No one regards what is before his feet; we all gaze at the stars.
— Quintus Ennius, circa 200 BC
It had been one hell of a year for the United States and most of the rest of the Western world — a year of rampant chaos and conflict at home and abroad, when the very foundations of democratic society seemed on the verge of crumbling to dust. In the course of twelve months, a brutal war with no prospect of ending had escalated to an unimaginable degree, a fractious nation’s most prominent civil-rights leader and one of its presumptive presidential candidates had been assassinated, and the streets had burned with radical and reactionary violence. And there had been a pandemic to boot, an unusually virulent flu virus responsible for an estimated 100,000 deaths in the United States alone.
And then, at the end of it all, human beings orbited another world. Apollo 8 slipped the surly bonds of Earth on December 21, 1968. Not quite three days later, on Christmas Eve, it entered Lunar orbit.
Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders sent home pictures of the Moon from close up to mark this momentous event. But the photographs they took that resonated the most were actually those of the Earth, revealed from 240,000 miles away to be the tiniest of islands in the hostile ocean of the cosmos. The straight-laced pilots and engineers inside the spacecraft were the farthest thing from poets, but they rose to the occasion on this enchanted evening. As millions of people all over the Earth gazed at their planet — at their desperately fragile-looking home — flickering there on their television screens, the astronauts read aloud from the Book of Genesis. At that moment, it didn’t matter whether you were a believer or not; those ancient words echoing down through time transcended religious dogma — transcended, dare we say it, religion itself.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
Mission Commander Borman closed the proceedings just before the spacecraft swung around to the dark side of the Moon and lost contact with home: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.”
Although my editing process means it will be a couple of weeks yet before you read these words, I’m writing them between the Christmas and New Year’s of 2020, a natural time for contemplation and stock-taking. And we certainly have plenty to contemplate: 2020 was also one hell of a year, arguably the most cataclysmic in the Western world since 1968. The last twelve months have been marked by a worldwide pandemic which has altered all of our lives immeasurably, combined with worldwide demands for racial justice that are, one might say, the business that was left unfinished after Martin Luther King’s assassination. The world around us today looks completely different from the one we knew 365 days ago, and it’s not clear when or even whether the Old Normal will return.
But alas, there was no grace note like Apollo 8 to close this year and help us to put things in their proper perspective. Back in 1968, we firmly believed that this year’s most memorable Christmas greeting might come from astronauts near Jupiter or Saturn, but the reality is that a human being hasn’t left Earth orbit since 1972.
Nevertheless, some sort of perspective is sorely needed after a year like the one we’ve just experienced. For better or for worse, we’re living an ever-increasing proportion of our lives virtually. So, perhaps we can find a way to see a bigger picture that way. Perhaps the time is right to talk about Microsoft Space Simulator.
Space Simulator was the brainchild of an enigmatic fellow named Charles Guy, who didn’t give interviews during his lifetime and who died young from cancer in 2004, thus complicating the work of writers like me immeasurably. Born in 1961 in Indianapolis, Indiana, he attended the University of Purdue, but dropped out when his expertise in 3D graphics won him a job at subLogic in Champaign, Illinois, the maker of the hugely successful Flight Simulator. Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, the company’s founders, first brought Guy on to help Artwick with the programming burden as they ported their flagship product to more and more platforms.
Soon, however, Guy got a project of his own: he was placed in charge of Jet, a simulation of the F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets. As they had done with Flight Simulator, subLogic ported and supported Jet for years after its initial release in 1985, keeping Guy plenty busy. But the Jet line ended in 1989, when subLogic effectively split into two separate companies amidst lawsuits and recriminations, with one of the companies being led by each of the two erstwhile founders.
Guy backed the right horse; he left subLogic to join Artwick’s appropriately named Bruce Artwick Organization, which had walked away with the crown jewel of the old subLogic simulation empire: the contract to make Microsoft Flight Simulator for MS-DOS and the Macintosh. He worked on those programs for a brief while, then convinced Artwick and Microsoft to let him make Space Simulator.
