30 Years Ago: Windows Evolved Slowly Before Microsoft Got It Right

By Eric Lundquist  |  Posted 2013-08-21

30 Years Ago: Windows Evolved Slowly Before Microsoft Got It Right

Microsoft really started on its course toward great fortune and power when Windows 1.01 arrived in 1985. Since then, Microsoft and Windows have been indivisibly intertwined.

There were indeed earlier prototype versions of Windows, and there were lots of other graphical user interfaces, including those from Apple, Atari, Quarterdeck and IBM. But Windows propelled Microsoft to become the largest personal computer software vendor, a record setter in market capitalization at $618 billion in 1999 that made billionaires by the batch.

That's not bad for a product that was so late to market that it made the term "vaporware" a permanent part of the technology dictionary because it took so many tries before Microsoft got it right.

PC Week CoverWhen PC Week started in 1984, the tagline read, "The News Weekly for IBM System Microcomputers." The lead story was about graphics being added to an IBM 3270 PC, a PC that was designed to emulate a 3270 mainframe terminal. There was no mention of Microsoft, no mention of Apple and reading that first regular PC Week issue you'd think it was all about IBM—which mostly it was.

The history of Windows also traces the rise and fall of the love affair between Microsoft and IBM. The two companies were close in the early PC-DOS days. But the relationship turned frosty when it became clear that Microsoft was seizing control of the PC operating system market with MS-DOS and later Windows.

It finally ended with a bitter divorce in 1991 when IBM introduced the OS/2 PC operating system in a failed attempt to assert its independence from Microsoft in the enterprise market.

That history is also replete with early clashes between Apple and Microsoft over similarities between Windows and the Mac interface that were difficult to dismiss as happenstance.

Although it's sometimes forgotten, the rise of Windows was also about the rise of high-tech marketing, where it was possible to build up interest in a product that wouldn't reach the market in a usable form for years. But Microsoft was able to use its marketing machine to influence the influencers and get consumers demanding Windows even though they had no idea what they were asking for.

Here is a brief history of the major Windows releases from my perspective. Windows 1.01 was essentially a front end to the MS-DOS operating system. That command prompt never really disappeared in subsequent releases, but the difficulty of tacking Windows onto DOS meant for a buggy ride. Those bugs were not really (mostly) squashed until Windows 3.1 in 1992.


30 Years Ago: Windows Evolved Slowly Before Microsoft Got It Right

In the intervening years, there were a lot more versions as Windows had to keep evolving to become more stable and usable. Windows 3.0, which was released in May 1990, is credited as being the first truly practical and widely used version of Microsoft's graphical operating system.

But I've felt it was Windows 3.1, released in April 1992, that brought Windows to the masses. This version made the path ready for Windows 95, which was introduced in 1995 amid great fanfare and long lines of consumers worldwide anxious to get their hands on the product. Windows 95 was the highpoint for the operating system as a symbol of graphical desktop computing's mass appeal.

The greatest technology advance was Windows NT, developed by former Digital Equipment Corp. engineer David Cutler, as the portability and stability of NT (introduced in 1993) set the standard for operating systems for workstations and servers.

Windows XP (built on the NT kernel) remains widely used today despite its impending end of life next year.

However, Windows' misses were as many as its hits. Microsoft Bob (a graphical interface no one wanted) became a standard joke for PC Week's Spencer Katt cartoons. Windows 2000, Windows Vista and it is looking like Windows 8 will be remembered more for the disappointment than the excitement.

Microsoft may have had both hits and misses regarding Windows, but from those early 1980s versions of Windows on, the company developed and deployed marketing strategies that are still being followed. Microsoft and its ever present PR agency Waggener Edstrom, founded in 1983, developed (or borrowed from Apple's PR guru Regis McKenna) the concept of identifying the technology influencers and then mounting campaigns to influence the influencers. This included keeping dossiers (one famously leaked to a Wired reporter in 2007).

Windows and Microsoft remain intertwined. But the world is clearly moving on to cloud computing, mobile operating systems, smartphones and tablets—areas where Microsoft is playing catch-up yet again. Still, the company's most recently introduced cloud computing product is Windows Azure instead of Microsoft Azure. It could be time to unwind the inseparable the relationship between Windows and Microsoft.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm, which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.


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