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.”
Driving Windows in new
New demands and form factors also drove Windows in new directions. Gateways Elsasser pointed to the push for three-dimensional capabilities and the development of tablet PCs as examples where the operating system evolved to fit the needs of OEMs.
In addition, Moores Law—which states that chip transistor counts will double every two years—has impacted the operating system, McClintock said. “Much more memory, much more storage and much more processing capabilities,” he said.
During Windows 20-year history, there have been a number of milestones for OEMs. The first came in 1990, with the release of Windows 3.0 for the desktop. It offered a strong GUI and really began to exploit the underlying power of the processors. “People gave big wow reactions when they saw it,” said Curt Jones, director of storage software for HPs ISS group, in Houston.
Gateways Elsasser said the GUI—with its more intuitive operating environment—brought consumers to the PC, giving them confidence in their ability to learn how to use the machines.
“You couldnt just walk up to a computer with a DOS prompt and have any success,” Elsasser said. “Youd fail, and someone would have to train you. If you walked up to a Windows machine, the chance of success was high.”
Features such as the volume control that looked like a knob youd see on a radio fueled that feeling. “Youd look at it and say, I know what it is; Ive seen it before. Ive had success with it, and I can do it again,” Elsasser said.
The releases of Windows NT 3.5 for servers and workstations in 1993 and Windows 2000 seven years later were big jumps forward for enterprise hardware. The latter introduced “a fundamental set of changes” that helped Windows grow from a PC operating system to a strong one for servers, including the ability to support systems with more than four processors, said IBMs Brown in Armonk, N.Y.
Each one of the major releases has also meant a lot of work—and stress—for the OEMs leading up to the release date, particularly since there were times when the release dates were changed at the last minute.
Elsasser, who was then with eMachines Inc.—which was bought last year by Gateway—recalled the months leading up to the release of Windows XP in October 2001. eMachines, which sold its PCs through retail stores, ran on a cycle where it would sell all its PCs during a fiscal quarter and then bring new ones to the retailers for the next quarter. The release of XP coincided with the beginning of the holiday buying season, a crucial time of the year for PC vendors.
The release of the XP disks to OEMs was running late, and eMachines, desperate to get the disks to start loading XP onto its holiday PCs, brought a helicopter to Microsofts Redmond, Wash., campus. When the disks were finally released, the helicopter flew them back to eMachines manufacturing sites, where employees, working day and night, used them to create images to load onto the PCs.
The company also flew employees to Asia to oversee the shipping schedule of the systems in that region.
“We were only one of two vendors to have systems ready for retail on the day [XP] was launched,” Elsasser said. “When you get to one of these [major] refreshes, it really becomes a macro project.”