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Doing Windows, Part 8: The Outsiders

Microsoft Windows 3.0’s conquest of the personal-computer marketplace was bad news for a huge swath of the industry. On the software side, companies like Lotus and WordPerfect, only recently so influential that it was difficult to imagine a world that didn’t include them, would never regain the clout they had enjoyed during the 1980s, and would gradually fade away entirely. On the hardware side, it was true that plenty of makers of commodity PC clones were happier to work with a Microsoft who believed a rising tide lifted all their boats than against an IBM that was continually trying to put them out of business. But what of Big Blue themselves, still the biggest hardware maker of all, who were accustomed to dictating the direction of the industry rather than being dictated to by any mere maker of software? And what, for that matter, of Apple? Both Apple and IBM found themselves in the unaccustomed position of being the outsiders in this new Windows era of computing. Each must come to terms with Microsoft’s newfound but overwhelming power, even as each remained determined not to give up the heritage of innovation that had gotten them this far.

Having chosen to declare war on Microsoft in 1988, Apple seemed to have a very difficult road indeed in front of them — and that was before Xerox unexpectedly reentered the picture. On December 14, 1989, the latter shocked everyone by filing a $150 million lawsuit of their own, accusing Apple of ripping off the user interface employed by the Xerox Star office system before Microsoft allegedly ripped the same thing off from Apple.

The many within the computer industry who had viewed the implications of Apple’s recent actions with such concern couldn’t help but see this latest development as the perfect comeuppance for their overweening position on “look and feel” and visual copyright. These people now piled on with glee. “Apple can’t have it both ways,” said John Shoch, a former Xerox PARC researcher, to the New York Times. “They can’t complain that Microsoft [Windows has] the look and feel of the Macintosh without acknowledging the Mac has the look and feel of the Star.” In his 1987 autobiography, John Sculley himself had written the awkward words that “the Mac, like the Lisa before it, was largely a conduit for technology” developed by Xerox. How exactly was it acceptable for Apple to become a conduit for Xerox’s technology but unacceptable for Microsoft to become a conduit for Apple’s? “Apple is running around persecuting Microsoft over things they borrowed from Xerox,” said one prominent Silicon Valley attorney. The Xerox lawsuit raised uncomfortable questions of the sort which Apple would have preferred not to deal with: questions about the nature of software as an evolutionary process — ideas building upon ideas — and what would happen to that process if everyone started suing everyone else every time somebody built a better mousetrap.

Still, before we join the contemporary commentators in their jubilation at seeing Apple hoisted with their own petard, we should consider the substance of this latest case in more detail. Doing so requires that we take a closer look at what Xerox had actually created back in the day, and take particularly careful note of which of those creations was named in their lawsuit.

Broadly speaking, Xerox created two different GUI environments in the course of their years of experimentation in this area. The first and most heralded of these was known as the Smalltalk environment, pioneered by the researcher Alan Kay in 1975 on a machine called the Xerox Alto, which had been designed at PARC and was built only in limited quantities, without ever being made available for sale through traditional commercial channels. This was the machine and the environment which Steve Jobs so famously saw on his pair of visits to PARC in December of 1979 — visits which directly inspired first the Apple Lisa and later the Macintosh.

The Smalltalk environment running on a Xerox Alto, a machine built at Xerox PARC in the mid-1970s but never commercially released. Many of the basic ideas of the GUI are here, but much remains to be developed and much is implemented only in a somewhat rudimentary way. For instance, while windows can overlap one another, windows that are obscured by other windows are never redrawn. In this way the PARC researchers neatly avoided one of the most notoriously difficult aspects of implementing a windowing system. When Apple programmer Bill Atkinson was part of the delegation who made that December 1979 visit to PARC, he thought he did see windows that continued to update even when partially obscured by other windows. He then proceeded to find a way to give the Lisa and Macintosh’s windowing engine this capability. Seldom has a misunderstanding had such a fortuitous result.

Xerox’s one belated attempt to parlay PARC’s work on the GUI into a real commercial product took the form of the Xerox Star, an integrated office-productivity system costing $16,500 per workstation upon its release in 1981. Neither Kay nor most of the other key minds behind the Alto and Smalltalk were involved in its development. Yet its GUI strikes modern eyes as far more refined than that of Smalltalk. Importantly, the metaphor of the desktop, and the soon-to-be ubiquitous idea of a skeuomorphic user interface built from stand-ins for real-world office equipment — a trash can, file folders, paper documents, etc. — were apparently the brainchildren of the product-focused Star team rather than the blue-sky researchers who worked at PARC during the 1970s.

The Xerox Star office system, which was released in 1981. This system looks much more familiar to our modern eyes than the Xerox Alto’s Smalltalk, sporting such GUI staples as menus, widgets, and icons. Yet it was still lacking in many areas compared to the GUIs that would follow. Windows were neither free-dragging nor overlapping, and its menus were one-shot commands, not drop-down lists. It most resembles VisiCorp’s Visi On among the GUIs we’ve looked at closely in this series of articles. Both products serve as a telling snapshot of the state of the art in GUIs just before Apple shook everything up with the Lisa and Macintosh.

The Star, which failed dismally due to its high price and Xerox’s lack of marketing acumen, is often reduced to little more than a footnote to the story of PARC, treated as a workmanlike translation of PARC’s grand ideas and technologies into a somewhat problematic product. Yet there’s actually an important philosophical difference between Smalltalk and the Star, born of the different engineering cultures that produced them. Smalltalk emphasized programming, to the point that the environment could literally be re-programmed on the fly as you used it. This was very much in keeping with the early ethos of home computing as well, when all machines booted into BASIC and an ability to program was considered key for every young person’s future — when every high school, it seemed, was instituting classes in BASIC or Pascal. The Star, on the other hand, was engineered to ensure that the non-technical office worker never needed to see a line of code; this machine conformed to the human rather than asking the human to conform to it. One might say that Smalltalk was intended to make the joy of computing — of using the computer as the ultimate anything machine — as accessible as possible, while the Star was intended to make make you forget that you were using a computer at all.

While I certainly don’t wish to dismiss or minimize the visionary work down at PARC in the 1970s, I do believe that historians of early microcomputer GUIs have tended to somewhat over-emphasize the innovations of Smalltalk and the Alto while selling the Xerox Star’s influence rather short. Steve Jobs’s early visits to PARC are given much weight in the historical record, but it’s sometimes forgotten that anything Apple wished to copy from Smalltalk had to be done from memory; they had no regular access to the PARC technology after those visits. The Star, on the other hand, did ship as a commercial product some two years before the Lisa. Notably, the Star’s philosophy of hiding the “computery” aspects of computing from the user would turn out to be much more in line with the one that guided the Lisa and Macintosh than was Smalltalk’s approach of exposing its innards for all to see and modify. The Star was a closed black box, capable of running only the software provided for it by Xerox. Similarly, the Lisa couldn’t be programmed at all except by buying a second Lisa and chaining the two machines together, and even the Macintosh never had the reputation of being a hacker’s plaything in the way of the earlier, more hobbyist-oriented Apple II. The Lisa and Macintosh thus joined the Star in embracing a clear divide between coding professionals, who wrote the software, and end users, who bought it and used it to get stuff done. One could thus say that they resemble the Star much more than Smalltalk not only visually but philosophically.

