Jan 12, 2020
Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate the future! Today we’re going to look at one of the more underwhelming operating systems released: Windows 1.0. Doug Englebart released the NLS, or oN-Line System in 1968. It was expensive to build, practically impossible to replicate, and was only made possible by NASA and ARPA grants. But it introduced the world to the computer science research community to what would be modern video monitors, windowing systems, hypertext, and the mouse. Modern iterations of these are still with us today, as is a much more matured desktop metaphor. Some of his research team ended up at Xerox PARC and the Xerox Alto was released in 1973, building on many of the concepts and continuing to improve upon them. They sold about 2,000 Altos for around $32,000. As the components came down in price, Xerox tried to go a bit more mass market with the Xerox Star in 1981. They sold about 25,000 for about half the price. The windowing graphics got better, the number of users were growing, the number of developers were growing, and new options for components were showing up all over the place. Given that Xerox was a printing company, the desktop metaphor continued to evolve. Apple released the Lisa in 1983. They sold 10,000 for about $10,000. Again, the windowing system and desktop metaphor continued on and Apple quickly released the iconic Mac shortly thereafter, introducing much better windowing and a fully matured desktop metaphor, becoming the first computer considered mass market that was shipped with a graphical user interface. It was revolutionary and they sold 280,000 in the first year. The proliferation of computers in our daily lives and the impact on the economy was ready for the j-curve. And while IBM had shown up to compete in the PC market, they had just been leapfrogged by Apple. Jobs would be forced out of Apple the following year, though. By 1985, Microsoft had been making software for a long time. They had started out with BASIC for the Altair and had diversified, bringing BASIC to the Mac and releasing a DOS that could run on a number of platforms. And like many of those early software companies, it could have ended there. In a masterful stroke of business, Bill Gates ended up with their software on the IBM PCs that Apple had just basically made antiques - and they’d made plenty of cash off of doing so. But then Gates sees Visi On at COMDEX and it’s not surprise that the Microsoft version of a graphical user interface would look a bit like Visi, a bit like what Microsoft had seen from Xerox PARC on a visit in 1983, and of course, with elements that were brought in from the excellent work the original Mac team had made. And of course, not to take anything away from early Microsoft developers, they added many of their own innovations as well. Ultimately though, it was a 16-bit shell that allowed for multi-tasking and sat on top of the Microsoft DOS. Something that would continue on until the NT lineage of operating systems fully supplanted the original Windows line, which ended with Millineum Edition. Windows 1.0 was definitely a first try. IBM TopView had shipped that year as well. I’ve always considered it more of a windowing system, but it allowed multitasking and was object-oriented. It really looked more like a DOS menu system. But the Graphics Environment Manager or GEM had direct connections to Xerox PARC through Lee Lorenzen. It’s hard to imagine but at the time CP/M had been the dominant operating system and so GEM could sit on top of it or MS-DOS and was mostly found on Atari computers. That first public release was actually 1.01 and 1.02 would come 6 months later, adding internationalization with 1.03 continuing that trend. 1.04 would come in 1987 adding support for Via graphics and a PS/2 mouse. Windows 1 came with many of the same programs other vendors supplied, including a calculator, a clipboard viewer, a calendar, a pad for writing that still exists called Notepad, a painting tool, and a game that went by its original name of Reversi, but which we now call Othello. One important concept is that Windows was object-oriented. As with any large software project, it wouldn’t have been able to last as long as it did if it hadn’t of been. One simplistic explanation for this paradigm is that it had an API and there was a front-end that talked to the kernel through those APIs. Microsoft hadn’t been first to the party and when they got to the party they certainly weren’t the prettiest. But because the Mac OS wasn’t just a front-end that made calls to the back-end, Apple would be slow to add multi-tasking support, which came in their OS 5, in 1987. And they would be slow to adopt new technology thereafter, having to bring Steve Jobs back to Apple because they had no operating system of the future, after failed projects to build one. Windows 1.0 had executable files (or exe files) that could only be run in the Windowing system. It had virtual memory. It had device drivers so developers could write and compile binary programs that could communicate with the OS APIs, including with device drivers. One big difference - Bill Atkinson and Andy Hertzfeld spent a lot of time on frame buffers and moving pixels so they could have overlapping windows. The way Windows handled how a window appeared were in .ini (pronounced like any) files and that kind of thing couldn’t be done in a window manager without clipping, or leaving artifacts behind. And so it was that, by the time I was in college, I was taught by a professor that Microsoft had stolen the GUI concept from Apple. But it was an evolution. Sure, Apple took it to the masses but before that, Xerox had borrowed parts from NLS and NLS had borrowed pointing devices from Whirlwind. And between Xerox and Microsoft, there had been IBM and GEM. Each evolved and added their own innovations. In fact, many of the actual developers hopped from company to company, spreading ideas and philosophies as they went. But Windows had shipped. And when Jobs called Bill Gates down to Cupertino, shouting that Gates had ripped off Apple, Gates responded with one of my favorite quotes in the history of computing: "I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it." The thing I’ve always thought was missing from that Bill Gates quote is that Xerox had a rich neighbor they stole the TV from first, called ARPA. And the US Government was cool with it - one of the main drivers of decades of crazy levels of prosperity filling their coffers with tax revenues. And so, the next version of Windows, Windows 2.0 would come in 1987. But Windows 1.0 would be supported by Microsoft for 16 years. No other operating system has been officially supported for so long. And by 1988 it was clear that Microsoft was going to win this fight. Apple filed a lawsuit claiming that Microsoft had borrowed a bit too much of their GUI. Apple had licensed some of the GUI elements to Microsoft and Apple identified over 200 things, some big, like title bars, that made up a copyrightable work. That desktop metaphor that Susan Kare and others on the original Mac team had painstakingly developed. Well, turns out that they live on in every OS because Judge Vaughn Walker on the Ninth Circuit threw out the lawsuit. And Microsoft would end up releasing Windows 3 in 1990, shipping on practically every PC built since. And so I’ll leave this story here. But we’ll do a dedicated episode for Windows 3 because it was that important. Thank you to all of the innovators who brought these tools to market and ultimately made our lives better. Each left their mark with increasingly small and useful enhancements to the original. We owe them so much no matter the platform we prefer. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in for this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky to have you.