The fact was, Guy’s bona fides as an expert in winged flight weren’t quite up to those of Bruce Artwick or Stu Moment. He had duly attempted to qualify for a pilot’s license back in the 1980s, thus conforming to what had become something of a subLogic tradition, but his airplane nearly spun out of control when he was practicing stalls one night. “He managed to recover, but never flew a plane again after that,” remembers a friend.
Guy’s real passion was astronomy. Heaven in the metaphorical and literal sense was one to him: few things moved him more than a clear night sky full of stars. It had all begun when he was fifteen years old and happened to look up on just such a perfect night:
What I saw was so intense that it frightened me. I had to look down at the ground. It was too much. Slowly, I built up the nerve to look at it more and more with my naked eyes. And eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t stop looking at it. I became more and more obsessed with it.
The scale of it was frightening to me. I felt like I was standing on a pinpoint, oppressed by the size of this thing. It really did frighten me, but I found that this fear really isn’t like normal fear. It is the kind of fear that is respectful, although it becomes a fear that must be conquered and resolved. It leads toward growth and understanding.
When he talked about stargazing, he did so as if he was actually traveling to the stars he saw through his telescope, as perhaps he was in spirit: “I’ll tell you where I’m headed. I’m headed to Sagittarius. I’ll often go to M22, then M8, then M17. I like to go south to north, hitting all the H2 regions, and the good globular and open clusters. There are a lot of them in Sagittarius.” It was only natural for him to make a game where you could take just the sorts of trips he was already taking in his mind’s eye.
Space Simulator is a game of two halves — assuming, that is, that we can agree to call a piece of software with no goals and no real rules a game at all — and they don’t always fit together perfectly. On the one hand, Space Simulator is exactly what you might expect from its own name and that of the development studio behind it: a serious simulation of spaceflight. You can fly historical craft like the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules, the Space Shuttle, or even the Manned Maneuvering Unit used by Shuttle astronauts for spacewalks. Or you can explore farther afield from Earth in one of a variety of theoretical spacecraft of the future. Either way, the experience can be as realistic as you want it to be. You can use the program’s many available shortcuts to slew your way around the galaxy without ever touching a thruster control for yourself, or you can sit down with pen and paper and plot your own orbits and trajectories; doing so requires far more higher-math skills than I possess, but I’m told that, if you have the requisite skills, you’ll find the program to be an entirely consistent, entirely realistic environment in which to play NASA navigator. Of course, at some point you’ll have to bite the bullet and embrace some of the simulator’s shortcuts, as some of the voyages you can plot for yourself will take billions of years if you insist on making them in real time.
The other side of Space Simulator — the side nearer to Charles Guy’s heart, one senses — are the actual places you can fly or slew your way to. In fact, Space Simulator boasts what must be as large a virtual “world” as has ever been built into a game, encompassing the full extent of the Milky Way Galaxy and some distance beyond. (“Can you believe that we’re going to try to put all of this inside a computer?” exclaimed Guy spontaneously one evening under one of his beloved clear night skies.) You can visit the stars and planets and moons of our solar system or the ones that are theorized to exist in others, and just gaze in wonder or make pictures or even videos of your discoveries, knowing that what you see and record is as accurate as the state of the science of astronomy during the early 1990s could make it. All of it is presented in Super VGA graphics at a resolution of 800 X 600, meaning it still looks pretty good today. The sense of wonder was and still remains strong with this one.
Indeed, a palpable spirit of starry-eyed idealism still clings to Microsoft Space Simulator all these years later. Defying their 1990s reputation as soulless dirty tricksters — a reputation which was well-earned in many other contexts — Microsoft worked enthusiastically with Charles Guy and the rest of the Bruce Artwick Organization for some three years to stuff the entirety of a galaxy onto three floppy disks. Grant Fjermedal, a journalist who was there through much of the process, shares this anecdote about the arrival of an early version at Microsoft, one which for the first time let you explore the galaxy using a joystick.