Counter-intuitive though it is to the legend of the Macintosh being a direct descendant of the work Steve Jobs saw at PARC, Xerox sued Apple over the interface elements they had allegedly stolen from the Star rather than Smalltalk. In evaluating the merits of their claim today, I’m somewhat hamstrung by the fact that no working emulators of the original Star exist, forcing me to rely on screenshots, manuals, and contemporary articles about the system. Nevertheless, those sources are enough to identify an influence of the Star upon the Macintosh that’s every bit as clear-cut as that of the Macintosh upon Microsoft Windows. It strains the bounds of credibility to believe that the Mac team coincidentally developed a skeuomorphic interface using many of the very same metaphors — including the central metaphor of the desktop — without taking the example of the Star to heart. To this template they added much innovation, including such modern GUI staples as free-dragging and overlapping windows, drop-down menus, and draggable icons, along with staple mouse gestures like the hold-and-drag and the double-click. Nonetheless, the foundations of the Mac can be seen in the Star much more obviously than they can in Smalltalk. Crudely put, Apple copied the Star while adding a whole lot of original ideas to the mix, and then Microsoft copied Apple, adding somewhat fewer ideas of their own. The people rejoicing over the Xerox lawsuit, in other words, had this aspect of the story basically correct, even if they did have a tendency to confuse Smalltalk and the Star and misunderstand which of them Xerox was actually suing over.

MacOS started with the skeuomorphic desktop model of the Xerox Star and added it to such fundamental modern GUI concepts as pull-down menus, hold-and-drag, the double-click, and free-dragging, overlapping windows that update themselves even when partially occluded by others.

Of course, the Xerox lawsuit against Apple was legally suspect for all the same reasons as the Apple lawsuit against Microsoft. If anything, there were even more reasons to question the good faith of Xerox’s lawsuit than Apple’s. The source of Xerox’s sudden litigiousness was none other than Bill Lowe, the former IBM executive whose disastrous PS/2 brainchild had already made his attitude toward intellectual property all too clear. Lowe had made a soft landing at Xerox after leaving IBM, and was now telling the press about the “aggressive stand on copyright and patent issues” his new company would be taking from now on. It certainly sounded like he intended to weaponize the long string of innovations credited to Xerox PARC and the Star — using these ideas not to develop products, but to sue others who dared to do so. Lowe’s hoped-for endgame was weirdly similar to his misbegotten hopes for the PS/2’s Micro Channel Architecture: Xerox would eventually license the right to make GUIs and other products to companies like Apple and Microsoft, profiting off their innovations of the past without having to do much of anything in the here and now. This understandably struck many of the would-be licensees as a less than ideal outcome. That, at least, was something on which Apple, Microsoft, and just about everyone else in the computer industry could agree.

Apple’s legal team was left in one heck of an awkward fix. They would seemingly have to argue against Xerox’s broad interpretation of visual copyright while arguing for that same broad interpretation in their own lawsuit against Microsoft — and all in the same court in front of the same judge. Any victory against Xerox could lead to their own words being used against them to precipitate a loss against Microsoft, and vice versa.

It was therefore extremely fortunate for Apple that Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down Xerox’s lawsuit almost before it had gotten started. At the time of their court filing, Xerox was already outside the statute of limitations for a copyright-infringement claim of the type that Apple had filed against Microsoft. They had thus been forced to make a claim of “unfair competition” instead — a claim which carried with it a much higher evidentiary standard. On March 24, 1990, Judge Walker tossed the Xerox lawsuit, saying it didn’t meet this standard and making the unhelpful observation to Xerox that it would have made a lot more sense as a copyright claim. Apple had dodged a bullet, and Bill Lowe would have to find some other way to make money for his new company.

With the Xerox sideshow thus dispensed with, Apple’s lawyers could turn their attention back to the main event, their case against Microsoft. The same Judge Walker who had decided in their favor against Xerox had taken over from Judge William Schwarzer in the other case as well. No longer needing to worry about protecting their flank from Xerox, Apple’s lawyers pushed for what they called “total concept” or “gestalt” look and feel as the metric for deciding whether Windows infringed upon MacOS. But on March 6, 1991, Judge Walker agreed with Microsoft’s contention that the case should be decided on a “function by function” basis instead. Microsoft began assembling reels of video demonstrating what they claimed to be pre-Macintosh examples of each one of the ten interface elements that were at issue in the case.

So, even as Windows 3.0 was conquering the world outside the courtroom, both sides remained entrenched in their positions inside it, and the case, already three years old, ground on and on through motion after counter-motion. “We’re going to trial,” insisted Edward B. Stead, Apple’s general counsel, but it wasn’t at all clear when that trial would take place. Part of the problem was the sheer pace of external events. As Windows 3.0 became the fastest-selling piece of commercial software the world had ever seen, the scale and scope of Apple’s grievances just kept growing to match. From the beginning, a key component of Microsoft’s strategy had been to gum up the works in court while Windows 3.0 became a fait accompli, the new standard in personal computing, too big for any court to dare attack. That strategy seemed to be working beautifully. Meanwhile Apple’s motions grew increasingly far-fetched, beginning to take on a distinct taint of desperation.

In May of 1991, for example, Apple’s lawyers surprised everyone with a new charge. Still looking for a way to expand the case beyond those aspects of Windows 2 and 3 which hadn’t existed in Windows 1, they now claimed that the 1985 agreement which had been so constantly troublesome to them in that respect was invalid. Microsoft had allegedly defrauded Apple by saying they wouldn’t make future versions of Windows any more similar to the Macintosh than the first was, and then going against their word. This new charge was a hopeful exercise at best, especially given that the agreement Apple claimed Microsoft had broken had been, if it ever existed, strictly a verbal one; absolutely no language to this effect was to be found in the text of the 1985 agreement. Microsoft’s lawyers, once they picked their jaws up off the floor, were left fairly spluttering with indignation. Attorney David T. McDonald labeled the argument “desperate” and “preposterous”: “We’re on the five-yard line, the goal is in sight, and Apple now shows up and says, ‘How about lacrosse instead of football?'” Thankfully, Judge Walker found Apple’s argument to be as ludicrous as McDonald did, thus sparing us all any more sports metaphors.

On April 14, 1992 — now more than four years on from Apple’s original court filing, in a computing climate transformed almost beyond recognition by the rise of Windows — Judge Walker ruled against Apple’s remaining contentions in devastating fashion. Much of the 1985 agreement was indeed invalid, he said, but not for the reason Apple had claimed. What Microsoft had licensed in that agreement were largely “generic ideas” that should never be susceptible to copyright protection in the first place. Apple was entitled to protect very specific visual elements of their displays, such as the actual icons they used, but they weren’t entitled to protect the notion of a screen with icons in the abstract, nor even that of icons representing specific real-world objects, such as a disk, a folder, or a trash can. Microsoft or anyone else could, in other words, make a GUI with a trash-can icon if they wished; they just couldn’t transplant Apple’s specific rendering of a trash can into their own work. Applying the notion of visual copyright any more broadly than this “would afford too much protection and yield too little competition,” said the judge. Apple’s slippery notion of look and feel, it appeared, was dead as a basis for copyright. After all the years of struggle and at least $10 million in attorney fees on both sides, Judge Walker ruled that Apple’s case was too weak to even present before a jury. “Through five years, there were many points where the case got continuously refined and focused and narrowed,” said a Microsoft spokesman. “Eventually, there was nothing left.”

