The Computer World as We Know It

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2010-05-21

The Day Microsoft Went Hollywood with Windows 3.0

When Microsoft introduced Windows 3.0 on May 22, 1990, it did more than simply roll out a new product, it started the brief era of the rock star PC operating system.

Microsoft was so determined to make Windows 3.0 the biggest hit in the PC industry that that it turned the introduction into something more like a major Hollywood film debut than a computer product launch. Microsoft easily spent millions on formal product rollouts, customer briefings and parties around the country to maximize media attention.

This was before the days of ubiquitous Internet access. The virtual company was just a concept. It didn't exist yet. If a computer company wanted to sell a product, the company had to go visit the customer or bring all the customers to see the product. Hence Microsoft had no reason to be stingy about spending money on blockbuster events to promote a product it was counting on to secure its growth and prosperity for the next decade.

Windows 3.0 had to succeed. The rapidly aging MS-DOS simply didn't have the features and strength to support the new applications for business and home that would be possible on the latest Intel processors, the 386 and the 486 that was coming fast on its heels.

The computer industry was still at the heights of the PC boom in 1990. Expense accounts were generous. It was long before people worried about airline-borne terrorist attacks, expensive air travel reservations or endless air terminal security lines. People didn't hesitate to fly halfway across the country to witness the introduction of a new PC operating system.

What was true for the computer industry at large, was also true for PC Week, the predecessor publication of today's eWEEK published by Ziff Davis. It seemed like more than half of PC Week's numerous editorial staff boarded the New York shuttle from Boston to LaGuardia airport to attend the rollout events at a midtown hotel.

I was there to cover the software development and enterprise software industry angle of the news-my beat at the time. But no matter where the event was held in the country and no matter what the excuse for being there, people mainly came to party; to rub shoulders with the computer industry rock stars of the day, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and to take part in something they were made to believe was history in the making.

And it was a history-making event in the sense that Windows 3.0 triggered an economic phenomenon-the mass migration of millions of PC users from the old text-based MS-DOS to a graphical interface that made computers easier and arguably more fun to use while making computer users more productive at work.

The Computer World as We Know It


It triggered an explosion of new software development. Companies had to rewrite all their existing MS-DOS applications if they wanted to stay in business. And a few weak companies ended up failing because they couldn't bear the cost of upgrading their software to Windows. New companies sprung up to produce and market a whole universe of new Windows applications.

Individuals and companies that had been working for years with the older Intel 8088 and 80286 computers decided that the time was right to upgrade to the latest 386 laptops and desktops. This added even more impetus to the PC boom of the early 90s.

The introduction also set the stage for the rise of the Internet as global computing, multimedia and communication platform for the masses. While the Internet certainly existed before Windows, it took a Windows 3.0 application, Netscape Navigator, to give people their first convenient opportunity to explore the Internet and the many new Websites that were springing up in the mid-1990s.

Microsoft continued the Hollywood-style Windows product introductions through the '90s with the release of Windows 95 and Windows 98. But by the late '90s the glitz and the novelty was starting to wear off. Windows and Microsoft had won. The operating system was running on virtually every PC that wasn't named Apple Macintosh. Microsoft had become one of the richest companies in the world and Bill Gates the richest man in the world from sales of Windows and Windows applications.

And by that time, Microsoft realized it had other issues to worry about. It had paid so much attention to selling Windows that it failed to respond quickly to the huge new opportunity and challenge of the Internet. When it looked up, the company discovered that the dominant Web browser on the Internet was from a company named Netscape, not Microsoft, and Gates wanted to fix that problem fast.

By the late '90s, Windows had become the favorite target of scammers and malicious hackers creating viruses, Trojans and worms designed to take down networks and destroy data, and later to steal data. Microsoft had to make security programming the top priority for Windows and its applications.

The introductions of future versions of Windows became less ostentatious, more businesslike and less expensive. Yes, there was plenty of media hoopla and anticipation, but Microsoft no longer had to give Windows an aura of glamour and invincibility. It just had to prove that it was secure, efficient and reliable, and that increasingly became a problem as PC users and corporate IT managers grew weary of battling constant security threats.

By the early 2000s the computer industry was also changing. The industry matured in the economic sense, not just in the sense of years or experience. The PC industry was consolidating. It had gone through the dot-com boom and bust and that had finally convinced everybody that when it came to computing and the Internet, the sky was no longer the limit. The computer industry was bound by the same economic laws as any other. There were fewer companies, fewer jobs, fewer new products-and seemingly-fewer fresh ideas.

These days there really is only one place left to experience, although in a somewhat more circumscribed way, the excitement and hype of those old Microsoft Windows introductions of the 1990s. You have to get one of those much more scarce invitations to one of Apple's latest product introductions.

Rocket Fuel