The evening after it arrived, in March of 1993, program manager Jon Solon carried [the] disks home and loaded it on his machine. He flew through space until after midnight, chasing down planets and orbiting the Moon, excited about being able to leave the keyboard controls behind in favor of the more fluid joystick. Jon, who had been program manager for three versions of Flight Simulator, compared the experience to the first time he took off from Chicago’s Meigs Field, circled the skyscrapers, and successfully landed.
All the next day at Microsoft, people were hunting through storage rooms (and through the offices of their pals) looking for joysticks that weren’t being used. There were those who flew, and those who enthused. People were being flagged down and dragged into offices: “I’ve got to show you something — watch this!” It was a day when the door seemed to open wider than ever before.
Far from limiting the scope of the simulation, Jon Solon and the others at Microsoft encouraged Charles Guy to expand it. It was Solon, for example, who insisted that it ought to be possible to land your spacecraft on the planets you encountered, in order to see their diverse environments firsthand.
When the finished Space Simulator finally shipped in late 1994, Microsoft got behind it in a big way. The manual they included in the box was a minor wonder in itself, a patient introduction to the program’s complexities in more than 200 friendly, well-written, eminently approachable pages; few to no other software publishers would have had it in them to produce a manual like this, for any sort of program. In addition to a lavish advertising campaign positioning Space Simulator as the natural heir to the 3-million-selling Flight Simulator, Microsoft published not one but two strategy guides through their own press, and granted Sybex Books special inside access so they could publish a third. (These three books nicely encompassed the full range of Space Simulator‘s personality: the Sybex book was the hardcore one, its second half chock full of equations and subsection titles like “Geometric Properties of All Conic Sections”; meanwhile one of the Microsoft books was most interested simply in helping you to take in the galaxy’s sights, while the third aimed for a point somewhere in between the other two.)
With support like this behind his creation, an ebullient Charles Guy was moved to exclaim that Space Simulator “might bring on a whole new social revolution!” Or a “spiritual revolution,” as Grant Fjermedal put it: “Perhaps a tool to simulate even a part of the vastness of space will lead us to ponder what that vastness might mean for humanity, as we glide through the soft darkness of space, clutching hold of our garden planet in orbit around our gracious middle-aged Sun.” For truly Space Simulator contains multitudes. One can be merrily slewing through the galaxy, only to look down and realize that 40 years, 400,000 years, 4 million years have passed since one left Earth. Through Space Simulator, we can almost glimpse infinity. The contemplation of such enormity, like that of a single grain of sand, can be a source of both existential terror and spiritual comfort. “It was while traveling the stars at a time-scale setting of 68 years per second,” writes Fjermedal, “that I most fully understood the vastness of our galaxy and the brevity of our lives.”
Unfortunately, the public proved for once resistant to Microsoft’s much-vaunted marketing acumen when it came to Space Simulator. In retrospect at least, the problems with the product as a commercial proposition aren’t hard to identify. It was the ultimate in “make your own fun” games, even more so than a so-called “software toy” like, say, SimCity — or for that matter Flight Simulator. When you start the game, you find yourself parked in orbit around Earth. From there, it’s entirely up to you to decide what you want to do and how you want to do it by digging through a cryptic nest of menus; Space Simulator absolutely demands that you read that brilliant manual through, carefully and completely, to get much of anywhere with it. And even after you do so, it demands that you be the type of person who considers unguided, goal-less exploration fun. Space Simulator does have support for “missions,” which are exactly what they sound like they would be, even to the point of including a scoring system, but this capability is weirdly under-utilized. The game includes just two of them out of the box: one covering Apollo 17, the final mission to the Moon, and the other covering a typical Shuttle mission. One suspects that Microsoft envisioned a robust Space Simulator aftermarket that would have included more “mission disks” among other products, much like the many scenery disks which were released for Flight Simulator.