Still, one can’t accuse Apple of giving up without a fight. They dragged the case out for almost three more years after this seemingly definitive defeat. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Walker’s judgment in 1994, Apple tried to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. That august body announced that they would not hear it on February 21, 1995, thus finally putting an end to the whole tortuous odyssey.

The same press which had been so consumed by the case circa 1988 barely noticed its later developments. The narrative of Microsoft’s utter dominance and Apple’s weakness had become so prevalent by the early 1990s that it had become difficult to imagine any outcome other than a Microsoft victory. Yet the case’s anticlimactic ending obscured how dangerous it had once been, not only for Microsoft but for the software industry as a whole. Whatever one thinks in general of the products and business practices of the opposing sides, a victory for Apple would have been a terrible result for the personal-computer industry. The court got this one right in striking all of Apple’s claims down so thoroughly — something that can’t always be said about collisions between technology and the law. Bill Gates could walk away knowing the long struggle had struck an important blow for an ongoing culture of innovation in the software industry. Indeed, like the victory of his hero Henry Ford over a group of automotive patent trolls eighty years before, his victory would benefit his whole industry along with his company — which isn’t to say, of course, that he would have fought the war purely for the sake of altruism.

John Sculley, for his part, was gone from Apple well before the misguided lawsuit he had fostered came to its final conclusion. He was ousted by his board of directors in 1993, after it became clear that Apple would post a loss of close to $200 million for the year. Yet his departure brought no relief to the problems of dwindling market share, dwindling focus, and, most worrisome of all, a dwindling sense of identity. Apple languished, embittered about the ideas Microsoft had “stolen” from them, while Windows conquered the world. One could certainly argue that they deserved a better fate on the basis of a Macintosh GUI that still felt far slicker and more intuitive than Microsoft’s, but the reality was that their own poor decisions, just as much as Microsoft’s ruthlessness, had led them to this sorry place. The mid-1990s saw them mired in the greatest crisis of confidence of their history, licensing the precious Macintosh technology to clone makers and seriously considering breaking themselves up into two companies to appease their angriest shareholder contingents. For several years to come, there would be a real question of whether any part of the company would survive to see the new millennium. Gone were the Jobsian dreams of changing the world through better computing; Apple was reduced to living on Microsoft’s scraps. Microsoft had won in the marketplace as thoroughly as they had in court.

But the full story of Apple’s 1990s travails is one to take up at another time. Now, we should turn to IBM, to see how they coped after the MS-DOS-based Windows, rather than the OS/2-based Presentation Manager, made the world safe for the GUI.

Throughout 1990, that year of wall-to-wall hype over Windows 3.0, Microsoft persisted in dampening expectations for OS/2 in a way that struck IBM as deliberate. The agreement that MS-DOS and Windows were for low-end computers, OS/2 and the Presentation Manager for high-end ones, seemed to have been forgotten by Microsoft as soon as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer left the Fall 1989 Comdex at which it had been announced. Gates now said that it could take OS/2 another three or four years to inherit the throne from MS-DOS, and by that time it would probably be running Windows rather than Presentation Manager anyway. Ballmer said that OS/2 was really meant to compete with high-end client/server operating systems like Unix, not with desktop operating systems like MS-DOS. They both said that “there will be a DOS 5, 6, and 7, and a Windows 4 and 5.” Meanwhile IBM was predictably incensed by Windows 3.0’s use of protected mode and the associated shattering of the 640 K barrier; that sort of thing was supposed to have been the purview of the more advanced OS/2.

Back in late 1988, Microsoft had hired a system-software architect from DEC named David Cutler to oversee the development of OS/2 2.0. No shrinking violet, he promptly threw out virtually all of the existing OS/2 code, which he pronounced a bloated mess, and started over from scratch on an operating system that would fulfill Microsoft’s original vision for OS/2, being targeted at machines with an 80386 or better processor. The scope and ambition of this project, along with the fact that Microsoft wished to keep it entirely in-house, had turned into yet one more source of tension between the two companies; it could be years still before Cutler’s OS/2 2.0 was ready. There remained little semblance of any coordinated strategy between the two companies, in public or in private.

And yet, in September of 1990, IBM and Microsoft announced a new roadmap for OS/2’s future. The two companies together would finish up one more version of the first-generation OS/2 — OS/2 1.3, which was scheduled to ship the following month — and that would be the end of that lineage. Then IBM would develop an OS/2 2.0 alone — a project they hoped to have done in a year or so — while Cutler’s team at Microsoft continued with the complete rewrite that was now to be marketed as OS/2 3.0.

The announcement, whose substance amounted to a tacit acknowledgement that the two companies simply couldn’t work together anymore on the same project, caused heated commentary in the press. It seemed a convoluted way to evolve an operating system at best, and it was happening at the same time that Microsoft seemed to be charging ahead — and with massive commercial success at that — on MS-DOS and Windows as the long-term face of personal computing in the 1990s. InfoWorld wrote of a “deepening rift” between Microsoft and IBM, characterizing the latest agreement as IBM “seizing control of OS/2’s future.” “Although in effect IBM and Microsoft will say they won’t divorce ‘for the sake of the children,'” said an inside source to the magazine, “in fact they are already separated, and seeking new relationships.” Microsoft pushed back against the “divorce” meme only in the most tepid fashion. “You may not understand our marriage,” said Steve Ballmer, “but we’re not getting divorced.” (One might note that when a couple have to start telling friends that they aren’t getting a divorce, it usually isn’t a good sign about the state of their relationship…)

Charles Petzold, writing in PC Magazine, summed up the situation created by all the mixed messaging: “The key words in operating systems are confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt. Unfortunately, the two guiding lights of this industry — IBM and Microsoft — are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.” If anything, this view of IBM as an ongoing “guiding light” was rather charitable.  OS/2 was drowning in the Windows hype. “The success of Windows 3.0 has already caused OS/2 acceptance to go from dismal to cataclysmic,” wrote InfoWorld. “Analysts have now pushed back their estimates of when OS/2 will gain broad popularity to late this decade, with some predicting that the so-called next-generation operating system is all but dead.”

