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Monthly Archives: July 2018

Doing Windows, Part 6: Look and Feel

From left, Dan Fylstra of VisiCorp, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Gary Kildall of Digital Research in 1984. As usual, Gates looks rumpled, high-strung, and vaguely tortured, while Kildall looks polished, relaxed, and self-assured. (Which of these men would you rather chat with at a party?) Pictures like these perhaps reveal one of the key reasons that Gates consistently won against more naturally charismatic characters like Kildall: he personally needed to win in ways that they did not.

In the interest of clarity and concision, I’ve restricted this series of articles about non-Apple GUI environments to the efforts of Microsoft and IBM, making an exception to that rule only for VisiCorp’s Visi On, the very first product of its type. But, as I have managed to acknowledge in passing, those GUIs hardly constituted the sum total of the computer industry’s efforts in this direction. Among the more impressive and prominent of what we might label the alternative MS-DOS GUIs was a product from none other than Gary Kildall and Digital Research — yes, the very folks whom Bill Gates once so slyly fleeced out of a contract to provide the operating system for the first IBM PC.

To his immense credit, Kildall didn’t let the loss of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity get him down for very long. Digital Research accepted the new MS-DOS-dominated order with remarkable alacrity, and set about making the best of things by publishing system software, such as the multitasking Concurrent DOS, which tried to do the delicate dance of improving on MS-DOS while maintaining compatibility. In the same spirit, they made a GUI of their own, called the “Graphics Environment Manager” — GEM.

After futzing around with various approaches, the GEM team found their muse on the day in early 1984 when team-member Darrell Miller took Apple’s new Macintosh home to show his wife: “Her eyes got big and round, and she hates computers. If the Macintosh gets that kind of reaction out of her, this is powerful.” Miller is blunt about what happened next: “We copied it exactly.” When they brought their MacOS clone to the Fall 1984 Comdex, Steve Jobs expressed nothing but approbation. “You did a great job!” he said. No one from Apple seemed the slightest bit concerned at this stage about the resemblance to the Macintosh, and GEM hit store shelves the following spring as by far the most elegant and usable MS-DOS GUI yet.

A few months later, though, Apple started singing a very different tune. In the summer of 1985, they sent a legal threat to Digital Research which included a detailed list of all the ways that they believed GEM infringed on their MacOS copyrights. Having neither the stomach nor the cash for an extended court battle and fearing a preliminary injunction which might force them to withdraw GEM from the market entirely, Digital Research caved without a fight. They signed an agreement to replace the current version of GEM with a new one by November 15, doing away with such distinctive and allegedly copyright-protected Macintosh attributes as “the trash-can icon, the disk icons, and the close-window button in the upper-left-hand corner of a window.” They also agreed to an “undisclosed monetary settlement,” and to “provide programming services to Apple at a reduced rate.”

Any chance GEM might have had to break through the crowded field of MS-DOS GUIs was undone by these events. Most of the third-party developers Digital Research so desperately needed were unnerved by the episode, abandoning any plans they might have hatched to make native GEM applications. And so GEM, despite being vastly more usable than the contemporaneous Microsoft Windows even in its somewhat bowdlerized post-agreement form, would go on to become just another also-ran in the GUI race.1

For the industry at large, the GEM smackdown was most significant as a sign of changing power structures inside Apple — changes which carried with them a new determination that others shouldn’t be allowed to rip off all of the Mac’s innovations. The former Pepsi marketing manager John Sculley was in the ascendant at Apple by the summer of 1985, Steve Jobs already being eased out the door. The former had been taught by the Cola Wars that a product’s secret formula was everything, and had to be protected at all costs. And the Macintosh’s secret formula was its beautiful interface; without it, it was just an overpriced chunk of workmanlike hardware — a bad joke when set next to a better, cheaper Motorola 68000-based computer like the new Commodore Amiga. The complaint against Digital Research was a warning shot to an industry that Sculley believed had gotten far too casual about throwing around phrases like “Mac-like.” “Apple is going after everybody,” warned one fearful software executive to the press. The relationship between Microsoft and Apple in particular was about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Said relationship had been a generally good one during the years when Steve Jobs was calling many of Apple’s shots. Jobs and Bill Gates, dramatically divergent in countless ways but equally ambitious, shared a certain esprit de corp born of having been a part of the microcomputer industry since before there was a microcomputer industry. Jobs genuinely appreciated his counterpart’s refusal to frame business computing as a zero-sum game between the Macintosh and the MS-DOS standard, even when provoked by agitprop like Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl advertisement. Instead Gates, contrary to his established popular reputation as the ultimate zero-sum business warrior, supported Apple’s efforts as well as IBM’s with real enthusiasm: signing up to produce Macintosh software two full years before the finished Mac was released, standing at Jobs’s side when Apple made major announcements, coming to trade shows conspicuously sporting a Macintosh tee-shirt. All indications are that the two truly liked and respected one another. For all that Apple and Microsoft through much of these two men’s long careers would be cast as the yin and yang of personal computing — two religions engaged in the most righteous of holy wars — they would have surprisingly few negative words to say about one another personally down through the years.

But when Steve Jobs decided or was forced to submit his resignation letter to Apple on September 17, 1985, trouble for Microsoft was bound to follow. John Sculley, the man now charged with cleaning up the mess Jobs had supposedly made of the Macintosh, enjoyed nothing like the same camaraderie with Bill Gates. He and his management team were openly suspicious of Microsoft, whose Windows was already circulating widely in beta form. Gates and others at Microsoft had gone on the record repeatedly saying they intended for Windows and the Macintosh to be sufficiently similar that they and other software developers would be able to port applications in short order between the two. Few prospects could have sounded less appealing to Sculley. Apple, whose products then as now enjoyed the highest profit margins in the industry thanks to their allure as computing’s hippest luxury brand, could see their whole business model undone by the appearance of cheap commodity clones that had been transformed by the addition of Windows into Mac-alikes. Of course, one look at Windows as it actually existed in 1985 could have disabused Sculley of the notion that it was likely to win any converts among people who had so much as glanced at MacOS. Still, he wasn’t happy about the idea of the Macintosh losing its status, now or in the future, as the only GUI environment that could serve as a true, comprehensive solution to all of one’s computing needs. So, within weeks of Jobs’s departure, feeling his oats after having so thoroughly cowed Digital Research, he threatened to sue Microsoft as well for copying the “look and feel” of the Macintosh in Windows.

He really ought to have thought things through a bit more before doing so. Threatening Bill Gates was always a dangerous game to play, and it was sheer folly when Gates had the upper hand, as he largely did now. Apple was at their lowest ebb of the 1980s when they tried to tell Microsoft that Windows would have to be cancelled or radically redesigned to excise any and all similarities to the Macintosh. Sales of the Mac had fallen to some 20,000 units per month, about one-fifth of Apple’s pre-launch projections for this point. The stream of early adopters with sufficient disposable income to afford the pricey gadget had ebbed away, and other potential buyers had started asking what you could really do with a Macintosh that justified paying two or three times as much for it as for an equivalent MS-DOS-based computer. Aldus PageMaker, the first desktop-publishing package for the Mac, had been released the previous summer, and would eventually go down in history as the product that, when combined with the Apple LaserWriter printer, saved the platform by providing a usage scenario that ugly old MS-DOS clearly, obviously couldn’t duplicate. But the desktop-publishing revolution would take time to show its full import. In the meantime, Apple was hard-pressed, and needed Microsoft — one of the few major publishers of business software actively supporting the Mac — far too badly to go around issuing threats to them.

Gates responded to Sculley’s threat with several of his own. If Sculley followed through with a lawsuit, Gates said, he’d stop all work at Microsoft on applications for the Macintosh and withdraw those that were already on store shelves, treating business computing henceforward as exactly the zero-sum game which he had never believed it to be in the past. This was a particularly potent threat in light of Microsoft’s new Excel spreadsheet, which had just been released to rave reviews and already looked likely to join PageMaker as the leading light among the second generation of Mac applications. In light of the machine’s marketplace travails, Apple was in no position to toss aside a sales driver like that one, the first piece of everyday Mac business software that was not just as good as but in many ways quite clearly better than equivalent offerings for MS-DOS. Yet Gates wouldn’t stop there. He would also, he said, refuse to renew Apple’s license to use Microsoft’s BASIC on their Apple II line of computers. This was a serious threat indeed, given that the aged Apple II line was the only thing keeping Apple as a whole afloat as the newer, sexier Macintosh foundered. Duly chastised, Apple backed down quickly — whereupon Gates, smelling blood in the water, pressed his advantage relentlessly, determined to see what else he could get out of finishing the fight Sculley had so foolishly begun.

One ongoing source of frustration between the two companies, dating back well into the days of Steve Jobs’s power and glory, was the version of BASIC for the Mac which Microsoft had made available for purchase on the day the machine first shipped. In the eyes of Apple and most of their customers, the mere fact of its existence on a platform that wasn’t replete with accessible programming environments was its only virtue. In practice, it didn’t work all that differently from Microsoft’s Apple II BASIC, offering almost no access to the very things which made the Macintosh the Macintosh, like menus, windows, and dialogs. A second release a year later had improved matters somewhat, but nowhere near enough in most people’s view. So, Apple had started work on a BASIC of their own, to be called simply MacBASIC, to supersede Microsoft’s. Microsoft BASIC for the Macintosh was hardly a major pillar of his company’s finances, but Bill Gates was nevertheless bothered inordinately by the prospect of it being cast aside. “Essentially, since Microsoft started their company with BASIC, they felt proprietary towards it,” speculates Andy Hertzfeld, one of the most important of the Macintosh software engineers. “They felt threatened by Apple’s BASIC, which was a considerably better implementation than theirs.” Gates said that Apple would have to kill their own version of BASIC and — just to add salt to the wound — sign over the name “MacBASIC” to Microsoft if they wished to retain the latter’s services as a Mac application developer and retain Microsoft BASIC on the Apple II.

And that wasn’t even the worst form taken by Gates’s escalation. Apple would also have to sign what amounted to a surrender document, granting Microsoft the right to create “derivative works of the visual displays generated by Apple’s Lisa and Macintosh graphic-user-interface programs.” The specific “derivative works” covered by the agreement were the user interfaces already found in Microsoft Windows for MS-DOS and five Microsoft applications for the Macintosh, including Word and Excel. The agreement provided Microsoft with nothing less than a “non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, non-transferable license to use those derivative works in present and future software programs, and to license them to and through third parties for use in their software programs.” In return, Microsoft would promise only to support Word and Excel on the Mac until October 1, 1986 — something they would certainly have done anyway. Gates was making another of those deviously brilliant tactical moves that were already establishing his reputation as the computer industry’s most infamous villain. Rather than denying that a “visual display” could fall under the domain of copyright, as many might have been tempted to do, he would rather affirm the possibility while getting Apple to grant Microsoft an explicit exception to being bound by it. Thus Apple — or, for that matter, Microsoft — could continue to sue MacOS’s — and potentially Windows’s — competitors out of existence while Windows trundled on unmolested.

Sculley called together his management team to discuss what to do about this Apple threat against Microsoft that had suddenly boomeranged into a Microsoft threat against Apple. Most at the meeting insisted that Gates had to be bluffing, that he would never cut off several extant revenue streams just to spite Apple and support this long-overdue Windows product of his which had been an industry laughingstock for so long. But Sculley wasn’t sure; he kept coming back to the fact that Microsoft could undoubtedly survive without Apple, but Apple might not be able to survive without Microsoft — at least not right now, given the Mac’s current travails. “I’m not ready to bloody the company,” he said, and signed the surrender document two days after Windows 1.01 first appeared in its boxed form at the Fall 1985 Comdex show’s Microsoft Roast. His tone toward Gates now verged on pleading: “What I’m really asking for, Bill, is a good relationship. I’m glad to give you the rights to this stuff.”

After the full scale of what John Sculley had given away to Bill Gates became clear, Apple fans started drawing pointed comparisons between Sculley and Neville Chamberlain. As it happened, Sculley’s version of “peace for our time” would last scarcely longer than Chamberlain’s. And as for Gates… well, plenty of Apple fans would indeed soon be calling him the Adolf Hitler of the computer industry in the midst of plenty of other overheated rhetoric.

Bill Gates wrote a jubilant email to eleven colleagues at Microsoft’s partner companies, saying that he had “received a release from Apple for any possible copyright, trade-secret, or patent issue relating to our products, including Windows.” The people at Apple were less jubilant. “Everyone was somewhat disgusted over [the agreement],” remembers Donn Denman, the chief programmer of Apple’s much superior but shitcanned MacBASIC. Sculley could only say to him and his colleagues that “it was the right decision for the company. It was a business decision.” They didn’t find him very convincing. The bad feelings engendered by the agreement would never entirely go away, and the relationship between Apple and Microsoft would never be quite the same again — not even when Excel became one of the prime drivers of something of a Macintosh Renaissance in the following year.

We jump forward now to March 17, 1988, by which time the industry had changed considerably. Microsoft was still entangled with IBM in the development of OS/2 and its Presentation Manager, but was also continuing to push Windows, which had come out in a substantially revised version 2 some six months earlier. The Macintosh, meanwhile, had carved out a reasonable niche for itself as a tool for publishers and creative professionals of various stripes, even as the larger world of business-focused personal computing continued to run on MS-DOS.

Sitting in his office that day, Bill Gates agreed to take a call from a prominent technology journalist, who asked him if he had a comment to make about the new lawsuit from Apple against Microsoft. “Lawsuit? What lawsuit?” Gates asked. He had just met with Sculley the day before to discuss Microsoft’s latest Mac applications. “He never mentioned it to me. Not one word,” said Gates to the reporter on the other end of the line.

Sculley, it seemed, had decided not to risk losing his nerve again. Apple had gone straight to filing their lawsuit in court, without giving Microsoft so much as a warning, much less a chance to negotiate a remedy.2 It appeared that the latest version of Microsoft’s GUI environment for MS-DOS, which with its free-dragging and overlapping windows hewed much closer to the Macintosh than its predecessor, had both scared and enraged Sculley to such an extent that he had judged this declaration of war to be his only option. “Windows 2 is an unconscionable ripoff of MacOS,” claimed Apple. They demanded $50,000 per infringement per unit of Windows sold — adding up to a downright laughable total of $4.5 billion by their current best estimate — and the “impoundment and destruction” of all extant or future copies of Windows. Microsoft replied that Apple had signed over the rights to the Mac’s “visual displays” for use in Windows in 1985, and, even if they hadn’t, such things weren’t really copyrightable anyway.

