If Windows Had Never Happened ...

Opinion: Microsoft has made it difficult-but not impossible-to imagine life without the OS.

In Fritz Leibers 1958 short story, "Try and Change the Past," a man gains unauthorized access to a time machine.

He tries to rearrange events to prevent his own death from a bullet between the eyes.

He gives up when he sees himself die of a micrometeorite impact in precisely the same place. He decides that events have an inertia that people cant hope to overcome.

Trying to imagine a world without Microsoft Corp.s Windows invites the same suspicion of inevitability. Anything so transforming and so pervasive was perhaps simply meant to be—but perhaps not.

Windows certainly wasnt greeted as inevitable when it was proposed in the autumn of 1983. It seemed an outrageously ambitious goal to construct a universal software layer on top of the IBM PC platform, infamous for its low-level quirks.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more of Peter Coffees views on Microsofts Windows empire and its effect on innovation.

That was a time when a PC planning department could order a copy of Microsofts breakthrough Flight Simulator by calling it a "graphics compatibility diagnostic suite"—an insiders joke, but not a lie because thats the role it played by exploiting low-level hardware behaviors.

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Likewise, Digital Equipment Corp. and Texas Instruments Inc. pitched their DOS-compatible (but not IBM-compatible) PCs by touting their superior machine-specific versions of Lotus Development Corp.s 1-2-3 integrated spreadsheet, enabling use of more memory—up to 896KB on DECs Rainbow—by using less fragmented memory maps.

It was a competitive environment where hardware makers sought a hardware edge.

Nor was Microsoft yet the feared competitor it would become. An editorial cartoon in the earliest days of this publication (then called PC Week) depicted a boxing glove labeled "IBM" punching a caricature of Bill Gates, with an observer of the battle saying that Gates needed to learn who really set the industrys standards. As it turned out, there were plenty of learning opportunities to go around.

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