The final divorce of Microsoft from IBM came soon after to give the lie to all of the denials. In July of 1991, Microsoft announced that the erstwhile OS/2 3.0 was to become its own operating system, separate from both OS/2 and MS-DOS, called Windows NT. With this news, which barely made an impression in the press — it took up less than one quarter of page 87 of that week’s InfoWorld — a decade of cooperation came to an end. From now on, Microsoft and IBM would exist strictly as competitors in a marketplace where Microsoft enjoyed all the advantages. In the final divorce settlement, IBM gave up all rights to the upcoming Windows NT and agreed to pay a small royalty on all future sales of OS/2 (whatever those might amount to), while Microsoft paid a lump sum of around $30 million to be free and clear of their last obligations to the computing giant that had made them what they now were. They greeted this watershed moment with no sentimentality whatever. In a memo that leaked to the press, Bill Gates instead rejoiced that Microsoft was finally free of IBM’s “poor code, poor design, and other overhead.”

Even as the unlikely partnership’s decade of dominance was passing away, Microsoft’s decade of sole dominion was just beginning. The IBM PC and its clones had become the Wintel standard, and would require no further input from Big Blue, thank you very much. IBM’s share of the standard’s sales was already down to 17 percent, and would just keep on falling from there. “Microsoft is now driving the industry, not IBM,” wrote the newsletter Software Publishing by way of stating the obvious.

Which isn’t to say that IBM was going away. While Microsoft was celebrating their emancipation, IBM continued plodding forward with OS/2 2.0, which, like the aborted version 3.0 that was now to be known as Windows NT, ran only on an 80386 or better. They made a big deal of the work-in-progress at the Fall 1991 Comdex without managing to change the narrative around it one bit. The total bill for OS/2 was approaching an astonishing $1 billion, and they had very little to show for it. One Wall Street analyst pronounced OS/2 “the greatest disaster in IBM’s history. The reverberations will be felt throughout the decade.”

At the end of that year, IBM had to report — incredibly, for the very first time in their history — an annual loss. And it was no trivial loss either. The deficit was $2.8 billion, on revenues that had fallen 6.1 percent from the year before. The following year would be even worse, to the tune of a $5 billion loss. No company in the history of the world had ever lost this much money this quickly; by the last quarter of 1993, IBM would be losing $45 million every day. Microcomputers were continuing to replace the big mainframes and minicomputers that had once been the heart of IBM’s business. Now, though, fewer and fewer of those replacement machines were IBM personal computers; whole segments of their business were simply evaporating. The vague distrust IBM had evinced toward Microsoft for most of the 1980s now seemed amply justified, as all of their worst nightmares came true. IBM seemed old, bloated, and, worst of all, irrelevant next to the fresh-faced young Microsoft.

OS/2 2.0 started reaching consumers in May of 1992. It was a surprisingly impressive piece of work; perhaps the relationship with Microsoft had been as frustrating for IBM’s programmers as it had been for their counterparts. Certainly OS/2 2.0 was a far more sophisticated environment than Windows 3.0. Being designed to run only on 32-bit microprocessors like the 80386 and 80486, it utilized them to their maximum potential, which was much more than one could say for Windows, while also being much more stable than Microsoft’s notoriously crash-prone environment. In addition to native OS/2 software, it could run multiple MS-DOS applications at the same time with complete compatibility, and, in a new wrinkle added to the mix by IBM, could now run many Windows applications as well. IBM called it “a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows,” a claim which carried a considerable degree of truth. They pointedly cut its suggested list price of $140 to just $50 for Windows users looking to “upgrade.”

A Quick Tour of OS/2 2.0


Shipping on more than twenty 3.5-inch diskettes, OS/2 2.0 was by far more the most elaborate operating system yet made for its family of personal computers. When we boot it up for the first time, we’re given a lengthy interactive tutorial of a sort that was seldom seen in software of 1992 vintage.

The notion of a “Presentation Manager” GUI that’s separate from the core OS/2 operating system has been dropped; OS/2 is now simply OS/2, with a GUI as the standard, built-in interface. From the opening tutorial to the look of its desktop, the whole package reminds one of nothing of so much as the much later Windows 95. We have a full-fledged, functioning desktop workspace here, with icons representing folders and disks, and a “shredder” to replace the usual trash can.

After shipping earlier versions of OS/2 with no extra tools or applets whatsoever, IBM got wise this time around and included plenty of stuff to play with, like this neat little music editor.

Some aspects of the interface are a little strange. Dragging with the mouse is accomplished using the right button rather than the left — a fine example of OS/2’s superficial similarity and granular dissimilarity to Windows, which so many users who had to move back and forth between the environments found so frustrating.

Of course, MS-DOS is still around if you need it. Unlike in OS/2 1.x, here you can have as many MS-DOS windows and applications open as you like.

But, despite its many merits, OS/2 2.0 was a lost cause from the start, at least if one’s standard for success was Windows. Windows 3.1 rolled out of Microsoft at almost the same instant, and no amount of comparisons in techie magazines pointing out the alternative operating system’s superiority could have any impact on a mass market that was now thoroughly conditioned to accept Windows as the standard. Giant IBM’s operating system had become, as the New York Times put it, “an unlikely underdog.”

In truth, the contest was so lopsided by this point as to be laughable. Microsoft, who had long-established relationships with the erstwhile clone makers — now known as makers of hardware conforming to the Wintel standard — understood early, as IBM did only much too late, that the best and perhaps only way to get your system software widely accepted was to sell it pre-installed on the computers that ran it. Thus, by the time OS/2 2.0 shipped, Windows already came pre-installed on nine out of ten personal computers on the market, thanks to a smart and well-funded “original equipment manufacturer” sales team that was overseen personally by Steve Ballmer. And thus, simply by buying a new computer, one automatically became a Windows user. Running OS/2, on the other hand, required that the purchaser of one of these machines decide to go out and buy an alternative to the perfectly good Microsoft software already on her hard drive, and then go through all the trouble of installing and configuring it. Very few people had the requisite combination of motivation and technical skill for an exercise like that.

As a final indignity, IBM themselves had to bow to customer demand and offer MS-DOS and Windows as an optional alternative to OS/2 on their own machines. People wanted the system software that they used at the office, that their friends had, that could run all of the products on the shelves of their local computer store with 100-percent fidelity (with the exception of that oddball Mac stuff off in the corner, of course). Only the gearheads were going to buy OS/2 because it was a 32-bit instead of a 16-bit operating system or because it offered preemptive instead of cooperative multitasking, and they were a tiny slice of an exploding mass market in personal computing.

That said, OS/2 did have a better fate than many another alternative operating system during this period of Windows, Windows everywhere. It stayed around for years even in the face of that juggernaut, going through two more major revisions and many minor ones, the very last coming as late as December of 2001. It remained always a well-respected operating system that just couldn’t break through Microsoft’s choke hold on mainstream computing, having to content itself with certain niches — powering automatic teller machines was a big one for a long time — where its stability and robustness served it well.

So, IBM, and Apple as well, had indeed become the outsiders of personal computing. They would retain that dubious status for the balance of the decade of the 1990s, offering alternatives to the monoculture of Windows computing that appealed only to the tech-obsessed, the idealistic, or the just plain contrarian. Even as much of what I’ve related in this article was taking place, they were being forced into one another’s arms for the sake of sheer survival. But the story of that second unlikely IBM partnership — an awkward marriage of two corporate cultures even more dissimilar than those of Microsoft and IBM — must, like so much else, be told at another time. All that’s left to tell in this series is the story of how Windows, with the last of its great rivals bested, finished the job of conquering the world.