So, who had the right of this thing? As one might expect, the answer to that question is far more nuanced than the arguments which either side would present in court. Writing years after the lawsuit had passed into history but repeating the arguments he had once made in court, Tandy Trower, the Windows project leader at Microsoft from 1985 to 1988, stated that “the allegation clearly had no merit as I had never intended to copy the Macintosh interface, was never given any directive to do that, and never directed my team to do that. The similarities between the two products were largely due to the fact that both Windows and Macintosh had common ancestors, that being many of the earlier windowing systems, such as those like Alto and Star that were created at Xerox PARC.” This is, to put it bluntly, nonsense. To deny the massive influence of the Macintosh on Windows is well-nigh absurd — although, I should be careful to say, I have no reason to believe that Trower makes his absurd argument out of anything but ignorance here. By the time he arrived on the Windows team, Apple’s implementation of the GUI had already been so thoroughly internalized by the industry in general that the huge strides it had made over the Xerox PARC model were being forgotten, and the profoundly incorrect and unfair meme that Apple had simply copied Xerox’s work and called it a day was already taking hold.

The people at Xerox PARC had indeed originated the idea of the GUI, but, as playing with a Xerox Alto emulator will quickly reveal, hadn’t been able to take it anywhere close to the Macintosh’s place of elegant, intuitive usability. By the time the Xerox GUI made its one appearance as a commercial product, in the form of the Xerox Star office system, it had actually regressed in at least one way even as it progressed in many others: overlapping windows, which had been possible in Xerox PARC’s Smalltalk environment, were not allowed on the Star. Tellingly, the aspect of Windows 1 which attracted the most derision back in the day, and which still makes it appear so hapless today, is a similar rigid system of tiled windows. (The presence of this retrograde-seeming element was largely thanks to Scott MacGregor, who arrived at Microsoft to guide the Windows project after having been one of the major architects of the Star.) Meanwhile, as I also noted in my little tour of Windows 1 in a previous article, many of those aspects of it which do manage to feel natural and intuitive today — such as the drop-down menus — are those that work more like the Macintosh than anything developed at Xerox PARC. In light of this reality, Microsoft’s GUI would only hew closer to the Mac model as time went on, for the incontrovertible reason that the Mac model was just better for getting real stuff done in the real world.

And there are plenty of other disconcerting points of similarity between early versions of MacOS and early versions of Windows. Right from the beginning, Windows 1 shipped with a suite of applets — a calculator, a “control panel” for system settings, a text editor that went by the name of “notepad,” etc. — that were strikingly similar to those included in MacOS. Further, if other members of the Windows team itself are to be believed, Microsoft’s Neil Konzen, a programmer intimately familiar with the Macintosh, duplicated some of MacOS’s internal structures so closely as to introduce some of the same bugs. In short, to believe that the Macintosh wasn’t the most important influence on the Windows user interface by far, given not only the similarities in the finished product but the knowledge that Microsoft had been working daily with the evolving Macintosh since January of 1982, is to actively deny reality out of either ignorance or some ulterior motive.

Which isn’t to say that Microsoft’s designers had no ideas of their own. In fact, some of those ideas are still in place in current versions of Windows. To take perhaps the most immediately obvious example, Windows then and now places its drop-down menus at the top of the windows themselves, while the Macintosh has a menu bar at the top of the screen which changes to reflect the currently selected window.3 And Microsoft’s embrace of the two-button mouse, contrasted with Apple’s stubborn loyalty to the one-button version of same, has sparked constant debate for decades. Still, differing details like these should be seen as exactly that in light of all the larger-scale similarities.

And yet just acknowledging that Windows was, shall we say, strongly influenced by MacOS hardly got to the bottom of the 1988 case. There was still the matter of that November 1985 agreement, which Microsoft was now waving in the face of anyone in the legal or journalistic professions who would look at it. The bone of contention between the two companies here was whether the “visual displays” of Windows 2 as well as Windows 1 were covered by the agreement. Microsoft naturally contended that they were; Apple contended that the Windows 2 interface had changed so much in comparison to its predecessor — coming to resemble the Macintosh even more in the process — that it could no longer be considered one of the specific “derivative works” to which Apple had granted Microsoft a license.

We’ll return to the court’s view of this question shortly. For now, though, let’s give Apple the benefit of the doubt as we continue to explore the full ramifications of their charges against Microsoft. The fact was that if one accepted Apple’s contention that Windows 2 wasn’t covered by the agreement, the questions surrounding the case grew more rather than less momentous. Could and should one be able to copyright the “look and feel” of a user interface, as opposed to the actual code used to create it? In pressing their claim, Apple was relying on an amorphous, under-explicated area of copyright law known as “visual copyright.”

In terms of computer software, the question of the bounds of visual copyright had been most thoroughly explored in the context of videogames. Back in 1980, Midway, a major producer of standup-arcade games, had sued a much smaller company called Dirkschneider for producing a clone of their popular game Galaxian. The judge in that case ruled in favor of Midway, formulating a new legal standard called the “Ten-foot Rule”: “If a reasonable person could not, at ten feet, tell the difference between two competitive products, then there was cause to believe an infringement was occurring.” Atari, the biggest videogame producer of all, then proceeded to use this precedent to pressure dozens of companies into withdrawing their clones of Atari games — in arcades, on game consoles, and on computers — from the market.

Somewhat later, in 1985, Brøderbund Software sued Kyocera for bundling with their printers an application called Printmaster, a thinly veiled clone of Brøderbund’s own hugely popular Print Shop package for making signs, greeting cards, and banners. They won their case the following year, with Judge William H. Orrick stating that Brøderbund’s copyright did indeed cover “the overall appearance, structure, and sequence” of screens in their software, and that Kyocera had thus infringed on same. Brøderbund’s Gary Carlston called the ruling “historic”: “If we don’t have copyright protection for our products, then it is going to be significantly more difficult to maintain a competitive advantage.” Encouraged by this ruling, in 1987 a maker of telecommunications software called Digital Communications Associates sued a company called Softklone Corporation — their name certainly didn’t help their cause — for copying the status display of their terminal software, and won their case as well. The Ten-Foot Rule, it seemed, could be successfully applied to software other than games. Both of these cases were cited by Apple’s lawyers in their own suit against Microsoft.

Brøderbund’s Print Shop side-by-side with Kyocera’s Printmaster.

Yet the Ten-Foot Rule, at least when applied to general-purpose software rather than games, struck many as deeply problematic. One of the most important advantages of a GUI was the way it made diverse types of software from diverse developers work and look the same, thereby keeping the user from having to relearn how to do the same basic tasks over and over again. What sort of chaos would follow if people started suing each other willy-nilly over this much-needed uniformity? And what did the Ten-Foot Rule mean for the many GUI environments, on MS-DOS and other platforms, that looked so similar to one another and to MacOS? That, of course, was the real crux of the matter for Microsoft and Apple as they faced one another in court.

The debate over the Ten-Foot Rule  and its potential ramifications wasn’t actually a new one, having already been taken up in public by the software industry before Apple filed their lawsuit. Fully thirteen months before that momentous day, Larry Tesler, an Apple executive, clashed heatedly with Bill Gates over this very issue at a technology conference. Tesler insisted that there was no problem inherent in applying the Ten-Foot Rule to operating systems and operating environments: “When someone comes up with a very good and popular look and feel, as we’ve done with the Macintosh, then they can make that available by licensing [it] to other people.”

But Gates was having none of this:

There’s no control of look and feel. I don’t know anybody who has asserted that things like drop-down menus and dialog boxes and just those general form-type aspects are subject to this look-and-feel stuff. Certainly it’s our view that the consistency of the user interface has become a very spreading thing, and that it’s open, generic technology. All of these approaches — how you click on [menu] bars, and certainly all those user-interface techniques and windows — there’s absolutely no restriction in any way on how people use those.

He thus ironically argued against the very premise of the 1985 agreement between Apple and Microsoft — that Apple had created a “visual display” subject to copyright protection, to which they were now granting Microsoft a license for certain products. But then, Gates seldom let deeply-held philosophical beliefs interfere with his pursuit of short-term advantage. In this latest debate as well, Gates’s arguments were undoubtedly self-serving, but they were no less valid in this case for being so. The danger he could point to if this sort of thing should spread was that of every innovative new application seeking copyright protection not just for its code but for the very ideas that made it up. Because form — i.e., look and feel — ideally followed function in software engineering. What would have happened if VisiCorp had been able to copyright the look and feel of the first spreadsheet? (VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3 looked pretty much identical from ten feet.) If WordStar had been able to copyright the look and feel of the word processor? If, to choose a truly absurd example, the first individual to devise a command-line interface back in the mists of time had been able to copyright that? It wasn’t at all clear where the lines could be drawn once the law started down this slippery slope. If Apple owned the set of ideas and approaches that everyone now thought of as the GUI in general, where did that leave the rest of the industry?

For this reason, Apple’s lawsuit, when it came, was greeted with deep concern even by many of those who weren’t particularly friendly with Microsoft. “Although Apple has a right to protect the results of its development and marketing efforts,” said the respected Silicon Valley pundit Larry Magid, “it should not try to thwart the obvious direction of the industry.” “If Apple is trying to push this as far as they appear to be trying to push it,” said Dan Bricklin of VisiCalc fame, “this is a sad day for the software industry in America.” More surprisingly, MacOS architect Andy Hertzfeld said that “in general, it’s a horrible thing. Apple could really end up hurting itself.” Most surprisingly of all, even Steve Jobs, now running a new company called NeXT, found Apple’s arguments as dangerous as they were unconvincing: “When we were developing the Macintosh, we kept in mind a famous quote of Picasso: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’ What do I think of the suit? I personally don’t understand it. Can I copyright gravity? No.”

Interestingly, the lawyers pressing the lawsuit on Apple’s behalf didn’t ask for a preliminary injunction that would have forced Microsoft to withdraw Windows from the market. Some legal watchers interpreted this fact as a sign that they themselves weren’t certain about the real merits of their case, and hoped to win it as much through bluster as finely-honed legal arguments. Ditto Apple’s request that the eventual trial be decided by a jury of ordinary people who might be prone to weigh the case based on everyday standards of “fairness,” rather than by a judge who would be well-versed in the niceties of the law and the full ramifications of a verdict against Microsoft.

At this point, and especially given those ramifications, one feels compelled to ask just why Apple chose at this juncture to embark on such a lengthy, expensive, and fraught enterprise as a lawsuit against the company that remained the most important single provider of serious business software for the Macintosh, a platform whose cup still wasn’t exactly running over with such things. By way of an answer, we should consider that John Sculley was as proud a man as most people who rise to his elevated status in business tend to be. The belief, widespread both inside and outside of Apple, that he had let Bill Gates bully, outsmart, and finally rob him blind back in 1985 had to rankle him badly. In addition, Apple in general had long nursed a grievance, unproductive but understandable, against all the outsiders who had copied the interface they had worked so long and hard to perfect; thus those threatened lawsuits against Digital Research and Microsoft all the way back in 1985. A wiser leader might have told his employees to take their competitors’ imperfect copying as proof of Apple’s superiority, might have exhorted them to look toward their next big innovation rather than litigate their innovations of the past. But, at least on March 17, 1988, John Sculley wasn’t that wiser leader. Thus this lawsuit, dangerous not just to Apple and Microsoft but to their entire industry.

Bill Gates, for his part, remained more accustomed to bullying than being bullied. It had been spelled out for him right there in the court filing that a loss to Apple would almost certainly mean the end of Windows, the operating environment which was quite possibly the key to Microsoft’s future. Even widespread fear of such an event, he realized, could be devastating to Windows’s — and thus to Microsoft’s — prospects. So, he struck back fiercely so as to leave no doubt where he stood. Microsoft filed a counter-suit in April of 1988, accusing Apple of breaking the 1985 agreement and of filing their own lawsuit in bad faith, in the hope of creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt around Windows and thus “wrongfully inhibiting” its commercial future. Adding weight to their argument that the original lawsuit was a form of business competition by other means was the fact that Apple was being oddly selective in choosing whom to sue over the alleged copyright violations. Asked why they weren’t going after other products just as similar to MacOS as Windows, such as IBM’s forthcoming OS/2 Presentation Manager, Apple refused to comment.

The first skirmishes took place in the press rather than a courtroom: Sculley accusing Gates of having tricked him into signing the 1985 agreement, Gates saying a contract was a contract, and what sort of a chief executive let himself be tricked anyway? The exchanges just kept getting uglier from there. The technology journalists, naturally, loved every minute of it, while the software industry was thrown into a tizzy, wondering what this would mean for Windows just as it finally seemed to be gaining some traction. Phillipe Kahn, CEO of Borland, described the situation in colorful if non-politically-correct language: it was like “waking up and finding your partner might have AIDS.”

The court case marched forward much more slowly than the tabloid war of words. Gates stated in a sworn deposition that “from a user’s perspective, the visual displays which appear in Windows 2 are virtually identical to those which appear in Windows 1.” “This assertion,” Apple replied, “is contradicted by even the most casual observation of the two products.” On March 18, 1989, Judge William Schwarzer of the Federal District Court in San Francisco marked the one-year anniversary of the case by ruling against Microsoft on this issue, stating that only those attributes of Windows 2 which had also existed in Windows 1 were covered by the 1985 agreement. This meant most notably that the newer GUI’s system of overlapping windows stood outside the boundaries of that document, and thus that, as the judge put it, the 1985 agreement alone “was not a complete defense” for Microsoft. It did not, he ruled, give Microsoft the right “to develop future versions of Windows as it pleases. What Microsoft received was a license to use the visual displays in the named software products as they appeared to the user in November 1985. The displays [of Windows 1 and Windows 2] are fundamentally different.” Microsoft’s stock price promptly plummeted by 27 percent. It was an undeniable setback. “Microsoft’s major defense has been shot down,” crowed Apple’s attorneys.

“Major” was perhaps not the right choice of adjectives, but certainly Microsoft’s simplest possible form of defense had proved insufficient to bail them out. It seemed that total victory could be achieved now only by invalidating the whole notion of visual copyright which underlay both the 1985 agreement and Apple’s lawsuit based on its violation. That meant a long, tough slog at best. And with Windows 3 — the version that Microsoft was convinced would finally be the breakthrough version — getting closer and closer to release and looking more and more like the Macintosh all the while, the stakes were higher than ever.

The question of look and feel and visual copyright as applied to software had implications transcending even the fate of Windows or either company. If Apple’s suit succeeded, it would transform the software business overnight, making it extremely difficult to borrow or build on the ideas of others in the way that software had always done in the past. Bill Gates was an avid student of business history. As was his wont, he now looked back to compare his current plight with that of an earlier titan of industry. Back in 1903, just as the Ford Motor Company was getting off the ground, Henry Ford had been hit with a lawsuit from a group of inventors claiming to own a patent on the very concept of the automobile. He had battled them for years, vowing to fight on even after losing in open court in 1909: “There will be no let-up in the legal fight,” he declared on that dark day. At last, in 1911, he won the case on appeal — winning it not only for Ford Motor Company but for the future of the automobile industry as a field of open competition. His own legal war had similar stakes, Gates believed, and he and Microsoft intended to prosecute it in equally stalwart fashion — to win it not just for themselves but for the future of the software industry. This was necessary, he wrote in a memo, “to help set the boundaries of where copyrights should and should not be applied. We will prevail.”

