It was a muddied, busy and, at times, confusing world for hardware makers and their customers before Microsoft Corp. came out with its Windows operating system.
Without a standard software platform to build on, OEMs were forced to build not only their machines but also components specific to the various programs out on the market. Every graphics program needed its own driver; every printer needed its own driver.
Windows changed all that, according to officials with systems makers. As Windows has evolved over the past two decades, it has created a standard operating environment that has enabled computer manufacturers to stop having to worry about ensuring that every box has the necessary drivers compatible with every program out there. Instead, they can now focus on the technologies that help them differentiate themselves from their competitors.
"[Microsoft has] created a standard driver model over the years," said Gary Elsasser, vice president of product development at Gateway Inc., in Irvine, Calif. "We now have base drivers for programs, and we all use them. As hardware makers, we no longer had to worry about it, and software makers didnt have to worry about drivers.
"Before, there was a printer driver for every printer. If you had a PC and bought a new printer, it wouldnt print [without the specific driver], or it couldnt print well. ... Thats history. Now you buy a printer, plug it in and it prints. People take it for granted today, but it was a major improvement."
Keith Brown, director of software for IBMs xSeries family of Intel Corp.-based servers, said Windows freed systems makers to concentrate on what they do best—build boxes and the supporting software.
"What it has done from an OEM perspective is given at least a base line of trust in the overall operating environment," said Brown. "You can really focus your expertise instead on your core competencies. ... Youve got a very strong standard bar to draw on."
The result also was greater confidence among users—if the box was carrying the Windows logo—and greater interoperability among computers made by the various OEMs, Brown said.
As the capabilities of the operating system and the programs it could run grew, they increased what the PC could do and the various roles the computer could play in the lives of consumers, fueling demand for PCs and expanding even further the markets for the boxes, Gateways Elsasser said. Fax machines, for example, for the most part can do only one thing, he said. But with the Windows operating system, the work of PCs can change depending on the programs the operating system is running.
"For PCs, [the future] is completely open-ended," Elsasser said. "We havent even come up with everything a PC can do."
But while Windows may have changed the environment for hardware makers, OEMs also have had significant influence on the way the operating system has evolved.
"Unlike the Unix community, which comprises several large competing companies, Microsofts broad product acceptance has enabled it to drive and define standards," said John McClintock, director of software for Hewlett-Packard Co.s Industry Standard Servers unit in Palo Alto, Calif. "However, it should be noted that hardware and software management also influenced the OS."
Hardware vendors drove Windows support for such features as RAID storage, hot-plug RAID memory and systems with eight processors, McClintock said. Manageability of the systems also has pushed Windows.
"With the introductions of servers running Windows, you suddenly had a paradigm change from servers that were one-to-one to servers that were one-to-many," McClintock said. "IT managers had to deal with large numbers of computers without someone sitting in front of each one. The system had to care for itself. ... Today, Windows has extensive management capabilities. It can throttle CPUs to lower power consumption and even shut down if thermal issues get to be too great. With the advent of sophisticated management processors such as HPs iLO [remote management feature], the OS provides a mechanism to communicate to the user even when the OS is in a reduced capability state."