(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 Week of September 24 1990 and January 15 1991; InfoWorld of September 17 1990, May 29 1991, July 29 1991, October 28 1991, and September 6 1993; New York Times of December 29 1989, March 24 1990, March 7 1991, May 24 1991, January 18 1992, August 8 1992, January 20 1993, April 19 1993, and June 2 1993; Seattle Times of June 2 1993. 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 7: Third Time’s the Charm

Microsoft entered the last year of the 1980s looking toward a new decade that seemed equally rife with opportunity and danger. On the one hand, profits were up, and Bill Gates and any number of his colleagues could retire as very rich men indeed even if it all ended tomorrow — not that that outcome looked likely. The company was coming to be seen as the standard setter of the personal-computer industry, more important even than an IBM that had been gravely weakened by the PS/2 debacle and the underwhelming reception of OS/2. Microsoft Windows, now once again viewed by Gates as the keystone of his company’s future after the disappointment that had been OS/2, stood to benefit greatly from Microsoft’s new clout. Windows 2 had gained some real traction, and the upcoming Windows 3 was being talked about with mounting expectation by an MS-DOS marketplace that finally seemed to be technologically and psychologically ready for a GUI environment.

The more worrisome aspects of the future, on the other hand, all swirled around the other two most important companies in American business computing. Through most of the decade now about to pass away, Microsoft had managed to maintain cordial if not always warm relationships with both IBM and Apple — until, that is, the latter declared war by filing a copyright-infringement lawsuit against Windows in 1988. The stakes of that lawsuit were far greater than any mere monetary settlement; they were rather the very right of Windows to continue to exist. It wasn’t at all clear what Microsoft could or would do next if they lost the case and with it Windows. Meanwhile their relationship with IBM was becoming almost equally strained. Disagreements about the technical design of OS/2, along with disputes over the best way to market it, had caused Microsoft to assume the posture of little more than subcontractors working on IBM’s operating system of the future at the same time that they pushed hard on their own Windows. OS/2 and Windows, those two grand bids for the future of mainstream business computing, seemingly had to come into conflict with one another at some point. What happened then? IBM’s reputation had unquestionably been tarnished by recent events, but at the end of the day they were still IBM, the legendary Big Blue, the most important and influential company in the history of computing to date. Was Microsoft ready to take on both Apple and IBM as full-fledged enemies?

So, the people working on Windows 3 had plenty of potential distractions to contend with as they tried to devise a GUI environment good enough to leap into the mainstream. “Just buckle down and make it as good as possible,” said Bill Gates, “and let our lawyers and business strategists deal with the distractions.” By all indications, the Windows people managed to do just that; there’s little indication that all of the external chaos had much effect on their work.

That said, when they did raise their heads from their keyboards, they could take note of encouraging signs that Microsoft might be able to navigate through their troubles with Apple and IBM. As I described in my previous article, on March 18, 1989, Judge William Schwarzer ruled that the 1985 agreement between the two companies applied only to those aspects of Windows 2 — and by inference of an eventual Windows 3 — which had also been a part of Windows 1. Thus the 1985 agreement wouldn’t be Microsoft’s ticket to a quick victory; it appeared that they would rather have to invalidate the very premise of “visual copyright” as applied by Apple in this case in order to win. On July 21, however, Microsoft got some more positive news when Judge Schwarzer made his ruling on exactly which features of Windows 2 weren’t covered by the old agreement. He threw out no less than 250 of Apple’s 260 instances of claimed infringement, vastly simplifying the case — and vastly reducing the amount of damages which Apple could plausibly ask for. The case remained a potential existential threat to Windows, but disposing of what Microsoft’s lawyers trumpeted was the “vast bulk” of it at one stroke did give some reason to take heart. Now, what remained of the case seemed destined to grind away quietly in the background for a long, long time to come — a Sword of Damocles perhaps, but one which Bill Gates at any rate was determined not to let affect the rest of his company’s strategy. If he could make Windows a hit — a fundamental piece of the world’s computing infrastructure — while the case was still grinding on, it would be very difficult indeed for any judge to order the nuclear remedy of banning Microsoft from continuing to sell it.

Microsoft’s strategy with regard to IBM was developing along a similarly classic Gatesian line. Inveterate bets-hedger that he was, Gates wasn’t willing to cut ties completely with IBM, just in case OS/2 and possibly even PS/2 turned around and some of Big Blue’s old clout returned. Instead he was careful to maintain at least a semblance of good relations, standing ready to jump off the Windows bandwagon and back onto OS/2, if it should prove necessary. He was helped immensely in this by the unlamented departure from IBM of Bill Lowe, architect of the disastrous PS/2 strategy, an executive with whom Gates by this point was barely on speaking terms. Replacing Lowe as head of IBM’s PC division was one Jim Cannavino, a much more tech-savvy executive who trusted Gates not in the slightest but got along with him much better one-on-one, and was willing to continue to work with him for the time being.

At the Fall 1989 Comdex, the two companies made a big show of coming together — the latest of the series of distancings and rapprochements that had always marked their relationship. They trotted out a new messaging strategy that had Windows as the partnership’s “low-end” GUI, OS/2’s Presentation Manager as the high-end GUI of the future, suitable at present only for machines with an 80386 processor and at least 4 MB of memory. (The former specification was ironic in light of all the bickering IBM and Microsoft had done in earlier years on the issue of supporting the 80286 in OS/2.) The press release stated that “Windows is not intended to be used as a server, nor will future releases contain advanced OS/2 features [some of which were only planned for future OS/2 releases at this point] such as distributed processing, the 32-bit flat memory model, threads, or long filenames.” The pair even went so far as to recommend that developers working on really big, ambitious applications for the longer-term future focus their efforts on OS/2. (“No advice,” InfoWorld magazine would wryly note eighteen months later, “could have been worse.”)

But Microsoft’s embrace of the plan seemed tentative at best even in the moment. It certainly didn’t help IBM’s comfort level when Steve Ballmer in an unguarded moment blurted out that “face it: in the future, everyone’s gonna run Windows.” Likewise, Bill Gates showed little personal enthusiasm for this idea of Windows as the cut-price, temporary alternative to OS/2 and the Presentation Manager. As usual, he was just trying to keep everyone placated while he worked out for himself what the future held. And as time went on, he seemed to find more and more to like about the idea of a Windows-centric future. Several months after the Comdex show, he got slightly drunk at a big industry dinner, and confessed to rather more than he might have intended. “Six months after Windows 3 ships,” he said, “it will have a greater market share than Presentation Manager will ever have — OS/2 applications won’t have a chance.” He further admitted to deliberately dragging his feet on updates to OS/2 in order to ensure that Windows 3.0 got all the attention in 1990.