(Sources: the books The Making of Microsoft: How Bill Gates and His Team Created the World’s Most Successful Software Company by Daniel Ichbiah and Susan L. Knepper, Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, and Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company by Owen W. Linzmayer; Wall Street Journal of September 25 1987; Creative Computing of May 1985; InfoWorld of October 7 1985 and October 20 1986; MacWorld of October 1993; New York Times of March 18 1988 and March 18 1989.)


  1. Reworked to run under a 68000 architecture, GEM would enjoy some degree of sustained success in another realm: not as an MS-DOS-hosted GUI but as the GUI hosted in the Atari ST’s ROM. In this form, it would survive well into the 1990s. 

  2. Apple sued Hewlett-Packard at the same time, for an application called NewWave which ran on top of Windows and provided many of the Mac-like features, such as icons representing programs and disks and a desktop workspace, which Windows 2 alone still lacked. But that lawsuit would always remain a sideshow in comparison to the main event to whose fate its own must inevitably be tied. So, in the interest of that aforementioned clarity and concision, we won’t concern ourselves with it here. 

  3. Both Microsoft and Apple have collected reams of data which they claim prove that their approach is the best one. I do suspect, however, that the original impetus can be found in the fact that MacOS was originally a single-tasking operating system, meaning that only one menu bar would need to be available at any one time. Windows, on the other hand, was designed as a multitasking environment from the start. 

 

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Doing Windows, Part 5: A Second Try

The beginning of serious work on the operating system that would come to be known as OS/2 left Microsoft’s team of Windows developers on decidedly uncertain ground. As OS/2 ramped up, Windows ramped down in proportion, until by the middle of 1986 Tandy Trower had just a few programmers remaining on his team. What had once been Microsoft’s highest-priority project had now become a backwater. Many were asking what the point of Windows was in light of OS/2 and its new GUI, the Presentation Manager. Steve Ballmer, ironically the very same fellow who had played the role of Windows’s cheerleader-in-chief during 1984 and 1985, was now the most prominent of those voices inside Microsoft who couldn’t understand why Trower’s team continued to exist at all.

Windows survived only thanks to the deep-seated instinct of Bill Gates to never put all his eggs in one basket. Stewart Alsop II, editor-in-chief of InfoWorld magazine during this period:

I know from conversations with people at Microsoft in environments where they didn’t have to bullshit me that they almost killed Windows. It came down to Ballmer and Gates having it out. Ballmer wanted to kill Windows. Gates prevented him from doing it. Gates viewed it as a defensive strategy. Just look at Gates. Every time he does something, he tries to cover his bet. He tries to have more than one thing going at once. He didn’t want to commit everything to OS/2, just on the off chance it didn’t work. And in hindsight, he was right.

Gates’s determination to always have a backup plan showed its value around the beginning of 1987, when IBM informed Microsoft of their marketing plans for their new PS/2 hardware line as well as OS/2. Gates had, for very good reason, serious reservations about virtually every aspect of the plans which IBM now laid out for him, from the fortress of patents being constructed around the proprietary Micro Channel Architecture of the PS/2 hardware to an attitude toward the OS/2 software which seemed to assume that the new operating system would automatically supersede MS-DOS, just because of the IBM name. (How well had that worked out for TopView?) “About this time is when Microsoft really started to get hacked at IBM,” remembers Mark Mackaman, Microsoft’s OS/2 product manager at the time. IBM’s latest misguided plans, the cherry on top of all of Gates’s frustration with his inefficient and bureaucratic partners, finally became too much for him. Beginning to feel a strong premonition that the OS/2 train was going to run off the tracks alongside PS/2, he suddenly started to put some distance between IBM’s plans and Microsoft’s. After having all but ignored Windows for the past year, he started to talk about it in public again. And Tandy Trower found his tiny team’s star rising once again inside Microsoft, even as OS/2’s fell.

The first undeniable sign that a Windows rehabilitation had begun came in March of 1987, when Microsoft announced that they had sold 500,000 copies of the operating environment since its release in November of 1985. This number came as quite a surprise to technology journalists, whose own best guess would have pegged Windows’s sales at 10 percent of that figure at best. It soon emerged that Microsoft was counting all sorts of freebies and bundle deals as regular unit sales, and that even by their own most optimistic estimates no more than 100,000 copies of Windows had ever actually been installed. But no matter. For dedicated Microsoft watchers, their fanciful press release was most significant not for the numbers it trumpeted but as a sign that Windows was on again.

According to Paul and George Grayson, whose company Micrografix was among the few which embraced Windows 1, the public announcement of OS/2 and its Presentation Manager in April of 1987 actually lent Microsoft’s older GUI new momentum:

Everybody predicted when IBM announced OS/2 and PM [that] it was death for Windows developers. It was the exact opposite: sales doubled the next month. Everybody all of a sudden knew that graphical user interfaces were critical to the future of the PC, and they said, “How can I get one?”

You had better graphics, you had faster computers, you had kind of the acknowledgement that graphical user interfaces were in your future, you had the Macintosh being very successful. So you had this thing, this phenomenon called Mac envy, beginning to occur where people had PCs and they’d look at their DOS-based programs and say, “Boy, did I get ripped off.” And mice were becoming popular. People wanted a way to use mice. All these things just kind of happened at one moment in time, and it was like hitting the accelerator.

It did indeed seem that Opportunity was starting to knock — if Microsoft could deliver a version of Windows that was more compelling than the first. And Opportunity, of course, was one house guest whom Bill Gates seldom rejected. On October 6, 1987, Microsoft announced that Windows 2 would ship in not one but three forms within the next month or two. Vanilla Windows 2.03 would run on the same hardware as the previous version, while Windows/386 would be a special supercharged version made just for the 80386 CPU — a raised middle finger to IBM for refusing to let Microsoft make OS/2 an 80386-exclusive operating system.

But the most surprising new Windows product of all actually bore the name “Microsoft Excel” on the box. After struggling fruitlessly for the past two years to get people to write native applications for Windows, Microsoft had decided to flip that script by making a version of Windows that ran as part of an application. The new Excel spreadsheet would ship with what Microsoft called a “run-time” version of Windows 2, sufficient to run Excel and only Excel. When people tried Excel and liked it, they’d go out and buy a proper Windows in order to make all their computing work this way. That, anyway, was the theory.

Whether considered as Excel for Windows or Windows for Excel, Microsoft’s latest attempt to field a competitor to Lotus 1-2-3 already had an interesting history. It was in fact a latecomer to the world of MS-DOS, a port of a Macintosh product that had been very successful over the past two years.

After releasing a fairly workmanlike version of Multiplan for the Macintosh back in 1984, Microsoft had turned their attention to a more ambitious Mac spreadsheet that would be designed from scratch in order to take better advantage of the GUI. The wisdom of committing resources to such a move sparked considerable debate both inside and outside their offices, especially after Lotus announced plans of their own for a Macintosh product called Jazz.

Lotus 1-2-3 on MS-DOS was well on its way to becoming the most successful business application of the 1980s by combining a spreadsheet, a database, and a business-graphics application in one package. Now, Lotus Jazz proposed to add a word processor and telecommunications software to that collection on the Macintosh. Few gave Microsoft’s Excel much chance on the Mac against Lotus, the darling of the Fortune magazine set, a company which could seemingly do no wrong, a company which was arguably better known than Microsoft at the time and certainly more profitable. But when Jazz shipped on May 27, 1985, it was greeted with unexpectedly lukewarm reviews. It felt slow and painfully bloated, with an interface that felt more like a Baroque fugue than smooth jazz. For the first time since toppling VisiCalc from its throne as the queen of American business software, Lotus had left the competition an opening.

Excel for Mac shipped on September 30, 1985. In addition to feeling elegant, fast, and easy in contrast to the Lotus monstrosity, Microsoft’s latest spreadsheet was also much cheaper. It outdistanced its more heralded competitor in remarkably short order, quickly growing into a whale in the relatively small pond that was the Macintosh business-applications market. In December of 1985, Excel alone accounted for 36 percent of said market, compared to 9 percent for Jazz. By the beginning of 1987, 160,000 copies of Excel had been sold, compared to 10,000 copies of Jazz. And by the end of that same year, 255,000 copies of Excel had been sold — approximately one copy for every five Macs in active use.

Such numbers weren’t huge when set next to the cash cow that was MS-DOS, but Excel for the Macintosh was nevertheless a breakthrough product for Microsoft. Prior to it, system software had been their one and only forte; despite lots and lots of trying, their applications had always been to one degree or another also-rans, chasing but never catching market leaders like Lotus, VisiCorp, and WordPerfect. But the virgin territory of the Macintosh — ironically, the one business computer for which Microsoft didn’t make the system software — had changed all that. Microsoft’s programmers did a much better job of embracing the GUI paradigm than did their counterparts at companies like Lotus, resulting in software that truly felt like it was designed for the Macintosh from the start rather than ported over from another, more old-fashioned platform. Through not only Excel but also a Mac version of their Word word processor, Microsoft came to play a dominant role in the Mac applications market, with both products ranking among the top five best-selling Mac business applications more months than not during the latter 1980s. Now the challenge was to translate that success in the small export market that was the Macintosh to Microsoft’s sprawling home country, the land of MS-DOS.

On August 16, 1987, Microsoft received some encouraging news just as they were about to take up that challenge in earnest. For the first time ever, their total sales over the previous year amounted to enough to make them the biggest software company in the world, a title which they inherited from none other than Lotus, who had enjoyed it since 1984. The internal memo which Bill Gates wrote in response says everything about his future priorities. “[Lotus’s] big distinction of being the largest is being taken away,” he said, “before we have even begun to really compete with them.” The long-awaited version of Excel for PC compatibles would be launched with two important agendas in mind: to hit Lotus where it hurt, and to get Windows 2 — some form of Windows 2 — onto people’s computers.

Excel for Windows — or should we say Windows for Excel? — reached stores by the beginning of November 1987, to a press reception that verged on ecstatic. PC Magazine‘s review was typical:

Microsoft Excel, the new spreadsheet from Microsoft Corp., could be one of those milestone programs that change the way we use computers. Not only does Excel have a real chance of giving 1-2-3 its most serious competition since Lotus Development Corp. introduced that program in 1982, it could finally give the graphics interface a respectable home in the starched-shirt world of DOS.

For people who cut their teeth on 1-2-3 and have never played with a Mac, Excel looks more like a video game than a serious spreadsheet. It comes with a run-time version of Microsoft Windows, so it has cheery colors, scroll bars, icons, and menu bars. But users will soon discover the beauty of Windows. Since it treats the whole screen as graphics, you can have different spreadsheets and charts in different parts of the screen and you can change nearly everything about the way anything looks.

Excel won PC Magazine‘s award for “technical excellence” in 1987 — a year that notably included OS/2 among the field of competitors. The only thing to complain about was performance: like Windows itself, Excel ran like a dog on an 8088-based machine and sluggishly even on an 80286, requiring an 80386 to really unleash its potential.

Especially given the much greater demands Excel placed on its hardware, it would have to struggle long and hard to displace the well-entrenched Lotus 1-2-3, but it would manage to capture 12 percent of the MS-DOS spreadsheet market in its first year alone. In the process, the genius move of packaging Windows itself with by far the most exciting Windows application yet created finally caused significant numbers of people to actually start using Microsoft’s GUI, paving the road to its acceptance among even the most conservative of corporate users. Articles by starch-shirted Luddites asking what GUIs were really good for became noticeably less common in the wake of Excel, a product which answered that question pretty darn comprehensively.

Of course, Excel could never have enjoyed such success as the front edge of Microsoft’s GUI wedge had the version of Windows under which it ran not been much more impressive than the first one. Ironically, many of the most welcome improvements came courtesy of the people from the erstwhile Dynamical Systems Research, the company Microsoft had bought, at IBM’s behest, for their work on a TopView clone that could be incorporated into OS/2. After IBM gave up on that idea, most of the Dynamical folks wound up on the Windows team, where they did stellar work. Indeed, one of them, Nathan Myhrvold, would go on to became Microsoft’s chief software architect and still later head of research, more than justifying his little company’s $1.5 million purchase price all by himself. Take that, IBM!

From the user’s perspective, the most plainly obvious improvement in Windows 2 was the abandonment of Scott MacGregor’s pedantic old tiled-windows system and the embrace of a system of sizable, draggable, overlappable windows like those found on the Macintosh. For the gearheads, though, the real excitement lay in the improvements hidden under the hood of Windows/386, which made heavy use of the 80386’s “virtual” mode. Windows itself and its MS-DOS plumbing ran in one virtual machine, and each vanilla MS-DOS application the user spawned therefrom got another virtual machine of its own. This meant that as many MS-DOS applications and native Windows applications as one wished could now be run in parallel, under a multitasking model that was preemptive for the former and cooperative for the latter. The 640 K barrier still applied to each of the virtual machines and was thus still a headache, requiring the usual inefficient workarounds in the form of extended or expanded memory for applications that absolutely, positively had to have access to more memory. Still, having multiple 640 K virtual machines at one’s disposal was better than having just one.

Windows/386 was arguably the first version of Windows that wasn’t more trouble than it was worth for most users. If you had the hardware to run it, it was a very compelling product, even if the realities of the software market meant that you used it more frequently to multitask old-school MS-DOS applications than to run native Windows applications.

A Quick Tour of Windows/386 2.11

Microsoft themselves didn’t seem to entirely understand the relationship between Windows and OS/2’s Presentation Manager during the late 1980s. This version of Windows inexplicably has the “Presentation Manager” name as well on some of the disks. No wonder users were often confused as to which product was the real Microsoft GUI of the future. (Version 2.11 of Windows/386, the one we’re looking at here, was released some eighteen months after the initial 2.01 release, which I couldn’t ever manage to get running under emulation due to strange hard-drive errors. But the material differences between the two versions are relatively minor.)

Windows 2 remains less advanced than Presentation Manager in many ways, such as the ongoing lack of any concept of application installation. Without it, we’re still left to root around through the individual files on the hard disk in order to start applications.

Especially in the Windows/386 version, most of the really major improvement that came with Windows 2 are architectural enhancements that are hidden under the hood. There is, however, one glaring exception to that rule: the tiled windows are gone, replaced with a windowing system that works the way we still expect such things to work today. You can drag these windows, you can size them, and you can overlap them as you will.

