The traditional standard display for business computers was 80 column text (with either 24 or 25 rows).

Business software, roughly speaking, falls into two categories:

Horizontal applications like spreadsheets and word processors, don't need to be designed for a particular display; they can just use however many columns you happen to have at run time.

But vertical, or line of business, applications tend to be form-based; they use fixed-layout forms for things like entering orders. These need to be designed for a screen with a certain number of columns. Unsurprisingly, then, these were usually designed for 80 columns.

In the days of text displays (i.e. when the hardware showed not an arbitrary bitmap, but a fixed grid of character cells), the usual standard was 80 columns, but some machines could do more. The Amstrad PCW, for example, showed 90 columns. The DEC VT320 had an optional 132-column mode, albeit not very readable on a 14-inch screen. One could imagine designing forms on DEC hardware to use 132 columns, though readability would seem to suggest sticking to 80.

Were any form-based applications on any system, ever designed for more than 80 columns? (Considering only systems that displayed text in a fixed number of columns, not modern graphical interfaces, which make different tradeoffs.)

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    Almost certainly there were. Is the question "any", which would include the custom software that thousands of programmers like me have written over the years for various businesses? Or does it mean "published for general sale"? Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 13:26
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact Including custom software, by all means. I would be happy with answers along the lines of 'yes, I wrote an X system in 1980 for a client running on hardware Y, which had a Z column display'.
    – rwallace
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 13:45
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    I wrote some medical graphics software for the Wyse 99GT, which had a 132 column mode, but for the text part I stuck to 80 columns for compatibility with the other terminals (e.g., Wyse 60). But someone will hopefully come up with something... Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:07
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    In the mid-80's I worked on "green screen" serial terminal business apps, and for forms we stuck to 80 columns to support a wide variety of terminals. We used 132-column mode if the terminal had it for viewing reports on the screen. Almost every dot matrix printer supported 132 columns, so reports were designed for 132 columns. Viewing them on a 80 column screen required horizontal pagination or simulated horizontal scrolling, so if the terminal had a 132 column mode, we switched to it and displayed the report, then switched back to 80 columns when done.
    – mannaggia
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:10
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    "The DEC VT320 had an optional 132-column" It also had a 48-line mode. I combined the two to make a crude, text-mode "fax viewer" as a debugging aid for fax software I wrote from 1993 onwards :-)
    – TripeHound
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 17:55

1 Answer 1


Somehow this answer is self answering, isn't it?

If there are systems offering more than 80 columns, why should any developer writing for this platform ignore them? Just take a look at PCW applications, starting with this very basic manager form:

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Any usage is always about context - here especially the context an application is used or targeted at. If one targets the C64, he wouldn't use anything past 40 columns, despite 80 being most common otherwise, or 80 column extensions being available. The same reasoning goes for applications intended for systems that offer more columns per line by default.

That a huge number of application were created for a context of 80 column system does thus only prove that there were 80 column systems, not that no other existed or that these were not supported.

In fact, when it comes to business application, like the tenor of the question seems to be, then these were (in the good old days) usually a bundle of hard and software. Companies didn't buy a bunch of standard PCs (wich standard?) and went for some compatible software, but bought a business solution as a package. Often rebadged hardware, if not proprietary to start with.

In fact, the PCW is a great example here, as many were sold for small businesses with custom packages, made especially for this 90 column screen. Often using LocoFile and/or Mallard BASIC, both operating by default in 90 columns. Same goes got Masterfile 8000 and other PCW applications.

Heck, it worked even the other way around: terminals with more than 80 columns were created on purpose for certain applications, for example Siemens 8162 for newspaper editing.

  • 'If there are systems using more than 80 columns, why should any developer writing for this platform ignore them?' - that is an interesting aspect of this question, and comments so far have indicated that contrary to intuition, they did in fact ignore the extra columns (at least for fixed-layout forms), and the answer was that they wanted to stick to the minimum baseline, for compatibility with other terminals.
    – rwallace
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:30
  • 'terminals with more than 80 columns were created on purpose for certain applications, for example Siemens 8162 for newspaper editing.' - right, and the Amstrad PCW for word processing, and various 132-column terminals for viewing reports, but that's all flexible work, that can use however many columns happen to be available at run time. Designing forms to require that many columns, is another matter; doing that, commits you to that hardware. I'm asking whether people did that. Comments so far are suggesting no.
    – rwallace
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:32
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    @rwallace The 8162 is a block mode terminal, there is no real 'free form'. These terminals (the whole 8160 and 9750 line) handle forms essentially in hardware - much like a webbrowser does so for HTML forms - except, it's of course not graphics, but character orientated.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:36
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    @rwallace believe me, they were sold in huge numbers. Started my (short) career as field engineer by setting up several hundred 8160 at the Bavarian tax office in Munich. Also told me a first lesson about users: Whenever there is a new tool, like terminals, they find ways to (ab)use it way before they learn about its proper use. In this case, printing funny quotes using terminal and local connected printers long before the mainframe connection was installed :))
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 14:47
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    System/3 punched cards had 96 columns - were there no displays for it that showed 96 (or, at least >80) columns? (IDK)
    – davidbak
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 16:24

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