He needn’t have worried too much on that front: press coverage of the next Windows was reaching a fever pitch, and evincing little of the skepticism that had accompanied Windows 1 and 2. Throughout 1989, rumors and even the occasional technical document leaked out of Microsoft — and not, one senses, by accident. Carefully timed grist for the rumor mill though it may have been, the news was certainly intriguing on its own merits. The press wrote that Tandy Trower, the manager who had done the oft-thankless job of bringing Windows 1 and 2 to fruition, had transferred off the team, but the team itself was growing like never before, and now being personally supervised once again by the ever-flexible Steve Ballmer, who had left Microsoft’s OS/2 camp and rejoined the Windows zealots. Ballmer had hired visual designer Susan Kare, known throughout the industry as the author of MacOS’s clean and crisp look, to apply some of the same magic to their own GUI.

But for those who understood Windows’s longstanding technical limitations, another piece of news was the most intriguing and exciting of all. Already before the end of 1989, Microsoft started talking openly about their plans to accomplish two things which had heretofore been considered mutually exclusive: to continue running Windows on top of hoary old MS-DOS, and yet to shatter the 640 K barrier once and for all.

It had all begun back in June of 1988, when Microsoft programmer David Weise, one of the former Dynamical Systems Research people who had proved such a boon to Windows, bumped into an old friend named Murray Sargent, a physics professor at the University of Arizona who happened to do occasional contract programming for Microsoft on the side. At the moment, he told Weise, he was working on adding new memory-management functionality to Microsoft’s CodeView debugger, using an emerging piece of software technology known as a “DOS extender,” which had been pioneered over the last couple of years by an innovative company in the system-software space called Quarterdeck Office Systems.

As I’ve had occasion to describe in multiple articles by now, the most crippling single disadvantage of MS-DOS had always been the its inability to directly access more than 640 K of memory, due to its origins on the Intel 8088 microprocessor, which had a sharply limited address space. Intel’s newer 80286 and 80386 processors could run MS-DOS only in their 8088-compatible “real” mode, where they too were limited to 640 K, rather than being able to use their “protected” mode to address up to 16 MB (in the case of the 80286) or 4 GB (in the case of the 80386). Because they ran on top of MS-DOS, most versions of Windows as well had been forced to run in real mode — the sole exception was Windows/386, which made extensive use of the 80386’s virtual mode to ease some but not all of the constant headache that was memory management in the world of MS-DOS. Indeed, when he asked himself what were the three biggest aggravations which working with Windows entailed, Weise had no doubt about the answer: “memory, memory, and memory.” But now, he thought that Sargent might just have found a solution through his tinkering with a DOS extender.

It turned out that the very primitiveness of MS-DOS could be something of a saving grace. Its functions mostly dealt only with the basics of file management. Almost all of the other functions that we think of as rightfully belonging to an operating system were handled either by an extended operating environment like Windows, or not handled at all — i.e., left to the programmer to deal with by banging directly on the hardware. Quarterdeck Office Systems had been the first to realize that it should be possible to run the computer most of the time in protected mode, if only some way could be found to down-shift into real mode when there was a need for MS-DOS, as when a file on disk needed to be read from or written to. This, then, was what a DOS extender facilitated. Its code was stashed into an unused corner of memory and hooked into the function calls that were used for communicating with MS-DOS. That done, the processor could be switched into protected mode for running whatever software you liked with unfettered access to memory beyond 640 K. When said software tried to talk to MS-DOS after that, the DOS extender trapped that function call and performed some trickery: it copied any data that MS-DOS might need to access in order to carry out the task into the memory space below 640 K, switched the CPU into real mode, and then reissued the function call to let MS-DOS act on that data. Once MS-DOS had done its work, the DOS extender switched the CPU back into protected mode, copied any necessary data back to where the protected-mode software expected it to be, and returned control to it.

One could argue that a DOS extender was just as much a hack as any of the other workarounds for the 640 K barrier; it certainly wasn’t as efficient as a more straightforward contiguous memory model, like that enjoyed by OS/2, would have been. It was particularly inefficient on the 80286, which unlike the 80386 had to perform a costly reset every time it was switched between protected and real mode and vice versa. But even so, it was clearly a better hack than any of the ones that had been devised to date. It finally let Intel’s more advanced processors run, most of the time anyway, as their designers had intended them to run. And from the programmer’s perspective it was, with only occasional exceptions, transparent; you just asked for the memory you needed and went about your business from there, and let the DOS extender worry about all the details going on behind the scenes. The technology was still in an imperfect state that summer of 1988, but if it could be perfected it would be a dream come true for programmers, the next best thing to a world completely free of MS-DOS and its limitations. And it might just be a dream come true for Windows as well, thought David Weise.

Quarterdeck may have pioneered the idea of the DOS extender, but their implementation was lacking in the view of Weise and his sometime colleague Murray Sargent. With Sargent’s help in the early stages, Weise implemented his own DOS extender and then his own protected-mode version of Windows which used it over three feverish months of nights and weekends. “We’re not gonna ask anybody, and then if we’re done and they shoot it down, they shoot it down,” he remembers thinking.

There are all these little gotchas throughout it, but basically you just work through the gotchas one at a time. You just close your eyes, and you just charge ahead. You don’t think of the problems, or you’re not gonna do it. It’s fun. Piece by piece, it’s coming. Okay, here come the keyboard drivers, here come the display drivers, here comes GDI — oh, look, here’s USER!

By the fall of of 1988, Weise had his secret project far enough along to present to Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and the rest of the Windows team. In addition to plenty of still-unresolved technical issues, the question of whether a protected-mode Windows would step too much on the toes of OS/2, an operating system whose allure over MS-DOS was partially that it could run in protected mode all the time, haunted the discussion. But Gates, exasperated beyond endurance by IBM, wasn’t much inclined to defer to them anymore. Never a boss known for back-patting, he told Weise simply, “Okay, let’s do it.”

Microsoft would eventually release their approach to the DOS extender as an open protocol called the “DOS Protected Mode Interface,” or DPMI. It would change the way MS-DOS-based computers were programmed forever, not only inside Windows but outside of it as well. The revolutionary non-Windows game Doom, for example, would have been impossible without the standalone DOS extender DOS/4GW, which implemented the DPMI specification and was hugely popular among game programmers in particular for years. So, DPMI became by far the most important single innovation of Windows 3.0. Ironically given that it debuted as part of an operating environment designed to hide the ongoing existence of MS-DOS from the user, it single-handedly made MS-DOS a going concern right through the decade of the 1990s, giving the Quick and Dirty Operating System That Refused to Die a lifespan absolutely no one would ever have dreamed for it back in 1981.