But sadly, sales of Microsoft Space Simulator never justified any such further releases. The dedicated gaming press, and dedicated gamers in general, didn’t know quite what to make of it, even as it was far too demanding for more casual users. Of course, Microsoft Flight Simulator was another willfully cerebral, esoteric, goal-less experience that defied all of the conventional wisdom about what made a hit computer game, and yet managed to become the best-selling computer-gaming franchise of its generation. Why was Space Simulator so different? Perhaps its spaces were just too vast, its conceptual grandiosity too intimidating. It’s easier to get a handle on the idea of flying a small plane from airport to airport, even if there isn’t much point to it beyond the fantasy of being up there in the wild blue yonder, than it is to conceive and plan a voyage to Polaris in a Bussard ramjet. Maybe the idea of a voyage of a million years simply strained too many imaginations past the breaking point.
Whatever the reason for its commercial failure, Microsoft Space Simulator went quietly out of print within a couple of years, even as Flight Simulator continued to go strong. Charles Guy left the Bruce Artwick Organization shortly after it became clear that his passion project would not be fomenting any social revolutions. He bounced around the games industry in various programming roles for the rest of his life, but never got a chance to helm a game of his own of any sort again, much less one with the scope of this one.
Space Simulator is an oddly forgotten artifact today; you’ll be hard-pressed to find any online discussion of it at all. And that’s a shame, as it possesses at least two sources of enduring interest. In one sense, it’s a fascinating product of its time, that heady cusp of the second, ultimately more enduring home-computer boom, when the multimedia capabilities of the latest machines were inspiring more big companies than just Microsoft to take a flier on unabashedly intellectual, crazily idealistic software.
In another sense, though, Space Simulator transcends its time. No one since Charles Guy has attempted to make a piece of software quite like this one. There are certainly technical simulations of spaceflight that are even more detailed than Space Simulator, just as there are planetarium programs to let you do virtual stargazing with the benefit of an additional quarter-century of astronomical discoveries. Yet no one else has given you a spacecraft and then just set you loose to go explore the natural wonders of our galaxy with it, thereby giving you a more embodied sort of window onto our staggeringly magnificent and terrifyingly immense universe than any planetarium can hope to create. Computer games are not known for their ability to provoke spiritual awakenings, but if any one of them can, perhaps it is this one. Stare, if you dare, into the vastness, and see that it is good. A little perspective is never a bad thing.
A Microsoft Space Simulator Gallery
Saturn, possibly the most beautiful of all the planets of our solar system — after Earth, that is. While we watch the planet itself rotate in the top window, we watch some of the more prominent of its dozens of moons orbit in the bottom window. You may find that you can spend a surprisingly long time just watching their clockwork motion.
Another view of Saturn, with the spaceship we’ve used to visit it in the foreground.
Returning to Earth in the Galactic Explorer, a spacecraft obviously modeled after the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, given that the space station before us betrays the same influence, we can almost imagine this scene as a lost frame from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film.
In another scene that might easily have come from 2001, a space station orbits the Moon.
A once-familiar sight from the real world: the Space Shuttle touches down at Cape Canaveral.
The Andromeda Galaxy, seen from well beyond the border of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The programmers among you will appreciate what an awesome feat it is to devise a coordinate system able to pinpoint a location 2.5 million light years from Earth as well as it can a single runway in Florida.
The Whirlpool Galaxy, 23.5 million light years away from Earth.
In yet another scene from a future that’s been inordinately slow in arriving, we soar above a colony on Mars.
Space Simulator can also be used as a planetarium, showing a view of the sky from any position on Earth at any time you wish.
This error message appears surprisingly often as you explore, providing as good an illustration as any of the sheer scale of the simulation.
Our one and only home in a beautiful but inhospitable universe. May we be better stewards of it after 2020 than we’ve been in the years prior…
(Sources: the books Microsoft Space Simulator: The Official Strategy Guide by Rick Barba, Adventures in Space Simulator: The Ultimate Desktop Astronaut’s Guide by Grant Fjermedal, and Space Simulator Strategies and Secrets by Nick Dargahi; Computer Gaming World of December 1994; Computer Play of November 1988. The “Talk” page of the Wikipedia entry on Microsoft Space Simulator proved one of my few sources of personal information on the enigmatic Charles Guy.