The desktop concept is still lacking, but we’re making progress. Like in Windows 1, icons on the desktop only represent running applications that have been minimized. Unlike in Windows 1, these icons can now be dragged anywhere on the proto-desktop. From here, it would require only one more leap of logic to start using the icons to represent things other than running applications. Baby steps… baby steps.

Windows/386 removes some if by no means all of the sting from the 640 K barrier. Thanks to the 80386’s virtual mode, vanilla MS-DOS applications can now run in memory above the 640 K barrier, leaving the first 640 K free for Windows itself and native Windows applications. So few compelling examples of the latter existed during Windows/386’s heyday that the average user was likely to spend a lot more time running MS-DOS applications with it anyway. In this scenario, memory was ironically much less of problem than it would have been had the user attempted to run many native applications.

One of the less heralded of Microsoft’s genius marketing moves has been the use of Microsoft Excel as a sort of Trojan horse to get people using Windows. When installed on a machine without Windows, Excel also installs a “run-time” version of the operating environment sufficient only to run itself. Excel would, as Microsoft’s thinking went, get people used to a GUI and get them asking why they couldn’t use one for the other tasks they had to accomplish on the computer. “Why, as a matter of fact you can,” would go Microsoft’s answer. “You just need to buy this product called Windows.” Uptake wouldn’t be instant, but Excel did become quite successful as a standalone product, and did indeed do much to pave the way for the eventual near-universal acceptance of Windows 3.

Excel running under either a complete or a run-time version of Windows. When it appeared alongside Windows 2 in late 1987, it was by far the most sophisticated and compelling application yet made for the environment, giving the MS-DOS-using masses for the first time a proof of concept of what a GUI could mean in the real world.

Greatly improved though it was, Windows 2 didn’t blow the market away. Plenty of the same old problems remained, beginning and for many ending with the fact that seeing it at its best required a pricey 80386-based computer. In light of this, third-party software developers didn’t exactly stampede onto the Windows bandwagon. Still, having been provided with such a wonderful example in the form of Microsoft Excel of how compelling (and profitable) a Windows application done right could be, some of them did begin to commit some resources to Windows as well as vanilla MS-DOS. Throughout the life of Windows 2, Microsoft made a standard practice of giving their run-time version of it to outside application developers as well as their own, all in a bid to give people a taste of a GUI through the word processor, spreadsheet, or paint program they were going to buy anyway. To some extent at least, it worked. Some users turned that taste into a meal by buying boxed copies of Windows 2, and still more were intrigued enough to quit scoffing and start accepting that GUIs in general might truly be a better way to get their work done — if not now, then at some point in the future, when the hardware and the software had both gotten a little bit better.

By the spring of 1988, Windows was still at least an order of magnitude away from meeting the goal Bill Gates had once stated it would manage before the end of 1984: that of being installed on 90 percent of all MS-DOS computers. But, even if Windows 2 hadn’t blown anyone away, it was doing considerably better than Windows 1, and certainly seemed to have more momentum than OS/2’s as-yet-unreleased Presentation Manager. Granted, neither of these were terribly high bars to clear — and yet there was a dawning sense that Windows, six and a half years on from its birth as the humble Interface Manager, might just get the last laugh on the MS-DOS command line after all. Microsoft was already formulating plans for a Windows 3, which was coming to be seen both inside and outside the company as the pivotal version, the point where steadily improving hardware would combine with better software to break the GUI into the business-computing mainstream at long last. No, it wasn’t 1984 any more, but better late than never.

And then a new development threatened to pull the rug out from under all the progress that had been made. On March 17, 1988, Apple blindsided Microsoft by filing a lawsuit against them in federal court, alleging that the latter had stolen the former’s intellectual property by copying the “look and feel” of the Macintosh GUI. With the gauntlet thus thrown down, the stage was set for one of the most titanic legal battles in the history of the computer industry, one with the potential to fundamentally alter the very nature of the software business. At stake as well was the very existence of Windows just as it finally seemed to be getting somewhere. And as went Windows, Bill Gates was coming to believe once again, so went Microsoft. In order for both to survive, he would now have to win a two-front war: one in the marketplace, the other in the court system.

(Sources: the books The Making of Microsoft: How Bill Gates and His Team Created the World’s Most Successful Software Company by Daniel Ichbiah and Susan L. Knepper, Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology by Charles H. Ferguson and Charles R. Morris, and Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company by Owen W. Linzmayer; PC Magazine of November 10 1987, November 24 1987, December 22 1987, April 12 1988, and September 12 1989; Byte of May 1988 and July 1988; Tandy Trower’s “The Secret Origins of Windows” on the Technologizer website. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)

 

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Doing Windows, Part 4: The Rapprochement

We’ve seen how the pundits had already started speculating like crazy long before the actual release of IBM’s TopView, imagining it to be the key to some Machiavellian master plan for seizing complete control of the personal-computer market. But said pundits were giving IBM a bit more credit than perhaps was due. The company nicknamed Big Blue was indeed a big, notoriously bureaucratic place, and that reality tended to interfere with their ability to carry out any scheme, Machiavellian or otherwise, with the single-minded focus of a smaller company. There doubtless were voices inside IBM who could imagine using TopView as a way of shoving Microsoft aside, and had the product been a roaring success those voices doubtless would have been amplified. Yet thanks to the sheer multiplicity of voices IBM contained, the organization always seemed to be pulling in multiple directions at once. Thus even before TopView hit the market and promptly fizzled, a serious debate was taking place inside IBM about the long-term future direction of their personal computers’ system software. This particular debate didn’t focus on extensions to MS-DOS — not even on an extension like TopView which might eventually be decoupled from the unimpressive operating system underneath it. The question at hand was rather what should be done about creating a truly holistic replacement for MS-DOS. The release of a new model of IBM personal computer in August of 1984 had given that question new urgency.

The PC/AT, the first really dramatic technical advance on the original IBM PC, used the new Intel 80286 processor in lieu of the older machine’s 8088. The 80286 could function in two modes. In “real” mode, grudgingly implemented by Intel’s engineers in the name of backward compatibility, it essentially was an 8088, with the important difference that it happened to run much faster. Otherwise, though, it shared most of the older chip’s limitations, most notably the ability to address only 1 MB of memory — the source, after the space reserved for system ROMs and other specialized functions was subtracted, of the original IBM PC’s limitation to 640 K of RAM. It was only in the 80286’s “protected” mode that the new chip’s full capabilities were revealed. In this mode, it could address up to 16 MB of memory, and implemented hardware memory protection ideal for the sort of modern multitasking operating system that MS-DOS so conspicuously was not.

The crux of IBM’s dilemma was that MS-DOS, being written for the 8088, could run on the 80286 only in real mode, leaving most of the new chip’s capabilities unused. Memory beyond 640 K could thus still be utilized only via inefficient and ugly hacks, even on a machine with a processor that, given a less clueless operating system, was ready and willing to address up to 16 MB. IBM therefore decided that sooner or later — and preferably sooner — MS-DOS simply had to go.

This much was obvious. What was less obvious was where this new-from-the-ground-up IBM operating system should come from. Over months of debate, IBM’s management broke down into three camps.

One camp advocated buying or licensing Unix, a tremendously sophisticated and flexible operating system born at AT&T’s Bell Labs. Unix was beloved by hackers everywhere, but remained under the thumb of AT&T, who licensed it to third parties with the wherewithal to pay for it. Ironically, Microsoft had had a Unix license for years, using it to create a product they called Xenix, by far the most widely used version of Unix on microcomputers during the early 1980s. Indeed, their version of Xenix for the 80286 had of late become the best way for ambitious users not willing to settle for MS-DOS to take full advantage of the PC/AT’s capabilities. Being an already extant operating system which Microsoft among others had been running on high-end microcomputers for years, a version of Unix for the business-microcomputing masses could presumably be put together fairly quickly, whether by Microsoft or by IBM themselves. Yet Unix, having been developed with bigger institutional computers in mind, was one heck of a complicated beast. IBM feared abandoning MS-DOS, with its user-unfriendliness born of primitiveness, only to run afoul of Unix’s user-unfriendliness born of its sheer sophistication. Further, Unix, having been developed for text-only computers, wasn’t much good for graphics — and thus not much good for GUIs.1 The conventional wisdom held it to be an operating system better suited to system administrators and power users than secretaries and executives.

A second alternative was for IBM to make a new operating system completely in-house for their personal computers, just as they always had for their mainframes. They certainly had their share of programmers with experience in modern system software, along with various projects which might become the basis of a new microcomputer operating system. In particular, the debaters returned over and over again to one somewhat obscure model in their existing personal-computer lineup. Released in late 1983, the 3270 PC came equipped with a suite of additional hardware and software that let it act as a dumb terminal for a mainframe, while also running — simultaneously with multiple mainframe sessions, if the user wished — ordinary MS-DOS software. To accomplish that feat, IBM’s programmers had made a simple windowing environment that could run MS-DOS in one window, mainframe sessions in others. They had continued to develop the same software after the 3270 PC’s release, yielding a proto-operating system with the tentative name of Mermaid. The programmers who created Mermaid would claim in later years that it was far more impressive than either TopView or the first release of Microsoft Windows; “basically, in 1984 or so,” says one, “we had Windows 3.0.” But there was a big difference between Mermaid and even the latter, relatively advanced incarnation of Windows: rather than Mermaid running under MS-DOS, as did Windows, MS-DOS could run under Mermaid. MS-DOS ran, in other words, as just one of many potential tasks within the more advanced operating system, providing the backward compatibility with old software that was considered such a necessary bridge to any post-MS-DOS future. And then, on top all these advantages, Mermaid already came equipped with a workable GUI. It seemed like the most promising of beginnings.

By contrast, IBM’s third and last alternative for the long-term future initially seemed the most unappetizing by far: to go back to Microsoft, tell them they needed a new operating system to replace MS-DOS, and ask them to develop it with them, alongside their own programmers. There seemed little to recommend such an approach, given how unhappy IBM was already becoming over their dependency on Microsoft — not to mention the way the latter bore direct responsibility for the thriving and increasingly worrisome clone market, thanks to their willingness to license MS-DOS to anyone who asked for it. And yet, incredibly, this was the approach IBM would ultimately choose.

Why on earth would IBM choose such a path? One factor might have been the dismal failure of TopView, their first attempt at making and marketing a piece of microcomputer system software single-handedly, in the spring of 1985. Perhaps this really did unnerve them. Still, one has to suspect that there was more than a crisis of confidence behind IBM’s decision to go from actively distancing themselves from Microsoft to pulling the embrace yet tighter in a matter of months. In that light, it’s been reported that Bill Gates, getting wind of IBM’s possible plans to go it alone, threatened to jerk their existing MS-DOS license if they went ahead with work on a new operating system without him. Certainly IBM’s technical rank and file, who were quite confident in their own ability to create IBM’s operating system of the future and none too happy about Microsoft’s return to the scene, widely accepted this story at the time. “The bitterness was unbelievable,” remembers one. “People were really upset. Gates was raping IBM. It’s incomprehensible.”

Nevertheless, on August 22, 1985, Bill Gates and Bill Lowe, the latter being the president of IBM’s so-called “Entry Systems Division” that was responsible for their personal computers, signed a long-term “Joint Development Agreement” in which they promised to continue to support MS-DOS on IBM’s existing personal computers and to develop a new, better operating system for their future ones. All those who had feared that TopView represented the opening gambit in a bid by IBM to take complete control of the business-microcomputing market could breathe a sigh of relief. “We are committed to the open-architecture concept,” said Lowe, “and recognize the importance of this to our customers.” The new deal between the two companies was in fact far more ironclad and more equal than the one that had been signed before the release of the original IBM PC. “For Microsoft,” wrote the New York TImes‘s business page that day, “the agreement elevates it from a mere supplier to IBM, with the risk that it could one day be cut off, into more of a partner.” True equal partner with the company that in the eyes of many still was computing in the abstract… Microsoft was moving up in the world.

The public was shown only the first page or two of the new agreement, full of vague reassurances and mission statements. Yet it went on for many more pages after that, getting deep into the weeds of an all-new operating system to be called CP-DOS. (Curiously, the exact meaning of the acronym has never surfaced to my knowledge. “Concurrent Processing” would be my best guess, given the project’s priorities.) CP-DOS was to incorporate all of the sophistication that was missing from MS-DOS, including preemptive multitasking, virtual memory, the ability to address up to 16 MB of physical memory, and a system of device drivers to insulate applications from the hardware and insulate application programmers from the need to manually code up support for every new printer or video card to hit the market. So far, so good.

But this latest stage of an unlikely partnership would prove a very different experience for Microsoft than developing the system software for the original IBM PC had been. Back in 1980 and 1981, IBM, pressured for time, had happily left the software side of things entirely to Microsoft. Now, they truly expected to develop CP-DOS as partners with them, expected not only to write the specifications for the new operating system themselves but to handle some of the coding themselves as well. Two radically different corporate cultures clashed from the start. IBM, accustomed to carrying out even the most mundane tasks in bureaucratic triplicate, was appalled at the lone-hacker model of software development that still largely held sway at Microsoft, while the latter’s programmers held their counterparts in contempt, judging them to be a bunch of useless drones who never had an original thought in their lives. “There were good people” at IBM, admits one former Microsoft employee. But then, “there were a lot of not-so-good people also. That’s not Microsoft’s model. Microsoft’s model is only good people. If you’re not good, you don’t stick around.” Neal Friedman, a programmer on the CP-DOS team at Microsoft:

The project was extremely frustrating for people at Microsoft and for people at IBM too. It was a clash of two companies at opposite ends of the spectrum. At IBM, things got done very formally. Nobody did anything on their own. You went high enough to find somebody who could make a decision. You couldn’t change things without getting approval from the joint design-review committee. It took weeks even to fix a tiny little bug, to get approval for anything.

IBM measured their programmers’ productivity in the number of lines of code they could write per day. As Bill Gates and plenty of other people from Microsoft tried to point out, this metric said nothing about the quality of the code they wrote. In fact, it provided an active incentive for programmers to write bloated, inefficient code. Gates compared the project to trying to build the world’s heaviest airplane.

A joke memo circulated inside Microsoft, telling the story of an IBM rowing team that had lost a race. IBM, as was their wont, appointed a “task force” to analyze the failure. The bureaucrats assigned thereto discovered that the IBM team had had eight people steering and one rowing, while the other team had had eight people rowing and one steering. Their recommendation? Why, the eight steerers should simply get the one rower to row harder, of course. Microsoft took to calling IBM’s software-development methodology the “masses-of-asses” approach.