But the magic of DPMI wouldn’t initially apply to all Windows systems. Windows 3.0 could still run, theoretically at least, on even a lowly 8088-based PC compatible from the early 1980s — a computer whose processor didn’t have a protected mode to be switched into. For all that he had begged and cajoled IBM to make OS/2 an 80386-exclusive operating system, Bill Gates wasn’t willing to abandon less powerful machines for Microsoft’s latest operating environment. In addition to fueling conspiracy theories that Gates had engineered OS/2 to fail from the beginning, this data point did fit the brief-lived official line that OS/2 was for high-end machines, Windows for low-end machines. Yet the real reasons behind it were more subtle. Partially due to a global chip shortage that made all sorts of computers more expensive in the late 1980s and briefly threatened to derail the inexorable march of Moore’s Law, users hadn’t flocked to the 80386-based machines quite as quickly as Microsoft had anticipated when the OS/2 debate was raging back in 1986. The fattest part of the market’s bell curve circa 1989 was still the 80286 generation of computers, with a smattering of pace-setting 80386s and laggardly 8088s on either side of them. Microsoft thus ironically judged the 80386 to be exactly the bridge too far in 1989 that IBM had claimed it to be in 1986. Even before Windows 3.0 came out, the chip shortage was easing and Moore’s Law was getting back on track; Intel started producing their fourth-generation microprocessor, the 80486, in the last weeks of 1989.1 For the time being, though, Windows was expected to support the full range of MS-DOS-based computers, reaching all the way back to the beginning.

And yet, as we’ve seen, DPMI was just too brilliant an innovation to give up in the name of maintaining compatibility with antiquated 8088-based machines. MS-DOS had for years been forcing owners of higher-end hardware to use their machines in a neutered fashion, and Microsoft wasn’t willing to continue that dubious tradition in the dawning era of Windows. So, they decided to ship three different versions of Windows in every box. When started on an 8088-class machine, or on any machine without memory beyond 640 K, Windows ran in “real mode.” When started on an 80286 with more than 640 K of memory, or on an 80386 with more than 640 K but less than 2 MB of memory, it ran in “standard mode.” And when started on an 80386 with at least 2 MB of memory, it ran in its ultimate incarnation: “386 enhanced mode.”

In both of the latter modes, Windows 3.0 could offer what had long been the Holy Grail for any MS-DOS-hosted GUI environment: an application could simply request as much memory as it needed, without having to worry about what physical addresses that memory included or whether it added up to more than 640 K.2 No earlier GUI environment, from Microsoft or anyone else, had met this standard.

In the 386-enhanced mode, Windows 3.0 also incorporated elements of the earlier Windows/386 for running vanilla MS-DOS applications. Such applications ran in the 80386’s virtual mode; thus Windows 3.0 used all three operating modes of the 80386 in tandem, maximizing the potential of a chip whose specifications owed a lot to Microsoft’s own suggestions. When running on an 8088 or 80286, Windows still served as little more than a task launcher for MS-DOS applications, but on an 80386 with enough memory they multitasked as seamlessly as native Windows applications — or perhaps more so: vanilla MS-DOS applications running inside their virtual machines actually multitasked preemptively, while normal Windows applications only multitasked cooperatively. So, on an 80386 in particular, Windows 3.0 had a lot going for it even for someone who couldn’t care less about Susan Kare’s slick new icons. It was much, much more than just a pretty face.3

Which isn’t to say that the improved aesthetics weren’t hugely significant in their own right. While the full technical import of Windows 3.0’s new underpinnings would take some time to fully grasp, it was immediately obvious that it was slicker and far more usable than what had come before. Macintosh zealots would continue to scoff, at times with good reason, at the clunkier aspects of the environment, but it unquestionably came far closer than anything yet to that vision which Bill Gates had expressed in an unguarded moment back in 1984 — the vision of “the Mac on Intel hardware.”

A Quick Tour of Windows 3.0


Windows 3.0 really is a dramatic leap compared to what came before. The text-based “MS-DOS Executive” — just the name sounds clunky, doesn’t it? — has been replaced by the “Program Manager.” Applications are now installed, and are represented as icons; we’re no longer forced to scroll through long lists of filenames just to start our word processor. Indeed, the whole environment is much more attractive in general, having finally received some attention from real visual designers like Susan Kare of Macintosh fame.

One area that’s gotten a lot of attention from the standpoint of both usability and aesthetics is the Control Panel. Much of this part of Windows 3.0 is lifted directly from the OS/2 Presentation Manager — with just enough differences introduced to frustrate.

In one of the countless new customization and personalization options, we can now use images as our desktop background, .

The help system is extensive and comprehensive. Years before a web browser became a standard Windows component, Windows Help was a full-fledged hypertext reader, a maze of twisty little links complete with embedded images and sounds.

The icons on the desktop still represent only running applications that have been minimized. We would have to wait until Windows 95 for the desktop-as-general-purpose-workspace concept to reach fruition.

For all the aesthetic improvements, the most important leap made by Windows 3.0 is its shattering of the 640 K barrier. When run on an 80286 or 80386, it uses Microsoft’s new DPMI technology to run in those processors’ protected mode, leaving the user and (for the most part) the programmer with just one heap of memory to think about; no more “conventional” and “extended” and “expanded” memory to scratch your head over. It’s difficult to exaggerate what a miracle this felt like after all the years of struggle. Finally, the amount of memory you had in your machine was the amount of memory you had to run Windows and its applications — end of story.

In contrast to all of the improvements in the operating environment itself, the set of standard applets that shipped with Windows 3.0 is almost unchanged since the days of Windows 1.

The Program Manager, like the MS-DOS Executive before it, in a sense is Windows; we close it to exit the operating environment itself and return to the MS-DOS prompt.

A consensus emerged well ahead of Windows 3.0’s release that this was the GUI which corporate America could finally embrace — that the GUI’s time had come, and that this GUI was the one destined to become the standard. One overheated pundit declared that “this is probably the most anticipated product in the history of the world.” Microsoft did everything possible to stoke those fires of anticipation. Rather than aligning the launch with a Comdex show, they opted to put-on a glitzy Apple-style self-standing media event to mark the beginning of the Windows 3.0 era. In fact, one might even say that they rather outdid the famously showy Apple.

The big rollout took place on May 22, 1990, at New York’s Center City at Columbus Circle. A hundred third-party publishers showed up with Windows 3.0 applications, along with fifty hardware makers who were planning to ship it pre-installed on every machine they sold. Closed-circuit television feeds beamed the proceedings to big-screen theaters in half a dozen other cities in the United States, along with London, Paris, Madrid, Singapore, Stockholm, Milan, and Mexico City. Everywhere standing-room-only crowds clustered, made up of those privileged influence-wielders who could score a ticket to what Bill Gates himself described as “the most extravagant, extensive, and elaborate software introduction ever,” to the tune of a $3 million price tag. Microsoft had tried to go splashy from time to time before, but never had they indulged in anything like this. It was, Gates’s mother reckoned, the “happiest day of Bill’s life” to date.

The industry press was carried away on Microsoft’s river of hype, manifesting on their behalf a messianic complex that was as worthy of Apple as had been the big unveiling. “If you think technology has changed the world in the last few years, hold on to your seats,” wrote one pundit. Gates made the rounds of talk shows like Good Morning America, as Microsoft spent another $10 million on an initial advertising campaign and carpet-bombed the industry with 400,000 demonstration copies of Windows 3.0, sent to anyone who was or might conceivably become a technology taste-maker.

The combination of wall-to-wall hype and a truly compelling product was a winning one; this time, Microsoft wouldn’t have to fudge their Windows sales numbers. When they announced that they had sold 1 million boxed copies of Windows 3.0 in the first four months, each for $80, no one doubted them. “There is nothing that even compares or comes close to the success of this product,” said industry analyst Tim Bajarin. He went on to note in a more ominous vein that “Microsoft is on a path to continue dominating everything in desktop computing when it comes to software. No one can touch or even slow them down.”

