very good implementation of Word processing, and we still use the same keyboard shortcuts today as we did back then.

On MS Excel, when making advanced calculations in cells, my computer took a break. I could go to the next building and grab a coffee, and when I came back, the PC still wasn't done computing.

Computing power was scarce those days, and it wasn't always pleasing being an information worker back in 1992.


As for memory consumption today(!), you'd need 150 MB to run MS Word, MS Excel and MS PowerPoint in the same time. That's a lot more than your 4 MB back in the days, but I have 16 GB available, so that's fine. What worries me though is that Google Chrome with this tab only open consumes 600 MB of RAM, telling me that it has nine ongoing processes. Time to look into that, but that's another story.

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    Not to mention Multiplan, the predecessor of Excel, which ran in character mode on MSDOS in the 80' on machines that had at maximum 640K of ram !
    – Christophe
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 17:51
  • @Christophe My first PC experience comes from ABC 80, where I needed to take notes of my program after class, to type it in again the next class. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ABC_80 Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 20:17
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    wow Z80 ! That was already pretty advanced ;-) I started on a 6502 based SYM1 with 4 KB RAM, also with hand typed code. Word processing was not really an option. But it could have been: AppleWriter worked on a 6502 with a couple of more KB (32 I think). Still a lot less than the grandiose 4MB of the question.
    – Christophe
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 20:32
  • We still write windows programs that are 10 megabytes in size that work just fine, so this doesn't really answer anything. Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 15:13
  • No way you'd need 150mb back then, especially not on win 3.1. I remember running all those on win98 and I had 64M, and that was a respectable amount. Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 4:36

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