But, as only gradually became apparent to Microsoft’s programmers, Bill Gates had ceded the final authority on what CP-DOS should be and how it should be implemented to those selfsame masses of asses. Scott MacGregor, the Windows project manager during 1984, shares an interesting observation that apparently still applied to the Gates of 1985 and 1986:

Bill sort of had two modes. For all the other [hardware manufacturers], he would be very confident and very self-assured, and feel very comfortable telling them what the right thing to do was. But when he worked with IBM, he was always much more reserved and quiet and humble. It was really funny because this was the only company he would be that way with. In meetings with IBM, this change in Bill was amazing.

In charming or coercing IBM into signing the Joint Development Agreement, Gates had been able to perpetuate the partnership which had served Microsoft so well, but the terms turned out to be perhaps not quite so equal as they first appeared: he had indeed given IBM final authority over the new operating system, as well as agreeing that the end result would belong to Big Blue, not (as with MS-DOS) to Microsoft. As work on CP-DOS began in earnest in early 1986, a series of technical squabbles erupted, all of which Microsoft was bound to lose.

One vexing debate was over the nature of the eventual CP-DOS user interface. Rather than combining the plumbing of the new operating system and the user interface into one inseparable whole, IBM wanted to separate the two. In itself, this was a perfectly defensible choice; successful examples of this approach abound in computing history, from Unix and Linux’s X Windows to the modern Macintosh’s OS X. And of course this was an approach which Microsoft and many others had already taken in building GUI environments to run on top of MS-DOS. So, fair enough. The real disagreements started only when IBM and Microsoft started to discuss exactly what form CP-DOS’s preferred user interface should take. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft wanted to adapt Windows, that project in which they had invested so much of their money and reputation for so little reward, to run on top of CP-DOS instead of MS-DOS. But IBM had other plans.

IBM informed Microsoft that the official CP-DOS user interface at launch time  was to be… wait for it… TopView. The sheer audacity of the demand was staggering. After developing TopView alone and in secret, cutting out their once and future partners, IBM now wanted Microsoft to port it to the new operating system the two companies were developing jointly. (Had they been privy to it, the pundits would doubtless have taken this demand as confirmation of their suspicion that at least some inside IBM had intended TopView to have an existence outside of its MS-DOS host all along.)

“TopView is hopeless,” pleaded Bill Gates. “Just let it die. A modern operating system needs a modern GUI to be taken seriously!” But IBM was having none of it. When they had released TopView, they had told their customers that it was here to stay, a fundamental part of the future of IBM personal computing. They couldn’t just abandon those people who had bought it; that would be contrary to the longstanding IBM ethic of being the safe choice in computing, the company you invested in when you needed stability and continuity above all else. “But almost nobody bought TopView in the first place!” howled Gates. “Why not just give them their money back if it’s that important to you?” IBM remained unmoved. “Do a good job with a CP-DOS TopView”, they said, “and we can talk some more about a CP-DOS Windows with our official blessing.”

Ever helpful, IBM referred Microsoft to six programmers in Berkeley, California, who called themselves Dynamical Systems Research, who had recently come to them with a portable re-implementation of TopView which was supposedly one-quarter the size and ran four to ten times faster. (That such efficiency gains over the original version were even possible confirmed every one of Microsoft’s prejudices against IBM’s programmers.) In June of 1986, Steve Ballmer duly bought a plane ticket for Berkeley, and two weeks later Microsoft bought Dynamical for $1.5 million. And then, a month after that event, IBM summoned Gates and Ballmer to their offices and told them that they had changed their minds; there would now be no need for a TopView interface in CP-DOS. IBM’s infuriating about-face seemingly meant that Microsoft had just thrown away $1.5 million. (Luckily for them, in the end they would get more than their money’s worth out of the programming expertise they purchased when they bought Dynamical, despite never doing anything with the alternative TopView technology; more on that in a future article.)

The one good aspect of this infuriating news was that IBM had at last decided that they and Microsoft should write a proper GUI for CP-DOS. Even this news wasn’t, however, as good as Microsoft could have wished: said GUI wasn’t to be Windows, but rather a new environment known as the Presentation Manager, which was in turn to be a guinea pig for a new bureaucratic monstrosity known as the Systems Application Architecture. SAA had been born of the way that IBM had diversified since the time when the big System/360 mainframes had been by far the most important part of their business. They still had those hulking monsters, but they had their personal computers now as well, along with plenty of machines in between the two extremes, such as the popular System/38 range of minicomputers. All of these machines had radically different operating systems and operating paradigms, such that one would never guess that they all came from the same company. This, IBM had decided, was a real problem in terms of technological efficiency and marketing alike, one which only SAA could remedy. They described the latter as “a set of software interfaces, conventions, and protocols — a framework for productively designing and developing applications with cross-system dependency.” Implemented across IBM’s whole range of computers, it would let programmers transition easily from one platform to another thanks to a consistent API, and the software produced with it would all have a consistent, distinctively “IBM” look and feel, conforming to a set-in-stone group of interface guidelines called Common User Access.

SAA and CUA might seem a visionary scheme from the vantage point of our own era of widespread interoperability among computing platforms. In 1986, however, the devil was very much in the details. The machines which SAA and CUA covered were so radically different in terms of technology and user expectations that a one-size-fits-all model couldn’t possibly be made to seem anything but hopelessly compromised on any single one of them. CUA in particular was a pedant’s wet dream, full of stuff like a requirement that every single dialog box had to have buttons which said “OK = Enter” and “ESC = Cancel,” instead of just “OK” and “Cancel.” “Surely we can expect people to figure that out without beating them over the head with it every single time!” begged Microsoft.

For a time, such pleas fell on deaf ears. Then, as more and more elements descended from IBM’s big computers proved clearly, obviously confusing in the personal-computing paradigm, Microsoft got permission to replace them with elements drawn from their own Windows. The thing just kept on getting messier and messier, a hopeless mishmash of two design philosophies. “In general, Windows and Presentation Manager are very similar,” noted one programmer. “They only differ in every single application detail.” The combination of superficial similarity with granular dissimilarity could only prove infuriating to users who went in with the reasonable expectation that one Microsoft-branded GUI ought to work pretty much the same as another.

Yet the bureaucratic boondoggle that was SAA and CUA wasn’t even the biggest bone of contention between IBM and Microsoft. That rather took the form of one of the most basic issues of all: what CPU the new operating system should target. Everyone agreed that the old 8088 should be left in the past along with the 640 K barrier it had spawned, but from there opinions diverged. IBM wanted to target the 80286, thus finally providing all those PC/ATs they had already sold with an operating system worthy of their hardware. Microsoft, on the other hand, wanted to skip the 80286 and target Intel’s very latest and greatest chip, the 80386.

The real source of the dispute was that same old wellspring of pain for anyone hoping to improve upon MS-DOS: the need to make sure that the new-and-improved operating system could run old MS-DOS software. Doing so, Bill Gates pointed out, would be far more complicated from the programmer’s perspective and far less satisfactory from the user’s perspective with the 80286 than it would with the 80386. To understand why, we need to look briefly at the historical and technical circumstances behind each of the chips.

It generally takes a new microprocessor some time to go from being available for purchase on its own to being integrated into a commercial computer. Thus the 80286, which first reached the mass market with the PC/AT in August of 1984, first reached Intel’s product catalog in February of 1982. It had largely been designed, in other words, before the computing ecosystem spawned by the IBM PC existed. Its designers had understood that compatibility with the 8088 might be a good thing to have to go along with the capabilities of the chip’s new protected mode, but had seen the two things as an either/or proposition. You would either boot the machine in real mode to run a legacy 8088-friendly operating system and its associated software, or you’d boot it in protected mode to run a more advanced operating system. Switching between the two modes required resetting the chip — a rather slow process that Intel had anticipated happening only when the whole machine in which it lived was rebooted. The usage scenario which Intel had most obviously never envisioned was the very one which IBM and Microsoft were now proposing for CP-DOS: an operating system that constantly switched on the fly between protected mode, which would be used for running the operating system itself and native applications written for it, and real mode, which would be used for running MS-DOS applications.

But the 80386, which entered Intel’s product catalog in September of 1985, was a very different beast, having had the chance to learn from the many Intel-based personal computers which had been sold by that time. Indeed, Intel had toured the industry before finalizing their plans for their latest chip, asking many of its movers and shakers — a group which prominently included Microsoft — what they wanted and needed from a third-generation CPU. The end result offered a 32-bit architecture to replace the 16 bits of the 80286, with the capacity to address up to 4 GB of memory in protected mode to replace the 16 MB address space of the older chip. But hidden underneath the obvious leap in performance were some more subtle features that were if anything even more welcome to programmers in Microsoft’s boat. For one thing, the new chip could be switched between real mode and protected mode quickly and easily, with no need for a reset. And for another, Intel added a third mode, a sort of compromise position in between real and protected mode that was perfect for addressing exactly the problems of MS-DOS compatibility with which CP-DOS was doomed to struggle. In the new “virtual” mode, the 80386 could fool software into believing it was running on an old 8088-based machine, including its own virtual 1 MB memory map, which the 80386 automatically translated into the real machine’s far more expansive memory map.

The power of the 80386 in comparison to the 8088 was such that a single physical 80386-based machine should be able to run a dozen or more virtual MS-DOS machines in parallel, should the need arise — all inside a more modern, sophisticated operating system like the planned CP-DOS. The 80386’s virtual mode really was perfect for Microsoft’s current needs — as it ought to have been, given that Microsoft themselves were largely responsible for its existence. It offered them a chance that doesn’t come along very often in software engineering: the chance to build a modern new operating system while maintaining seamless compatibility with the old one.

Some reports have it that Bill Gates, already aware that the 80386 was coming, had tried to convince IBM not to build the 80286-based PC/AT at all back in 1984, had told them they should just stay with the status quo until the 80386 was ready. But even in 1986, the 80386 according to IBM was just too far off in the future as a real force in personal computing to become the minimum requirement for CP-DOS. They anticipated taking a leisurely two-and-a-half years or so, as they had with the 80286, to package the 80386 into a new model. Said model thus likely wouldn’t appear until 1988, and its sales might not reach critical mass until a year or two after that. The 80386 was, IBM said, simply a bridge too far for an operating system they wanted to release by 1987. Besides, in light of the IBM Safeness Doctrine, they couldn’t just abandon those people who had already spent a lot of money on PC/ATs under the assumption that it was the IBM personal computer of the future.

“Screw the people with ATs,” was Gates’s undiplomatic response. “Let’s just make it for the 386, and they can upgrade.” He gnashed his teeth and raged, but IBM was implacable. Instead of being able to run multiple MS-DOS applications in parallel on CP-DOS, almost as if they had been designed for it from the start, Microsoft would be forced to fall back on using their new operating system as little more than a launcher for the old whenever the user wished to run an MS-DOS application. And it would, needless to say, be possible to run only one such application at a time. None of that really mattered, said IBM; once people saw how much better CP-DOS was, developers would port their MS-DOS applications over to it and the whole problem of compatibility would blow away like so much smoke. Bill Gates was far less sanguine that Microsoft and IBM could so easily kill their cockroach of an operating system. But in this as in all things, IBM’s decision was ultimately the law.

Here we see the CP-DOS (later OS/2 1.x) physical memory map. A single MS-DOS application can be loaded into the space below 1 MB — more specifically, into the box labeled “3.x” above. (MS-DOS 3 was the current version at the time that IBM and Microsoft were working on CP-DOS.) Because MS-DOS applications must run in the processor’s real mode, accessing physical rather than virtual memory addresses, only one application can be loaded into this space — and only this space! — at a time. Native CP-DOS applications live in the so-called “high memory” above the 1 MB boundary — more specifically, in the space labelled “protected-mode” in the diagram above. As many of these as the user wishes can be loaded at one time up there. Had IBM agreed to build CP-DOS for the 80386 rather than the 80286, it would have been possible to use that processor’s “virtual” mode to trick MS-DOS applications into believing they were running in real mode underneath the 640 K boundary, regardless of where they actually lived in memory. This would have allowed the user to run multiple MS-DOS applications alongside multiple native CP-DOS applications. In addition, an 80386 CP-DOS would have been able to address up to 4 GB of memory rather than being limited to 16 MB.

Microsoft’s frustration only grew when IBM’s stately timetable for the 80386 was jumped by the increasingly self-confident clone makers. In September of 1986, Compaq, the most successful and respected clone maker of all, shipped the DeskPro 386, the very first MS-DOS-compatible machine to use the chip. Before the end of the year, several other clone makers had announced 80386-based models of their own in response. It was a watershed moment in the slow transformation of business-oriented microcomputing from an ecosystem where IBM blazed the trails and a group of clone makers copied their innovations to one where many equal players all competed and innovated within an established standard for software and hardware which existed independently of all of them. A swaggering Compaq challenged IBM to match the DeskPro 386 within six months “or be supplanted as the market’s standard-setter.” Michael Swarely, Compaq’s marketing guru, was already re-framing the conversation in ways whose full import would only gradually become clear over the years to come:

We believe that an industry standard that has been established for software for the business marketplace is clearly in place. What we’ve done with the DeskPro 386 is innovate within that existing standard, as opposed to trying to go outside the standard and do something different. IBM may or may not enter the [80386] marketplace at some point in the future. The market will judge what IBM brings in the same way that it judges any other manufacturer’s new products. They have to live within the market’s realities. And the reality is that American business has made an enormous investment in an industry standard.

More than ever before, IBM was feeling real pressure from the clone makers. Their response would give the lie to all of their earlier talk of an open architecture and their commitment thereto.

IBM had already been planning a whole new range of machines for 1987, to be called the PS/2 line. Those plans had originally not included an 80386-based machine, but one was hastily added to the lineup now. Yet the appearance of that machine was only one of the ways in which the PS/2 line showed plainly that clone makers like Compaq were making IBM nervous with their talk of a “standard” that now had an existence independent from the company that had spawned it. IBM planned to introduce with the PS/2 line a new type of system bus for hardware add-ons, known as the Micro Channel Architecture. Whatever its technical merits, which could and soon would be hotly debated, MCA was clearly designed to cut the clone makers off at the knees. Breaking with precedent, IBM wrapped MCA up tight inside a legal labyrinth of patents, meaning that anyone wishing to make a PS/2 clone or even just an MCA-compatible expansion card would have to negotiate a license and pay for the privilege. If IBM got their way, the curiously idealistic open architecture of the original IBM PC would soon be no more.

In a testimony to how guarded the relationship between the two supposed fast partners really was, IBM didn’t even tell Microsoft about their plans for the PS/2 line until just a few months before the public announcement. Joint Development Agreement or no, the former now suspected the latter’s loyalty more strongly than ever — and for, it must be admitted, pretty good reason: a smiling Bill Gates had recently appeared alongside two executives from Compaq and their DeskPro 386 on the front page of InfoWorld. Clearly he was still playing both sides of the fence.

