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In computer user interfaces a "wizard" is a set of screens that guide the user through a process.

Does anyone know the origin of this term? I personally associate wizards with magic more than a figure offering guidance.

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A software "wizard" is like a genie of the lamp, or a fairy godmother. You just say what you want, and - Hey Presto! It's done! You're spared all the complexities of wrestling with loads of complicated configuration options that you may never be interested in. You certainly don't care about such things when you first install the system, since you don't yet know enough to even have an opinion on many of the settings. –  FumbleFingers Apr 26 '12 at 0:15
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I believe Microsoft officially called them "wizards" in their documentation when they were introduced to the Windows interface. –  Old Pro Apr 26 '12 at 0:38
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@tchrist: I disagree - although MS may have made the term "wizard" popular, it is widespread and used in many forms of programming. I work in the Java space with Eclipse as my main IDE; Eclipse's RCP provides for "(wizards)[eclipse.org/articles/Article-UI-Guidelines/…; for tasks "involving a sequential series of steps". On the other hand, I've never heard "wizard" used as to mean "super-guru" except in "wannabe hacker" circles. –  Amos M. Carpenter Apr 26 '12 at 3:21
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@Kris: I think a question about how and when an English word took on a new meaning is completely on-topic for ELU. –  Callithumpian Apr 26 '12 at 14:22
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@Kris: The OED is about as standard as they get. –  Callithumpian Apr 26 '12 at 14:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 19 down vote accepted

In computing, wizards were originally expert computer users (people) who could install software or help you with your installation. Later, they were software assistants (programs) to help with initial tasks of setting something up.

Human wizard

A wizard used to be a power-user, a programmer or someone with higher level of expertise.

Here's a signature in a 1982 posting to net.general Usenet group:

ecvax!ittvax!qumix!gandalf
Al Chetham, System Wizard
Qume Corp
San Jose, CA

This is human wizard is defined in the Hacker's Dictionary. From a 1982 edition posted to net.misc:

WIZARD n. 1. A person who knows how a complex piece of software or
hardware works; someone who can find and fix his bugs in an
emergency. Rarely used at MIT, where HACKER is the preferred term.
2. A person who is permitted to do things forbidden to ordinary
people, e.g., a "net wizard" on a TENEX may run programs which
speak low-level host-imp protocol; an ADVENT wizard at SAIL may
play Adventure during the day.

This term was used right through the eighties and early nineties, and some software had a 'wizard mode', other software had a config file defining the username of the designated wizard. From comp.sources.games, 1990:

X First edit config.h according to the comments to match your system and
X desired set of features. Mostly you need to check the WIZARD option,
X make sure the HACKDIR is set properly, and check TERMLIB and COMPRESS.

A 1990 news.groups definition:

A true wizard is not only well-informed and experienced. She is also
gracious and generous. She patiently answers questions that lesser
beings might consider to be too "simple" or even "stupid" to bother
with.

Perhaps the step-by-step screens were named after these clever techies who could help us normal people set up those complicated systems. From the comps.emacs in 1988:

And we have no Emacs wizards, just users. I'm trying to get GNU Emacs 18.52
running on our ELXSI which recently had BSD 4.3 Unix installed.

People who weren't wizards would have a hard time installing some software. From a 1982 post to fa.tcp-ip:

We are willing to give this software to anyone who wants
it, has a Unix source license, and will agree to a few constraints.
We should point out that it would be difficult for someone who is
not a Unix wizard to install this code.

Unix wizards had their own newsgroup, comp.unix.wizards. A 1988 post suggests a tool for normal people:

UTek's sysadmin was not
designed to allow doing selected root-ish things without allowing a root
shell, it was meant to hold the hand of a non-wizard root who needs to
install a new software package or whatever. ...

For the non-wizard types, something like sysadmin can be helpful. For
most of the readers of this newsgroup, it is slow, and gets in your way.

