Who are the ‘wizards’ in our installation wizards?

From the surface, the mention of the word ‘wizard’ would conjure up connotations surrounding fantasy, magic, and spells. So often has that been portrayed in pop culture, from series such as Harry Potter, to the various isekai anime around here. But there is another place where we would find the word ‘wizard’. One not so often thought about place.

If you have been around a Windows PC, you probably might have installed several programs before. Before the days of installers downloaded from the Internet, you would install software through disks, floppy or compact. Most of these would come in the form of installer files like .msi, executables like .exe, and other application file formats meant to install your desired software for use on your PC. Sometimes, you would see a message like this.

An installation wizard who would install your desired program. But this wizard seems a bit out of place, especially when we apply our preconception on what a wizard typically, or stereotypically, is. Does it tie in with the installation process, which appears like “magic” to the end user? Or is there a deeper meaning to this, one that has developed in the computing world over the decades?

The word wizard is a combination of the word “wise” and the suffix “-ard”, postulated to be a contracted form of “hard”. Often tied with expertise, skill, and talent, the term wizard generally means “wise man”. A wizard can be anyone who has skill or exceptional talent in their field, synonymous with the words “expert” and “prodigy”. Or they could be magical, as knowledge somehow also has semantic or sociolinguistic ties with magic.

In the field of computing, these “wizards” were traditionally actual people. A more “fun” term compared to the mundane-sounding “technical experts”, these wizards would manually help you install your computer programs. During the advent of personal or home computers, many people without knowledge of computing or how to use computers would turn to these experts for help. This computational process executed by these experts were likened to the sorcerer’s (or wizard’s) idea of a spirit or magic. This was mentioned (not verbatim) in the 1985 textbook called the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, also referred to as the Wizard Book.

As home computing grew in popularity, so too did the scale of various software usage. Productivity and office, gaming, music and art production, and other kinds of programs grew in diversity, and usage numbers. Technical experts alone could not handle this growing demand to assist to install software, or handle certain computational processes. Something had to be done to simplify certain computational processes.

In the early 1990s, Microsoft began dabbling around with these software wizards. Perhaps one of the first examples is a desktop publishing software called Microsoft Publisher, which was targeted at generic users who might not have graphic design skills, but wanted to create aesthetically appealing documents. Many tools available to customise and design stuff might not be directly comprehensible to the end user. And so, this was streamlined, by the use of a “Page Wizard”. By giving the user a set of forms, perhaps asking about what the user wanted to create, and the purpose, a template was generated for the user, which could be further customised with the provided tools and options. This essentially described what a wizard now was. To learn from the user and anticipate their later actions, and guide the user through structuring and sequencing what otherwise would be complex processes.

This carried on into the installation wizard we are so familiar today. Previously, specific commands had to be entered and executed sequentially to ensure a program installed, and being installed correctly was not quite a guarantee. A wizard would simplify this process into discrete installation steps for the end user to click through and customise things like installation location, and which features of the application they do and do not want.

Today, a wizard, in computers, is generally a user interface presenting a dialogue box to guide the user to install or configure a program through small steps. Some have criticised it for segregating beginner and expert users, or just a patch for “bad interface”. But for people who crave simplicity, this detail would just pass them by.

Extending this, some Linux distros also refer to such wizards as “druids”, some of which might have a similar mechanism to installing programs as how wizards do in Windows. Druids were known as religious leaders in Celtic cultures, often highly regarded in those societies. It could carry the connotation of “wise man” as in the word “wizard” as well. But the Mac equivalent was a bit less magical. Called “assistants”, these programs similar in function with their Linux and Windows counterparts were introduced in Mac OS 8.0. Anyway, this has been a dive in a rather curious quirk in our language, and how existing words could gain newer meanings over time.


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