Now, Bill Gates got the news that CP-DOS was to be renamed OS/2, and would join PS/2 as the software half of a business-microcomputing future that would once again revolve entirely around IBM. For some time, he wasn’t even able to get a clear answer to the question of whether IBM intended to allow OS/2 to run at all on non-PS/2 hardware — whether they intended to abandon their old PC/AT customers after all, writing them off as collateral damage in their war against the clonesters and making MCA along with an 80286 a minimum requirement of OS/2.

On April 2, 1987, IBM officially announced the PS/2 hardware line and the OS/2 operating system, sending shock waves through their industry. Would this day mark the beginning of the end of the clone makers?

Any among that scrappy bunch who happened to be observing closely might have been reassured by some clear evidence that this was a far more jittery version of IBM than anyone had ever seen before, as exemplified by the splashy but rather chaotic rollout schedule for the new world order. Three PS/2 machines were to ship immediately: one of them based around an Intel 8086 chip very similar to the 8088 in the original IBM PC, the other two based around the 80286. But the 80386-based machine they were scrambling to get together in response to the Compaq DeskPro 386 — not that IBM phrased things in those terms! — wouldn’t come out until the summer. Meanwhile OS/2, which was still far from complete, likely wouldn’t appear until 1988. It was a far cry from the unified, confident rollout of the System/360 mainframe line more than two decades earlier, the seismic computing event IBM now seemed to be consciously trying to duplicate with their PS/2 line. As it was, the 80286- and 80386-based PS/2 machines would be left in the same boat as the older PC/AT for months to come, hobbled by that monument to inadequacy that was MS-DOS. And even once OS/2 did come out, the 80386-based PS/2 Model 80 would still remain somewhat crippled for the foreseeable future by IBM’s insistence that OS/2 run on the the 80286 as well.

The first copies of the newly rechristened OS/2 to leave IBM and Microsoft’s offices did so on May 29, 1987, when selected developers who had paid $3000 for the privilege saw a three-foot long, thirty-pound box labelled “OS/2 Software Development Kit,” containing nine disks and an astonishing 3100 pages worth of documentation, thump onto their porch two months before Microsoft had told them it would arrive. As such, it was the first Microsoft product ever to ship early; less positively, it was also the first time they had ever asked anyone to pay to be beta testers. Microsoft, it seemed, was feeling their oats as IBM’s equal partners.

The first retail release of OS/2 also beat its announced date, shipping in December of 1987 instead of the first quarter of 1988. Thankfully, IBM listened to Microsoft’s advice enough to quell the very worst of their instincts: they allowed OS/2 to run on any 80286-or-better machine, not restricting it to the PS/2 line. Yet, at least from the ordinary user’s perspective, OS/2 1.0 was a weirdly underwhelming experience after all the hype of the previous spring. The Presentation Manager, OS/2’s planned GUI, had fallen so far behind amidst all the bureaucratic squabbling that IBM had finally elected to ship the first version of their new operating system without it; this was the main reason they had been able to release the remaining pieces earlier than planned. In the absence of the Presentation Manager, what the user got was the plumbing of a sophisticated modern operating system coupled to a command-line interface that made it seem all but identical to hoary old MS-DOS. I’ve already described in earlier articles how a GUI fits naturally with advanced features like multitasking and inter-application data sharing. These and the many other non-surface improvements which MS-DOS so sorely needed were there in OS/2, hidden away, but in the absence of a GUI only the programmer or the true power user could make much use of them. The rest of the world was left to ask why they had just paid $200 for a slightly less compatible, slightly slower version of the MS-DOS that had come free with their computers. IBM themselves didn’t quite seem to know why they were releasing OS/2 now, in this state. “No one will really use OS/2 1.0,” said Bill Lowe. “I view it as a tool for large-account customers or software developers who want to begin writing OS/2 applications.” With a sales pitch like that, who could resist? Just about everybody, as it happened.

OS/2 1.1, the first version to include the Presentation Manager — i.e., the first real version of the operating system in the eyes of most people — didn’t ship until the rather astonishingly late date of October 31, 1988. After such a long wait, the press coverage was lukewarm and anticlimactic. The GUI worked well enough, wrote the reviewers, but the whole package was certainly memory-hungry; the minimum requirement for running OS/2 was 2.5 MB, the recommended amount 5 MB or more, both huge numbers for an everyday desktop computers circa 1988. Meanwhile a lack of drivers for even many of the most common printers and other peripherals rendered them useless. And OS/2 application software as well was largely nonexistent. The chicken-or-the-egg-conundrum had struck again. With so little software or driver support, no one was in a hurry to upgrade to OS/2, and with so little user uptake, developers weren’t in a hurry to deliver software for it. “The broad market will turn its back on OS/2,” predicted Jeffrey Tarter, expressing the emerging conventional wisdom in the widely read insider newsletter Softletter. Phillipe Kahn of Borland, an executive who was never at a loss for words, started a meme when he dubbed the new operating system “BS/2.” In the last two months of 1988, 4 percent of 80286 owners and 16 percent of 80386 owners took the OS/2 plunge. Yet even those middling figures gave a rosier view of OS/2’s prospects than was perhaps warranted. By 1990, OS/2 would still account for just 1 percent of the total installed base of personal-computer operating systems in the United States, while the unkillable MS-DOS still owned a 66-percent share.

A Quick Tour of the OS/2 1.1 Presentation Manager


Presentation Manager boots into its version of a start menu, listing its installed programs. This fact of course means that, unlike Windows 1, Presentation Manager does include the concept of installing applications rather than just working with them at the file level. That said, it still remains much more text-oriented than modern versions of Windows or contemporary versions of MacOS. Applications are presented in the menu as a textual list, unaccompanied by icons. Only minimized applications and certain always-running utilities appear as icons on the “desktop,” which is still not utilized as the general-purpose workspace we’re familiar with today.

Still, in many ways Presentation Manager 1.1 feels vastly more intuitive today than Windows 1. The “tiled windows” paradigm is blessedly gone. Windows can be dragged freely around the screen and can overlay one another, and niceties like the sizing widgets all work as we expect them to.

Applications can even open sub-windows that live within other windows. You can see one of these inside the file manager above.

One area where Presentation Manager is less like the Macintosh than Windows 1, but more like current versions of Microsoft Windows, is in its handling of menus. The one-click menu approach is used here, not the click-and-hold approach of the Mac.

Here we’ve opened a DOS box for running vanilla MS-DOS software. Only one such application can be run at a time, thanks to IBM’s insistence that OS/2 should run on the 80286 processor.

Presentation Manager includes a control panel for managing preferences that’s far slicker than the one included in Windows 1. Yet it shipped with a dearth of the useful little applets Microsoft included with Windows right from the beginning. There isn’t so much as a decent text editor here. Given that IBM would struggle mightily to get third-party developers to write applications for OS/2, such stinginess was… not good.

Amidst all of the hoopla over the introduction of the PS/2 and OS/2 back in the spring of 1987, Byte‘s editor-in-chief Philip Lemmons had sounded a cautionary note to IBM that reads as prescient today:

With the introduction of the PS/2 machines, IBM has begun to compete in the personal-computer arena on the basis of technology. This development is welcome because the previous limitations of the de-facto IBM standard were painfully obvious, especially in systems software. The new PS/2 “standard” offers numerous improvements: the Micro Channel is a better bus than the PC and AT buses, and it provides a full standard for 32-bit buses. The VGA graphics standard improves on EGA. The IBM monitors for the PS/2 series take a new approach that will ultimately deliver superior performance at lower prices. IBM is using 3.5-inch floppy disks that offer more convenience, capacity, and reliability than 5.25-inch floppy disks. And OS/2, the new system software jointly developed by Microsoft and IBM, will offer advances such as true multitasking and a graphic user interface.

Yet a cloud hangs over all this outstanding new technology. Like other companies that have invested in the development of new technology, IBM is asserting proprietary rights in its work. When most companies do this in most product areas, we expect and accept it. When one company has a special role of setting the de-facto standard, however, the aggressive assertion of proprietary rights prevents the widespread adoption of the new standard and delays the broad distribution of new technology.

The personal-computer industry has waited for years for IBM to advance the standard, and now, depending on IBM’s moves, may be unable to participate in that advancement. If so, the rest of the industry and the broad population of computer users still need another standard for which to build and buy products — a standard at least as good as the one embodied in the PS/2 series.

Lemmons’s cautions were wise ones; his only mistake was in not stating his concerns even more forcefully. For the verdict of history is clear: PS/2 and OS/2 are the twin disasters which mark the end of the era of IBM’s total domination of business-oriented microcomputing. The PS/2 line brought with it a whole range of new hardware standards, some of which, like new mouse and keyboard ports and a new graphics standard known as VGA, would remain with us for decades to come. But these would mark the very last technical legacies of IBM’s role as the prime mover in mainstream microcomputing. Other parts of the PS/2 line, most notably the much-feared proprietary MCA bus, did more to point out the limits of IBM’s power than the opposite. Instead of dutifully going out of business or queuing up to buy licenses, third-party hardware makers simply ignored MCA. They would eventually form committees to negotiate new, open bus architectures of their own — just as Philip Lemmons predicts in the extract above.

OS/2 as well only served to separate IBM’s fate from that of the computing standard they had birthed. It arrived late and bloated, and went largely ignored by users who stuck with MS-DOS — an operating system that was now coming to be seen not as IBM’s system-software standard but as Microsoft’s. IBM’s bold bid to cement their grip on the computer industry only caused it to slip through their fingers.

All of which placed Microsoft in the decidedly strange position of becoming the prime beneficiary of the downfall of an operating system which they had done well over half the work of creating. Given the way that Bill Gates’s reputation as the computer industry’s foremost Machiavelli precedes him, some have claimed that he planned it all this way from the beginning. In their otherwise sober-minded book Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology, Charles H. Ferguson and Charles R. Morris indulge in some elaborate conspiracy theorizing that’s all too typical of the whole Gates-as-Evil-Genius genre. Gates made certain that his programmers wrote OS/2 in 80286 assembly language rather than a higher-level language, the authors claim, to make sure that IBM couldn’t easily adapt it to take advantage of the more advanced capabilities of chips like the 80386 after his long-planned split with them finally occurred. In the meantime, Microsoft could use the OS/2 project to experiment with operating-system design on IBM’s dime, paving the way for their own eventual MS-DOS replacement.

If Gates expected ultimately to break with IBM, he has every interest in ensuring OS/2’s failure. In that light, tying the project tightly to 286 assembler was a masterstroke. Microsoft would have acquired three years’ worth of experience writing an advanced, very sophisticated operating system at IBM’s elbow, applying all the latest development tools. After the divorce, IBM would still own OS/2. But since it was written in 286 assembler, it would be almost utterly useless.

In reality, the sheer amount of effort Microsoft put into making OS/2 work over a period of several years — far more effort than they put into their own Windows over much of this period — argues against such conspiracy-mongering. Bill Gates was unquestionably trying to keep one foot in IBM’s camp and one foot in the clone makers’, much to the frustration of both, who equally craved his undivided loyalty. But he had no crystal ball, and he wasn’t playing three-dimensional chess. He was just responding, rather masterfully, to events on the ground as they happened, and always — always — hedging all of his bets.

So, even as OS/2 was getting all the press, Windows remained a going concern, Gates’s foremost hedge against the possibility that the vaunted new operating system might indeed prove a failure and MS-DOS might remain the standard it had always been. “Microsoft has a religious approach to the graphical user interface,” said the GUI-skeptic Pete Peterson, vice president of WordPerfect Corporation, around this time. “If Microsoft could choose between improved earnings and growth and bringing the graphical user interface to the world, they’d choose the graphical user interface.” In his own way, Peterson was misreading Gates as badly here as the more overheated conspiracy theorists have tended to do. Gates was never one to sacrifice profits to any ideal. It was just that he saw the GUI itself — somebody’s GUI — as such an inevitability. And thus he was determined to ensure that the inevitability had a Microsoft logo on the box when it became an actuality. If the breakthrough product wasn’t to be the OS/2 Presentation Manager, it would just have to be Microsoft Windows.

(Sources: the books The Making of Microsoft: How Bill Gates and His Team Created the World’s Most Successful Software Company by Daniel Ichbiah and Susan L. Knepper, Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, and Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology by Charles H. Ferguson and Charles R. Morris; InfoWorld of October 7 1985, July 7 1986, August 12 1991, and October 21 1991; PC Magazine of November 12 1985, April 12 1988, December 27 1988, and September 12 1989; New York Times of August 22 1985; Byte of June 1987, September 1987, October 1987, April 1988, and the special issue of Fall 1987; the episode of the Computer Chronicles television program called “Intel 386 — The Fast Lane.” Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)


  1. Admittedly, this was already beginning to change as IBM was having this debate: the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/X_Window_System">X Window project</a> was born at MIT in 1984. 

 

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Doing Windows, Part 3: A Pair of Strike-Outs

Come August of 1984, Microsoft Windows had missed its originally announced release date by four months and was still nowhere near ready to go. That month, IBM released the PC/AT, a new model of their personal computer based around the more powerful Intel 80286 processor. Amidst the hoopla over that event, they invited Microsoft and other prominent industry players to a sneak preview of something called TopView, and Bill Gates got an answer at last to the fraught question of why IBM had been so uninterested in his own company’s Windows operating environment.

TopView had much in common with Windows and the many other attempts around the industry, whether already on the market or still in the works, to build a more flexible and user-friendly operating environment upon the foundation of MS-DOS. Like Windows and so many of its peers, it would offer multitasking, along with a system of device drivers to isolate applications from the underlying hardware and a toolkit for application developers that would allow them to craft software with a consistent look and feel. Yet one difference made TopView stand out from the pack — and not necessarily in a good way. While it did allow the use of a mouse and offered windows of a sort, it ran in text rather than graphics mode. The end result was a long, long way from the Macintosh-inspired ideal of intuitiveness and attractiveness which Microsoft dreamed of reaching with their own GUI environment.

TopView at the interface level resembled something IBM might have produced for the mainframe market back in the day more than it did Windows and the other microcomputer GUI environments that were its ostensible competitors. Like IBM’s mainframe system software, it was a little stodgy, not terribly pretty, and not notably forgiving toward users who hadn’t done their homework, yet had a lot to offer underneath the hood to anyone who could accept its way of doing business. It was a tool that seemed designed to court power users and office IT administrators, even as its competitors advertised their ease of use to executives and secretaries.