A 1989 comp.os.vms suggested the role human wizards were in decline:

(1) The knowledge won't do them any good. We are long past the time
when every computer installation had its wizard who knew (or
thought he knew) how to fix every problem that might come up.


Other software wizards

A 1989 post in comp.sources.misc uses wizard as another name for daemon, a little always-running process:

There used to be a machine called oz.ai.mit.edu, and it used to have a
wizard who knew when it was your birthday. He was a friendly wizard, not
at all deserving of the name "daemon," because he'd send you a nice little
note when that special day came around...


Software assistant wizard

1992

Barrie England's answer gives the earliest OED citation of the November 1992 MacUser magazine:

We'd like you to meet Wizards, step-by-step guides that are designed to walk you through complex tasks.

The earliest I found in Usenet is 31st January 1992, comp.windows.ms:

The last straw came with new MS apps such as MS Publisher. After swapping my screen resolutions a few times, some of the fonts in MS Publisher (especially Page Wizard displays/prompts) are now too small to be readable. Now MS Publisher does not have a PREV.FON. So how the heck do I get it to adjust for the resolution changes?

21st March 1992, comp.windows.ms:

I called up Microsoft and they are now taking order for Excel 4.0. The upgrade cost 111.45 including shipping and handling and will ship in one month. Some of the enhanced features are an icon bar like Word for Windows 2.0, also similar cut and paste ie. drag and drop features, an Ami Pro type movable icon block. Fill format something which enables formating like the fill down feature. A few more statistical functions, better translation of 123 Macros. And something called the Graphing Wizard which is supposed to make graphs even simpler to make. That's all I could get from the sales rep. Anyone have more info. on this. ?

On 25th November 1992, Joel Spolsky, the Microsoft Excel Program Manager, said in comp.apps.spreadsheets:

Now you create a default scatter chart based on that using the charting wizard.

1993

Phillip Paxton explains these now-familiar software wizards on 8th Febraury 1993 in comp.os.ms-windows.apps:

I thought I was relatively familar with a lot of Windows apps, but just
today a friend told me about something called WIZARD. She described it
as a help system that teaches you how to use the software "as you type."
She said she knew it worked with Excel, but she thought it was a
stand-alone app, implying that it works with other Windows apps.

Can anybody give me a clue about Wizard? Thanks in advance!

"Wizard"s are situation-specific code to help you accomplish a
specialized task. They were designed for MS Access, but several
other products were farther along in the development cycle, so
Excel, MS Works, (and some other product) actually beat Access
to the market to use them. There is another Microsoft Beta
product (Can't mention due to NDA) which has wizards.

An example in Access is when you want to create a form or report.
Certain "styles" are predetermined and you can tell it which fields
you want to incorporate to this style and the form /report is prebuilt
to those specs. This is not poured concrete; i.e. once the wizard has
created the form, you can then make add'l modifications.

Add-on wizards is currently one of the hot areas for vendors
right now...

A 23rd February 1993 press release about Microsoft Visual C++ posted comp.os.ms-windows.programmer.misc in says:

Visual C++ features the popular wizard technology found in several of Microsoft's other products, including the Microsoft Access database management system and Microsoft Excel. Two unique programming wizards AppWizard and ClassWizard act like programmers' assistants by giving developers a jump start in creating a Windows-based application. AppWizard automates the first steps of using an application framework, making it easy to get started developing an application. Using a visually oriented application like the Microsoft Visual Basic programming system, the new AppStudio in Visual C++ lets programmers graphically create an application's user interface, while the ClassWizard connects these user interface elements to C++ code.

And in more detail on 23rd March 1993 (comp.lang.c++):

The package consists of several tools; ...

