Jan 15, 2020
Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because by 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. In our previous episode, we covered Windows 1.0. Released in 1985, it was cute. Windows 2 came in 1987 and then Windows 3 came in 1990. While a war of GUIs had been predicted, it was clear by 1990 that Microsoft was winning this war. Windows 3.0 sold 10 million licenses. It was 5 megabytes fully installed and came on floppies. The crazy thing about Windows 3 is that it wasn’t really supposed to happen. IBM had emerged as a juggernaut in the PC industry, largely on the back of Microsoft DOS. Windows 1 and 2 were fine, but IBM seeing that Microsoft was getting too powerful would not run it on their computers. Instead, they began work on a new operating system called OS/2, which was initially released in 1987. But David Weise from the Windows team at Microsoft wanted to reboot the Windows project. He brought in Murray Sargent and the two started work in 1988. They added a debugger, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint, and I’m pretty sure everyone knew they were on to something big. IBM found out and Microsoft placated them by saying it would kill Windows after they spent all this money on it. You could tell with the way they upgraded the UI, with how they made memory work so much better, and with the massive improvements to multitasking. Lies. They added File Manager, which would later evolve into File Explorer. They added the Control Panel which lives on to the modern era of Windows and they made it look more like the one in the Mac OS at the time. They added the Program Manager (or progman.exe), parts of which would go on to Windows Explorer and other parts which would form the Start Menu in the future. But it survived until XP Service Pack 2. They brought us up to 16 simultaneous colors and added support for graphics cards that could give us 256 colors. Pain was upgraded to Painbrush and they outsourced some of the graphics for the famed Microsoft Solitaire to Susan Kare. They also added macros using a program called Recorder, which Apple released the year before with Macro Maker. They raised the price from $100 to $149.95. And they sold 4 million copies in the first year, a huge success at the time. They added a protected mode for applications, which had supposedly been a huge reason IBM insisted on working on OS/2. One result of all of this was that IBM and Microsoft would stop developing together and Microsoft would release their branch, then called Windows NT, in 1991. NT had a new 32-bit API. The next year they would release Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.1, which would sell another 3 million copies. This was the first time I took Windows seriously and it was a great release. They replaced Reverse with the now-iconic Minesweeper. They added menuing customization. They removed Real Mode. They added support to launch programs using command.com. They brought in TrueType fonts and added Arial, Courier New, and the Times New Roman fonts. They added multimedia support. And amongst the most important additions, they added the Windows Registry, which still lives on today. That was faster that combing through a lot of .ini files for settings. The Workgroups version also added SMB file sharing and supported NetBIOS and IPX networking. The age of the Local Area Network, or LAN, was upon us. You could even install Winsock to get the weird TCP/IP protocol to work on Windows. Oh and remember that 32-bit API, you could install the Win32 add-on to get access to that. And because the browser wars would be starting up, by 1995 you could install Internet Explorer on 3.1. I remember 3.11 machines in the labs I managed in college and having to go computer to computer installing the browser on each. And installing Mosaic on the Macs. And later installing Netscape on both. I seem to remember that we had a few machines that ran Windows on top of CP/M successor Dr DOS. Nothing ever seemed to work right for them, especially the Internets. So… Where am I going with this episode? Windows 3 set Microsoft up to finally destroy CP/M, protect their market share from Microsoft and effectively take over the operating system, allowing them to focus on adjacencies like Internet and productivity tools. This ultimately made Bill Gates the richest man in business and set up a massive ride in personal computing. But by the time Windows 95 was announced, enough demand had been generated to sell 40 million copies. Compaq, Dell, Gateway, HP, and many others had cannibalized the IBM desktop business. Intel had AMD nipping at their heels. Mother board, power supply, and other components had become commodities. But somehow, Microsoft had gone from being the cutesy little maker of BASIC to owning the market share for Operating systems with NT, Windows 95, 98, Millenium, 2000, XP, 7, 8, 10, and it wasn’t until Google made Android and ChromeOS. They did it, not because they were technologically the best solution available. Although arguably the APIs in early Windows were better than any other available solution. And developing Windows NT alongside 95 and on once they saw there would be a need for a future OS was a master-stroke. There was a lot of subterfuge and guile. And there were a lot of people burned during the development but there’s a distinct chance that the dominance of a single operating system really gave the humans the ability to focus on a single OS to care about and an explosion in the number of software titles. Once that became a problem, and was stifling innovation, Steve Jobs was back at Apple, Android was on the rise, and Linux was always an alternative for the hacker-types and given a good market potential it’s likely that someone could have built a great windowing system on top of it. Oh wait, they did. Many times. So whether we’re Apple die-hards, Linux blow-hards, crusty old Unix grey beards, or maybe hanging on to our silly CP/M machines to write scripts on, we still owe Microsoft a big thanks. Without their innovations the business world might have been fragmented so much on the operating system side that we wouldn’t have gotten the productivity levels we needed out of apps. And so Windows 95 replaced Windows 3, and Windows 3 rode off into the sunset. But not before leaving behind a legacy of the first truly dominant OS. Thanks for everything, Microsoft, the good and the bad. And thanks to you, sweet listeners. It’s been a blast. You’re the best. Unlike Windows 1. Till next time, have a great day!