Windows 3.0 inevitably won “Best Business Program” for 1990 from the Software Publishers Association, an organization that ran on the hype generated by its members. More persuasive were the endorsements from other sources. For example, after years of skepticism toward previous versions of Windows, the hardcore tech-heads at Byte magazine were effusive in their praise of this latest one, titling their first review thereof simply “Three’s the One.” “On both technical and strategic grounds,” they wrote, “Windows 3.0 succeeds brilliantly. After years of twists and turns, Microsoft has finally nailed this product. Try it. You’ll like it.” PC Computing put an even more grandiose spin on things, straining toward a scriptural note (on the Second Day, Microsoft created the MS-DOS GUI, and it was Good):

When the annals of the PC are written, May 22, 1990, will mark the first day of the second era of IBM-compatible PCs. On that day, Microsoft released Windows 3.0. And on that day, the IBM-compatible PC, a machine hobbled by an outmoded, character-based operating system and 1970s-style programs, was transformed into a computer that could soar in a decade of multitasking graphical operating environments and powerful new applications. Windows 3.0 gets right what its predecessors — Visi On, GEM, earlier versions of Windows, and OS/2 Presentation Manager — got wrong. It delivers adequate performance, it accommodates existing DOS applications, and it makes you believe that it belongs on a PC.

Windows 3.0 sold and sold and sold, like no piece of software had ever sold before, transforming in a matter of months the picture that sprang to most people’s minds when they thought of personal computing from a green screen with a blinking command prompt to a mouse pointer, icons, and windows — thus accomplishing the mainstream computing revolution that Apple had never been able to manage, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of their old “1984” advertisement. Windows became so ubiquitous so quickly that the difficult questions that had swirled around Microsoft prior to its launch — the question of Apple’s legal case and the question of Microsoft’s ongoing relationship with IBM and OS/2 — faded into the background noise, just as Bill Gates had hoped they would.

Sure, Apple zealots and others could continue to scoff, could note that Windows crashed all too easily, that too many things were still implemented clunkily in comparison to MacOS, that the inefficiencies that came with building on such a narrow foundation as MS-DOS meant that it craved far better hardware than it ought to in order to run decently. None of it mattered. All that mattered was that Windows 3.0 was a usable, good-enough GUI that ran on cheap commodity hardware, was free of the worst drawbacks that came with MS-DOS, and had plenty of software available for it — enough native software, in fact, to make its compatibility with vanilla MS-DOS software, once considered so vital for any GUI hoping to make a go of it, almost moot. The bet Bill Gates had first put down on something called the Interface Manager before the IBM PC even officially existed, which he had doubled down on again and again only to come up dry every time, had finally paid off on a scale even he hadn’t ever imagined. Microsoft would sell 2.75 million copies of Windows 3.0 by the end of 1990 — and then the surge really began. Sales hit 15 million copies by the end of 1991. And yet if anything such numbers underestimate its ubiquity at the end of its first eighteen months on the market. Thanks to widespread piracy which Microsoft did virtually nothing to prevent, estimates were that at least two copies of Windows had been installed for every one boxed copy that had been purchased. Windows was the new standard for mainstream personal computing in the United States and, increasingly, all over the world.

At the Comdex show in November of 1990, Bill Gates stepped onstage to announce that Windows 3.0 had already gotten so big that no general-purpose trade show could contain it. Instead Microsoft would inaugurate the Windows World Exposition Conference the following May. Then, after that and the other big announcements were all done, he lapsed into a bit of uncharacteristic (albeit carefully scripted) reminiscing. He remembered coming onstage at the Fall Comdex of seven years before to present the nascent first version of Windows, infamously promising that it would be available by April of 1984. Everyone at that show had talked about how relentlessly Microsoft laid on the Windows hype, how they had never seen anything quite like it. Yet, looking back, it all seemed so unbearably quaint now. Gates had spent all of an hour preparing his big speech to announce Windows 1.0, strolled onto a bare stage carrying his own slide projector, and had his father change the slides for him while he talked. Today, the presentation he had just completed had consisted of four big screens, each featuring people with whom he had “talked” in a carefully choreographed one-man show — all in keeping with the buzzword du jour of 1990, “multimedia.”

The times, they were indeed a-changing. An industry, a man, a piece of software, and, most of all, a company had grown up. Gates left no doubt that it was only the beginning, that he intended for Microsoft to reign supreme over the glorious digital future.

All these new technologies await us. Unless they are implemented in standard ways on standard platforms, any technical benefits will be wasted by the further splintering of the information base. Microsoft’s role is to move the current generation of PC software users, which is quickly approaching 60 million, to an exciting new era of improved desktop applications and truly portable PCs in a way that keeps users’ current applications, and their huge investment in them, intact. Microsoft is in a unique position to unify all those efforts.

Once upon a time, words like these could have been used only by IBM. But now Microsoft’s software, not IBM’s hardware, was to define the new “standard platform” — the new safe choice in personal computing. The PC clone was dead. Long live the Wintel standard.

(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; New York Times of March 18 1989 and July 22 1989; PC Magazine of February 12 1991; Byte of June 1990 and January 1992; InfoWorld of May 20 1991; Computer Gaming World of June 1991. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)


  1. The 80486 was far more efficient than its predecessor, boasting roughly twice the throughput when clocked at the same speed. But, unlike the 80286 and 80386, it didn’t sport any new operating modes or fundamentally new capabilities, and thus didn’t demand any special consideration from software like Windows/386 and Windows 3.0 that was already utilizing the 80386 to its full potential. 

  2. This wasn’t quite the “32-bit flat memory model” which Microsoft had explicitly promised Windows would never include in the joint statement with IBM. That referred to an addressing mode unique to the 80386 and its successors, which allowed them to access up to 4 GB of memory in a very flexible way. Having been written to support the 80286, Windows 3.0, even in 386 enhanced mode, was still limited to 16 MB of memory, and had to use a somewhat more cumbersome form of addressing known as a segmented memory model. Still, it was close enough that it arguably went against the spirit of the statement, something that wouldn’t be lost on IBM. 

  3. Memory management on MS-DOS-based versions of Windows is an extremely complicated subject, one which alone has filled thick technical manuals. This article has presented by no means a complete picture, only the most cursory of overviews intended to convey the importance of Windows 3.0’s central innovation of DPMI. In addition to that innovation, though, Windows 3.0 and its successors employed plenty of other tricks, many of them making yet more clever use of the 80386’s virtual mode, Intel’s gift that kept on giving. For truly dedicated historians of a technical bent, I recommend a book such as Unauthorized Windows 95 by Andrew Schulman (which does cover memory management under earlier versions of Windows as well), Windows Internals by Matt Pietrek, and/or DOS and Windows Protected Mode by Al Williams. 

 
 

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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? (Try telling WordStar from the much more powerful WordPerfect from ten feet away.) 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 X Window project was born at MIT in 1984. 

 

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