Within its paradigm, though, TopView was a more impressive product than it’s generally given credit for being even today. It sported, for example, true preemptive multitasking1 months before the arrival of the Commodore Amiga, the first personal computer to ship with such a feature right out of the box. Even ill-behaved vanilla MS-DOS applications could be coerced into multitasking under TopView. Indeed, while IBM hoped, like everyone else making extended operating environments, to tempt third-party programmers into making native applications just for them, they were willing to go to heroic lengths to get existing MS-DOS applications working inside TopView in the meantime. They provided special specifications files — known as “Program Information Files,” or PIFs — for virtually all popular MS-DOS software. These told TopView exactly how and when their subjects would try to access the computer’s hardware, whereupon TopView would step in to process those calls itself, transparently to the ill-behaved application. It was an admittedly brittle solution to a problem which seemed to have no unadulteratedly good ones; it required IBM to research the technical underpinnings of every major new piece of MS-DOS software that entered the market in order to keep up with an endless game of whack-a-mole that was exhausting just to think about. Still, it was presumably better than punting on the whole problem of MS-DOS compatibility, as Visi On had done. Whatever else one could say about IBM’s approach to extending MS-DOS, they thus had apparently learned at least a little something from the travails of their competitors. Even the decision to run in character mode sounds far more defensible when you consider that up to two-thirds of MS-DOS computers at the time of TopView’s release were equipped only with a monochrome screen capable of no other mode.

Unfortunately, TopView failed to overcome many of the other issues that dogged its competitors. Having been so self-consciously paired with the pricey PC/AT, it was still a bit out in front of the sweet spot of hardware requirements, requiring a 512 K machine to do much of anything at all. And it was still dogged by the 640 K barrier, that most troublesome of all aspects of MS-DOS’s primitiveness. With hacks to get around the barrier still in their relative infancy, TopView didn’t even try to support more memory, and this inevitably limited the appeal of its multitasking capability. With applications continuing to grow in complexity and continuing to gobble up ever more memory, it wouldn’t be long before 640 K wouldn’t be enough to run even two pieces of heavyweight business software at the same time, especially after one had factored in the overhead of the operating environment itself.

A Quick Tour of TopView


While it isn’t technically a graphical user interface, TopView shares many features with contemporaneous products like Visi On and Microsoft Windows. Here we’re choosing an application to launch from a list of those that are installed. The little bullet to the left of each name on the list is important; it indicates that we have enough memory free to run that particular application. With no more than 640 K available in this multitasking environment and no virtual-memory capability, memory usage is a constant concern.

Here we see TopView’s multitasking capabilities. We’re running the WordStar word processor and the dBase database, two of the most popular MS-DOS business applications, at the same time. Note the “windows” drawn purely out of text characters. Preemptive multitasking like TopView is doing here wouldn’t come to Microsoft Windows until Windows 95, and wouldn’t reach the Macintosh until OS X was released in 2001.

We bring up a TopView context window by hitting the third — yes, third — button on IBM’s official mouse. Here we can switch between tasks, adjust window sizes and positions (albeit somewhat awkwardly, given the limitations of pure text), and even cut and paste between many MS-DOS applications that never anticipated the need for such a function. No other operating environment would ever jump through more hoops to make MS-DOS applications work like they had been designed for a multitasking windowed paradigm from the start.

Some of those hoops are seen above. Users make MS-DOS applications run inside TopView by defining a range of parameters explaining just what the application in question tries to do and how it does it. Thankfully, pre-made definition files for a huge range of popular software shipped with the environment. Brittle as heck though this solution might be, you certainly can’t fault IBM’s determination. Microsoft would adopt TopView’s “Program Information File,” or PIF, for use in Windows as well. It would thereby become the one enduring technical legacy of TopView, persisting in Windows for years after the IBM product was discontinued in 1988.

One of the hidden innovations of TopView is its “Window Design Aid,” which lets programmers of native applications define their interface visually, then generates the appropriate code to create it. Such visually-oriented time-savers wouldn’t become commonplace programming aids for another decade at least. It all speaks to a product that’s more visionary than its reputation — and its complete lack of graphics — might suggest.

TopView shipped in March of 1985 — later than planned, but nowhere near as late as Microsoft Windows, which was now almost a full year behind schedule. It met a fractious reception. Some pundits called it the most important product to come out of IBM since the release of the original IBM PC, while others dismissed it as a bloated white elephant that hadn’t a prayer of winning mainstream acceptance — not even with the IBM logo on its box and a surprisingly cheap suggested list price of just $149. For many IBM watchers — not least those watching with concern inside Microsoft — TopView was most interesting not so much as a piece of technology as a sign of IBM’s strategic direction. “TopView is the subject of fevered whispers throughout the computer industry not because of what it does but because of what it means,” wrote PC Magazine. It had “sent shivers through the PC universe and generated watchfulness” and “possibly even paranoia. Many experts think, and some fear, that TopView is the first step in IBM’s lowering of the skirt over the PC — the beginning of a closed, proprietary operating system.”

Many did indeed see TopView as a sign that IBM was hoping to return to the old System/360 model of computing, seizing complete control of the personal-computing market by cutting Microsoft out of the system-software side. According to this point of view, the MS-DOS compatibility IBM had bent over backward to build into TopView needed last only as long as it took third-party developers to write native TopView applications. Once a critical mass of same had been built up, it shouldn’t be that difficult to decouple TopView from MS-DOS entirely, turning it into a complete, self-standing operating system in its own right. For Bill Gates, this was a true nightmare scenario, one that could mean the end of his business.

But such worries about a TopView-dominated future, to whatever extent he had them, proved unfounded. A power-user product with mostly hacker appeal in a market that revolved around the business user just trying to get her work done, TopView quickly fizzled into irrelevance, providing in the process an early warning sign to IBM, should they choose to heed it, that their omnipotence in the microcomputer market wasn’t as complete as it had been for so long in the mainframe market. IBM, a company that didn’t abandon products easily, wouldn’t officially discontinue TopView until 1988. By that time, though, the most common reaction to the news would be either “Geez, that old thing was still around?” or, more likely, “What’s TopView?”

Of course, all of this was the best possible news from Microsoft’s perspective. IBM still needed the MS-DOS they provided as much as ever — and, whatever else happened, TopView wasn’t going to be the as-yet-unreleased Windows’s undoing.

In the meantime, Bill Gates had Windows itself to worry about, and that was becoming more than enough to contend with. Beginning in February of 1984, when the planned Windows release date was given a modest push from April to May of that year, Microsoft announced delay after delay after delay. The constant postponements made the project an industry laughingstock. It became the most prominent target for a derisive new buzzword that had been coined by a software developer named Ann Winblad in 1983: “vaporware.”

Inside Microsoft, Windows’s reputation was little better. As 1984 wore on, the project seemed to be regressing rather than progressing, becoming a more and more ramshackle affair that ran more and more poorly. Microsoft’s own application developers kicked and screamed when asked to consider writing something for Windows; they all wanted to write for the sexy Macintosh.

Neil Konzen, a Microsoft programmer who had been working with the Macintosh since almost two years before that machine’s release, was asked to take a hard look at the state of Windows in mid-1984. He told Bill Gates that it was “a piece of crap,” “a total disaster.” Partially in response to that verdict, Gates pushed through a corporate reorganization, placing Steve Ballmer, his most trusted lieutenant, in charge of system software and thus of Windows. He reportedly told Ballmer to get Windows done or else find himself a job at another company. And in corporate America, of course, shit rolls downhill; Ballmer started burning through Windows project managers at a prodigious pace. The project acquired a reputation inside Microsoft as an assignment to be avoided at all costs, a place where promising careers went to die. Observers inside and outside the project’s orbit were all left with the same question: just what the hell was preventing all these smart people from just getting Windows done?

The fact was that Windows was by far the biggest thing Microsoft had ever attempted from the standpoint of software engineering, and it exposed the limitations of the development methodology that had gotten them this far. Ever since the days when Gates himself had cranked out their very first product, a version of BASIC to be distributed on paper tape for the Altair kit computer, Microsoft had functioned as a nested set of cults of personality, each project driven by if not belonging solely to a single smart hacker who called all the shots. For some time now, the cracks in this edifice had been peeking through; even when working on the original IBM PC, Gates was reportedly shocked and nonplussed at the more structured approach to project management that was the norm at IBM, a company that had already brought to fruition some of the most ambitious projects in the history of the computer industry. And IBM’s project managers felt the same way upon encountering Microsoft. “They were just a bunch of nerds, just kids,” remembers one. “They had no test suites, nothing.” Or, as another puts it:

They had a model where they just totally forgot about being efficient. That blew our minds. There we were watching all of these software tools that were supposed to work together being built by totally independent units, and nobody was talking to each other. They didn’t use any of each other’s code and they didn’t share anything.

With Windows, the freelancing approach to software development finally revealed itself to be clearly, undeniably untenable. Scott MacGregor, the recent arrival from Xerox who was Windows’s chief technical architect in 1984, remembers his frustration with this hugely successful young company — one on whose products many of the Fortune 500 elite of the business world were now dependent — that persisted in making important technical decisions on the basis of its employees’ individual whims:

I don’t think Bill understood the magnitude of doing a project such as Windows. All the projects Bill had ever worked on could be done in a week or a weekend by one or two different people. That’s a very different kind of project than one which takes multiple people more than a year to do.

I don’t think of Bill as having a lot of formal management skills, not in those days. He was kind of weak on managing people, so there was a certain kind of person who would do well in the environment. There were a lot of people at that time with no people skills whatsoever, people who were absolutely incompetent at managing people. It was the Peter Principle: very successful technical people would get promoted to management roles. You’d get thirty people reporting to one guy who was not on speaking terms with the rest of the group, which is inconceivable.

One has to suspect that MacGregor had one particular bête noir in mind when talking about his “certain kind of person.” In the eyes of MacGregor and many others inside Microsoft, Steve Ballmer combined most of Bill Gates’s bad qualities with none of his good ones. Like Gates, he had a management style that often relied on browbeating, but he lacked the technical chops to back it up. He was a yes man in a culture that didn’t suffer fools gladly, a would-be motivational speaker who too often failed to motivate, the kind of fellow who constantly talked at you rather with you. One telling anecdote has him visiting the beleaguered Windows team to deliver the sort of pep talk one might give to a football team at halftime, complete with shouts and fist pumps. He was greeted by… laughter. “You don’t believe in this?” Ballmer asked, more than a little taken aback. The team just stood there uncomfortably, uncertain how to respond to a man that MacGregor and many of the rest of them considered almost a buffoon, a “non-tech cheerleader.”

And yet MacGregor had problems of his own in herding the programmers who were expected to implement his grand technical vision. Many of them saw said vision as an overly slavish imitation of the Xerox Star office system, whose windowing system he had previously designed. He seemed willfully determined to ignore the further GUI innovations of the Macintosh, a machine with which much of Microsoft — not least among them Bill Gates — were deeply enamored. The most irritating aspect of his stubbornness was his insistence that Windows should employ only “tiled windows” that were always stretched the horizontal length of the screen and couldn’t overlay one another or be dragged about freely in the way of their equivalents on the Macintosh.

All of this created a great deal of discord inside the project, especially given that much of MacGregor’s own code allegedly didn’t work all that well. Eventually Gates and Ballmer brought in Neil Konzen to rework much of MacGregor’s code, usurping much of his authority in the process. As Windows began to slip through MacGregor’s fingers, it began to resemble the Macintosh more and more; Konzen was so intimately familiar with Apple’s dream machine that Steve Jobs had once personally tried to recruit him. According to Bob Belleville, another programmer on the Windows team, Konzen gave to Windows “the same internal structure” as the Macintosh operating system; “in fact, some of the same errors were carried across.” Unfortunately, the tiled-windows scheme was judged to be too deeply embedded by this point to change.

In October of 1984, Microsoft announced that Windows wouldn’t ship until June of 1985. Gates sent Ballmer on an “apology tour” of the technology press, prostrating himself before journalist after journalist. It didn’t seem to help much; the press continued to pile on with glee. Stewart Alsop II, the well-respected editor of InfoWorld magazine, wrote that “buyers probably believe the new delivery date for Windows with the same fervor that they believe in Santa Claus.” Then, he got downright nasty: “If you’ve got something to sell, deliver. Otherwise, see to the business of creating the product instead of hawking vaporware.”

If the technology press was annoyed with Microsoft’s constant delays and prevarications, the third parties who had decided or been pressured into supporting Windows were getting even more impatient. One by one, the clone makers who had agreed to ship Windows with their machines backed out of their deals. Third-party software developers, meanwhile, kept getting different versions of the same letter from Microsoft: “We’ve taken the wrong approach, so everything you’ve done you need to trash and start over.” They too started dropping one by one off the Windows bandwagon. The most painful defection of all was that of Lotus, who now reneged on their promise of a Windows version of Lotus 1-2-3. The latter was the most ubiquitous single software product in corporate America, excepting only MS-DOS, and Microsoft had believed that the Windows Lotus 1-2-3 would almost guarantee their new GUI environment’s success. The question now must be whether the lack of same would have the opposite effect.

In January of 1985, Steve Ballmer brought in Microsoft’s fifth Windows project manager: Tandy Trower, a three-year veteran with the company who had recently been managing Microsoft BASIC. Trower was keenly aware of Bill Gates’s displeasure at recent inroads being made into Microsoft’s traditional BASIC-using demographic by a new product called Turbo Pascal, from a new industry player called Borland. The Windows project’s reputation inside Microsoft was such that he initially assumed he was being set up to fail, thereby giving Gates an excuse to fire him. “Nobody wanted to touch Windows,” remembers Trower. “It was like the death project.”

Trower came in just as Scott MacGregor, the Xerox golden boy who had arrived amidst such high expectations a year and a half before, was leaving amidst the ongoing discord and frustration. Ballmer elected to replace MacGregor with… himself as Windows’s chief technical architect. Not only was he eminently unqualified for such a role, but he thus placed Trower in the awkward position of having the same person as both boss and underling.

As it happened, though, there wasn’t a lot of need for new technical architecting. In that respect at least, Trower’s brief was simple. There were to be no new technical or philosophical directions explored, no more debates over the merits of tiled versus overlapping windows or any of the rest. The decisions that had already been made would remain made, for better or for worse. Trower was just to get ‘er done, thereby stemming the deluge of mocking press and keeping Ballmer from having to go on any more humiliating apology tours. He did an admirable job, all things considered, of bringing some sort of coherent project-management methodology to a group of people who desperately needed one.