  • App Wizard - You start your programming here by specifying what your program
    is (Windows .EXE, DLL, DOS .exe, VBX control etc..) a plethora
    of options (Compile,Link,Precompiled Headers.) and what pieces
    the Class libraries you will need (SDI, MDI, Pen, VBX Controls)
    You also control certain BASE names of objects you inherit.
  • Class Wizard - Here you connect code to screen objects and the messages
    they generate. VC++ allows you to pick the object, then pick
    messages you want to deal with and it writes a skeleton ()
    for you to fill in. (What could be simpler :-) )

Later

Wikipedia says the name was widespread and encouraged in the 2000s:

By 2001, wizards had become commonplace in most consumer-oriented operating systems, although not always under the name "wizard". In Mac OS X, for example, they are called "assistants"; some examples include the "Setup Assistant", which is run at initial bootup of the Macintosh, and the "Network Setup Assistant", which has a similar function to the MS-Windows "New Connection Wizard". GNOME refers to its wizards as "assistants".

The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (Version 3.0 [published on November 12, 2003]) urges technical writers to refer to these assistants as "wizards" and to use lowercase letters. In countries where the concept of wizard does not convey the idea of helpfulness or is offensive (via the suggestion that actual magic is being used), the manual suggests using the term "assistant" instead.


Edit: 1991 OED antedatings

I found examples of a software assistant wizards before the OED's earliest 1992 citation. In 1991, Microsoft release Publisher 1.0, that, according to a 2001 Microsoft article "pioneered Microsoft's "wizards.":

We realized early on that to make a mid-range desktop publishing program successful, we had to address the fact that a lot of people simply don't have the design skills necessary to make a page look good," says Ed Ringness, the original development lead for Publisher 1.0. "No matter how easy we made it to use the tools, people wouldn't know what the tools were for. So the idea behind wizards was to get these people jump-started and do a lot of the design for them early on."

Page Wizards were an ingenious and simple way to solve the conundrum. Using a set of document templates created by professional designers, the wizard guides users through the initial setup of their publication, such as a newsletter or brochure. Once the content is in place, the user is then free to modify the document however he or she wants.

There's a handful of mentions of Page Wizards in magazines indexed by Google Books from 1991, the earliest I found is InfoWorld from 22nd July 1991 (Vol. 13, No. 29):

Publisher for Windows, expected to sell for under $200, will also be Microsoft's first desktop publishing package. Publisher includes Page Wizard, a tool for building a page to user specifications, such as the number of columns and picture placement;

And InfoWorld from 5th August 1991 has a whole article on "'Wizards' make Microsoft applications smarter":

Maples has described a similar technology several times in recent years and said more than two years ago that he hoped to ship applications containing the technology by the end of 1990. At that time Microsoft said a full-blown version of this technology would use multimedia to communicate with the user, such as through voice and perhaps a talking head. However, a common-denominator multimedia PC platform is not yet available.

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+1. You are a wizard. –  Kris Apr 26 '12 at 15:39
    
Antedating with link to this answer sent to the OED: Thank you for your submission. The OED will retain all useful information in its files. –  Hugo Apr 26 '12 at 18:12
    
Just curious: what does that mean? –  Kris Apr 26 '12 at 18:51
    
@Kris: The OED's first dating is from 1992. I sent them the earlier 1991 datings I found (see the edit). See also: oed.com/public/contribute/#newetemylogical –  Hugo Apr 27 '12 at 8:46
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@Zibbobz: Thanks! Well, I have the power user meaning, restricted to computing, but the OED has "a man who ‘does wonders’ in his profession: in recent use often trivially applied to an expert" dating to a 1620 translation of Don Quixote: "I haue heard my Master say, who is the very Wizard of Histories,..when he came [etc.]." –  Hugo Sep 20 '13 at 13:44

The OED’s earliest citation is from the magazine MacUser in 1992: ‘We'd like you to meet Wizards, step-by-step guides that are designed to walk you through complex tasks.’

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Pray, why wizard? –  Kris Apr 26 '12 at 10:12
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@Kris: Because it performs wonders. –  Barrie England Apr 26 '12 at 10:47

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