What could get all too easily lost amidst all the mockery and all very real faults with the Windows project as a functioning business unit was the sheer difficulty of the task of building a GUI environment without abandoning the legacy of MS-DOS. Unlike Apple, Microsoft didn’t enjoy the luxury of starting with a clean slate; they had to keep one foot in the past as well as one in the future. Nor did they enjoy their competitor’s advantage of controlling the hardware on which their GUI environment must run. The open architecture of the IBM PC, combined with a market for clones that was by now absolutely exploding, meant that Microsoft was forced to contend with a crazy quilt of different hardware configurations. All those different video cards, printers, and memory configurations that could go into an MS-DOS machine required Microsoft to provide drivers for them, while all of the popular existing MS-DOS applications had to at the very least be launchable from Windows. Apple, by contrast, had been able to build the GUI environment of their dreams with no need to compromise with what had come before, and had released exactly two Macintosh models to date — models with an architecture so closed that opening their cases required a special screwdriver only available to Authorized Apple Service Providers.

In the face of all the challenges, some thirty programmers under Trower “sweated blood trying to get this thing done,” as one of them later put it. It soon became clear that they weren’t going to make the June 1985 deadline (thus presumably disappointing those among Stewart Alsop’s readers who still believed in Santa Claus). Yet they did manage to move forward in far more orderly fashion than had been seen during all of the previous year. Microsoft was able to bring to the Comdex trade show in May of 1985 a version of Windows which looked far more complete and polished than anything they had shown before, and on June 28, 1985, a  feature-complete “Preview Edition” was sent to many of the outside developers who Microsoft hoped would write applications for the new environment. But the official first commercial release of Windows, known as Windows 1.01, didn’t ship until November of 1985, timed to coincide with that fall’s Comdex show.

In marked contrast to the inescapable presence Windows had been at its first Comdex of two years before, the premiere of an actual shipping version of Windows that November was a strangely subdued affair. But then, the spirit of the times as well was now radically different. In the view of many pundits, the bloom was rather off the rose for GUIs in general. Certainly the GUI-mania of the Fall 1983 Comdex and Apple’s “1984” advertisement now seemed like the distant past. IBM’s pseudo-GUI TopView had already failed, as had Visi On, while the various other GUI products on offer for MS-DOS machines were at best struggling for marketplace acceptance. Even the Macintosh had fallen on hard times, such that many were questioning its very survival. Steve Jobs, the GUI’s foremost evangelist, had been ignominiously booted from Apple the previous summer — rendered, as the conventional wisdom would have it, a has-been at age thirty. Was the GUI itself doomed to suffer the same fate? What, asked the conventional-wisdom spouters, was really so bad about MS-DOS’s blinking command prompt? It was good enough to let corporate America get work done, and that was the important thing. Surely it wouldn’t be Windows, an industry laughingstock for the better part of two years now, that turned all this GUI hostility back in the market’s face. Windows was launching into a headwind fit to sink the Queen Mary.

It was a Microsoft public-relations specialist named Pam Edstrom who devised the perfect way of subverting the skepticism and even ridicule that was bound to accompany the belated launch of the computer industry’s most infamous example of vaporware to date. She did so by stealing a well-worn page from the playbook of media-savvy politicians and celebrities who have found themselves embroiled in controversy. How do you stop people making fun of you? Why, you beat them to the punch by making fun of yourself first.

Edstrom invited everybody who was anybody in technology to a “Microsoft Roast” that Comdex. The columnist John C. Dvorak became master of ceremonies, doing a credible job with a comedic monologue to open the affair. (Sample joke about the prematurely bald Ballmer: “When Windows was first announced, Ballmer still had hair!”) Gates and Ballmer themselves then took the stage, where Stewart Alsop presented them with an InfoWorld “Golden Vaporware Award.” The two main men of Microsoft then launched into a comedy routine of their own that was only occasionally cringe-worthy, playing on their established reputations as the software industry’s enfant terrible and his toothy-but-not-overly-bright guard dog. Gates said that Ballmer had wanted to cut features: “He came up with this idea that we could rename this thing Microsoft Window; we would have shipped that a long time ago.” Ballmer told how Gates had ordered him to “ship this thing before the snow falls, or you’ll end your career here doing Windows!”; the joke here was that in Seattle, where the two lived and worked, snow almost never falls. Come the finale, they sang the “The Impossible Dream” together as a giant shopping cart containing the first 500 boxed copies of Windows rolled onto the stage amidst billows of dry ice.

All told, it was a rare display of self-deprecating humanity and showmanship from two people not much known for either. From a PR perspective, it was about the best lemonade Microsoft could possibly have made out of a lemon of a situation. The press was charmed enough to start writing about Windows in more cautiously positive terms than they had in a long, long time. “The future of integration [can] be perceived through Windows,” wrote PC World. Meanwhile Jim Seymour, another respected pundit, wrote a column for the next issue of PC Week that perfectly parroted the message Microsoft was trying to get across:

I am a Windows fan, not because of what it is today but what it almost certainly will become. I think developers who don’t build Windows compatibility into new products and new releases of successful products are crazy. The secret of Windows in its present state is how much it offers program developers. They don’t have to write screen drivers [or] printer drivers; they can offer their customers a kind of two-bit concurrency and data exchange.

The most telling aspect of even the most sympathetic early reviews is their future orientation; they emphasize always what Windows will become, not what it is. Because what Windows actually was in November of 1985 was something highly problematic if not utterly superfluous.

The litany of problems began with that same old GUI bugaboo: performance. Two years before, Bill Gates had promised an environment that would run on any IBM PC or clone with at least 192 K of memory. Technically speaking, Microsoft had come very close to meeting that target: Windows 1.01 would run even on the original IBM PC from 1981, as long as it had at least 256 K of memory. It didn’t even absolutely require a hard drive. But running and running well — or, perhaps better put, running usably — were two very different matters. Windows could run on a floppy-based system, noted PC Magazine dryly, “in the same sense that you can bail a swimming pool dry with a teaspoon.” To have a system that wasn’t so excruciatingly slow as to outweigh any possible benefit it might deliver, you really needed a hard drive, 640 K or more of memory, and an 80286 processor like that found in the IBM PC/AT. Even on a hot-rod machine like this, Windows was far from snappy. “Most people will say that any screen refresh that can be watched takes too long,” wrote PC Magazine. “Very little happens too quickly to see in Windows.” One of Microsoft’s own Windows programmers would later offer a still more candid assessment: even at this late date, he would say, “Windows was a pig,” the result of a project that had passed through too many hands and had too many square chunks of code hammered into too many round holes.

Subjectively, Windows felt like it had been designed and programmed by a group of people who had read a whole lot about the Macintosh but never actually seen or used one. “I use a Macintosh enough to know what a mouse-based point-and-click interface should feel like,” wrote John C. Dvorak after the goodwill engendered by the Microsoft Roast had faded. “Go play with a Mac and you’ll see what I mean. Windows is clunky by comparison. Very clunky.” This reputation for endemic clunkiness — for being a Chrysler minivan pitted against Apple’s fine-tuned Porsche of a GUI — would continue to dog Windows for decades to come. In this first release, it was driven home most of all by the weird and unsatisfying system of “tiled” windows.

All of which was a shame because in certain ways Windows was actually far more technically ambitious than the contemporary Macintosh. It offered a cooperative-multitasking system that, if not quite the preemptive multitasking of TopView or the new Commodore Amiga, was more than the single-tasking Mac could boast. And it also offered a virtual-memory scheme which let the user run more applications than would fit inside 640 K. Additional RAM beyond the 640 K barrier or a hard drive, if either or both were extant, could be used as a swap space when the user tried to open more applications than there was room for in conventional memory. Windows would then automatically copy data back and forth between main memory and the swap space as needed in order to keep things running. The user was thus freed from having to constantly worry about her memory usage, as she did in TopView — although performance problems quickly started to rear their head if she went too crazy. In that circumstance, “the thrashing as Windows alternately loads one application and then the other brings the machine to its knees,” wrote PC Magazine, describing another trait destined to remain a Windows totem for years to come.

A Quick Tour of Windows 1.01


Windows 1.01 boots into what it calls the “MS-DOS Executive,” which resembles one of the many popular aftermarket file managers of the MS-DOS era, such as Norton Commander. Applications are started from here by double-clicking on their actual .exe files. This version of Windows does nothing to insulate the users from the file-level contents of their hard drives; it has no icons representing installed applications and, indeed, no concept of installation at all. Using Windows 1.01 is thus akin to using Windows 10 if the Start Menu, Taskbar, Quick-Launch Toolbar, etc. didn’t exist, and all interactions happened at the level of File Explorer windows.

In a sense, the MS-DOS Executive is Windows. Closing it serves as the shutdown command.

Under Microsoft’s “tiled windows” approach, windows always fill the width of the screen but can be tiled vertically. They’re never allowed to overlap one another under any circumstances, and taken as a group will always fill the screen. One window, the MS-DOS Executive will always be open and thus filling the screen even if nothing else is running. There is no concept of a desktop “beneath” the windows.

Windows can be sized to suit in vertical terms by grabbing the widget at their top right and dragging. Here we’re making the MS-DOS Executive window larger. When we release the mouse button, the Clock window will automatically be made smaller in proportion to its companion’s growth. Remember, overlapping windows aren’t allowed, no matter how hard you try to trick the software…

…with one exception. Sub-windows opened by applications can be dragged freely around the screen and can overlay other windows. Go figure!

If we try to drag a window around by its title bar, an interesting philosophical distinction is revealed between Windows 1.01 and more recent versions. We wind up swapping the contents of one window with those of another. Applications, in other words, aren’t intrinsically bound to their windows, but can be moved among them. In the screenshot above, the disk icon is actually our mouse cursor, representing the MS-DOS Executive window’s contents, which we’re about to swap with the contents of what is currently the Clock window.

Windows 1.01 shipped with Write, a fairly impressive minimalist word processor — arguably the most impressive application ever made for the little-used operating environment.

In contrast to the weirdness of other aspects of Windows 1.01, working within an application like Write feels reassuringly familiar, what with its scroll bars and Macintosh-like pull-down menus. Interestingly, the latter use the click-and-hold approach of the Mac rather than the click-once approach of later versions of Windows.

Windows 1.01 doesn’t have a great way of getting around the 640 K barrier, but it does implement a virtual-memory scheme — no mean feat in itself on a processor without built-in memory protection — which uses any memory beyond 640 K as essentially a RAM disk — or, as Microsoft called it, a “Smart Drive.” In the absence of extra memory, or if it too is filled up, the hard disk becomes the swap area.

By the time Windows was ready, all of the clone makers whom Bill Gates had cajoled and threatened into shipping it with their computers had jumped off the bandwagon, telling him that it had simply taken him too long to deliver, and that the product which he had finally delivered was simply too slow on most hardware for them to foist it on their customers in good conscience. With that path to acceptance closed to them, Microsoft was forced to push Windows as a boxed add-on sold through retail channels, a first for them in the context of a piece of system software. In a measure of just how badly Gates wanted Windows to succeed, Microsoft elected to price it at only $99 — one-tenth of what VisiCorp had tried to ask for Visi On two years before — despite its huge development cost.

Unfortunately, the performance problems, the awkwardness of the tiled windows, and the almost complete lack of native Windows applications beyond those that shipped with the environment outweighed the low price; almost nobody bought the thing. Microsoft was trapped by the old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum that comes with the launch of any new computing platform — a problem that is solved only with difficulty in even the best circumstances. Buyers wanted to see Windows applications before they bought the operating environment, while software developers wanted to see a market full of eager buyers before they invested in the platform. The fact that Windows could run most vanilla MS-DOS applications with some degree or another of felicity only helped the software developers make the decision to stay away unless and until the market started screaming for Windows-native versions of their products. Thus, the MS-DOS compatibility Microsoft had built into Windows, which had been intended as a mere bridge to the Windows-native world of the future, proved something of a double-edged sword.

When you add up all of the hard realities, it comes as little surprise that Microsoft’s first GUI sparked a brief run of favorable press notices, a somewhat longer run of more skeptical commentary, and then disappeared without a trace. Already by the spring of 1986, it was a non-factor, appearing for all the world to be just one more gravestone in the GUI graveyard, likely to be remembered only as a pundit’s punch line. Bill Gates could comfort himself only with the fact that IBM’s own big system-software innovation had landed with a similar splat.

IBM and Microsoft had each tried to go it alone, had each tried to build something better upon the foundation of MS-DOS, and had each struck out swinging. What now? Perhaps the odd couple still needed one another, loathe though either was to admit it. In fact, by that spring of 1986 a gradual rapprochement had already been underway for a year, despite deep misgivings from both parties. TopView and Windows 1 had both been a bust, but neither company had gotten where they were by giving up easily. If they pooled their forces once again, who knew what they might achieve. After all, it had worked out pretty well the first time around.

(Sources: the books The Making of Microsoft: How Bill Gates and His Team Created the World’s Most Successful Software Company by Daniel Ichbiah and Susan L. Knepper, Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire by James Wallace and Jim Erickson, Gates: How Microsoft’s Mogul Reinvented an Industry and Made Himself the Richest Man in America by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology by Charles H. Ferguson and Charles R. Morris, and Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company by Owen W. Linzmayer; PC Magazine of April 30 1985, February 25 1986, April 18 1987, and April 12 1988; Byte of February 1985, May 1988, and the special issue of Fall 1985; InfoWorld of May 7 1984 and November 19 1984; PC World of December 1985; Tandy Trower’s “The Secret Origins of Windows” on the Technologizer website. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)


  1. This is perhaps a good point to introduce a quick primer on multitasking techniques to those of you who may not be familiar with its vagaries. The first thing to understand is that multitasking during this period was fundamentally an illusion. The CPUs in the computers of this era were actually only capable of doing one task at a time. Multitasking was the art of switching the CPU’s attention between tasks quickly enough that several things <em>seemed</em> to be happening at once — that several applications seemed to be running at once. There are two basic approaches to creating this illusionary but hugely useful form of multitasking.</p> <p>Cooperative multitasking — found in systems like the Apple Lisa, the Apple Macintosh between 1987’s System 5 and the introduction of OS X in 2001, and early versions of Microsoft Windows — is so named because it relies on the cooperation of the applications themselves. A well-behaved, well-programmed application is expected to periodically relinquish its control of the computer voluntarily to the operating system, which can then see if any of its own tasks need to be completed or any other applications have something to do. A cooperative-multitasking operating system is easier to program and less resource-intensive than the alternative, but its most important drawback is made clear to the user as soon as she tries to use an application that isn’t terribly well-behaved or well-programmed. In particular, an application that goes into an infinite loop of some sort — a very common sort of bug — will lock up the whole computer, bringing the whole operating system down with it.</p> <p>Preemptive multitasking — found in the Commodore Amiga, Mac OS X, Unix and Linux, and later versions of Microsoft Windows — is so named because it gives the operating system the authority to wrest control from — to <em>preempt</em> — individual applications. Thus even a looping program can only slow down the system as a whole, not kill it entirely. For this reason, it’s by far the more desirable approach to multitasking, but also the more complicated to implement. 

 

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