Microsoft Space Simulator has been out of print for many years. Therefore I’ve put it up here for download, packaged so as to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on a modern Windows, Macintosh, or Linux system. Happy exploring! May you find the perspective you crave.)
After Edison’s original phonograph came out, people said that they could not detect a difference between a phonograph and a real performance. Clearly the standard that they had for audio fidelity back in 1910 was radically different from the standard we have. They got the same enjoyment out of that Edison phonograph that we do out of [a] high-fidelity [stereo]. As audio fidelity has gotten better and better, our standards have gotten higher and higher; if we listen to a phonograph from 1910, it sounds horrible to our modern ears.
The same thing has obviously happened to flight simulators.
— Brand Fortner, 2010
It seems to me that vintage flight simulators have aged worse than just about any other genre of game. No, they weren’t the only games that required a large helping of imagination to overlook their underwhelming audiovisuals, that had sometimes to ask their players to see them as what they aspired to be rather than what they actually were. But they were perhaps the ones in which this requirement was most marked. When we look back on them today, we find ourselves shaking our heads and asking what the heck we were all thinking.
Growing up in the 1980s, I certainly wasn’t immune to the appeal of virtual flight; I spent many hours with subLogic’s Flight Simulator II and MicroProse’s Gunship on my Commodore 64, then hours more with F/A-18 Interceptor on my Commodore Amiga. Revisited today, however, all of those games strike me as absurdly, unplayably primitive. Therefore they and the many games like them have appeared in these histories only in the form of passing mentions.
The case of flight simulators thus serves to illustrate some of the natural tensions implicit in what I do here. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the games that still stand up today, maybe even get some of you to try them for the first time all these years later — and I’ve yet to find a vintage flight simulator which I can recommend on those terms. But on the other hand, I want to sketch an accurate, non-anachronistic picture of these bygone eras of gaming as they really were. In this latter sense, my efforts to date have been sadly inadequate in the case of flight simulators; the harsh fact is that these games which I’ve neglected so completely were in fact among the most popular of their time, accounting on occasion for as much as 25 percent of the computer-game industry’s total revenue. Microsoft Flight Simulator, the prototypical and perennial product of its type, was the most commercially successful single franchise in all of computer gaming between 1982 and 1995 — all despite having no goals other than the ones you set for yourself and for the most part no guns either. (Let that sink in for a moment!)
All of which is to say that a reckoning is long overdue here. This article, while it may not quite give Microsoft Flight Simulator and its siblings their due, will at least begin to redress the balance.
Many people assumed in the 1980s, as they still tend to do today, that the early microcomputer flight simulators were imperfect imitations of the bigger simulators that were used to train pilots for real-world flying. In point of fact, though, the relationship between the two was more subtle — even more symbiotic — than one might guess. To appreciate how this could be, we need to remember that the 3D-graphics techniques that were being used to power all flight simulators by the 1980s were a new technology at the time — new not just to microcomputers but to all computers. Until the 1980s, the “big” flight simulators made for training purposes were very different beasts from the ones that came later.
That said, the idea of flight simulation in general goes back a long, long way, almost all the way back to the dawn of powered flight itself. It took very little time at all after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, for people to start asking how they might train new pilots in some more forgiving, less dangerous way than putting them behind the controls of a real airplane and hoping for the best. A 1910 issue of Flight magazine — the “first aero weekly in the world” — describes the “Sanders Teacher,” a mock-up of a real airplane mounted on a pivoting base so that it could sway with the wind in response to control inputs; unlike the fragile real aircraft of its era, this one was best “flown” when there was a stiff breeze.
The Sanders Teacher, one of the earliest attempts to simulate flight.
In 1929, Edwin Link of Binghamton, New York, created the Link Trainer, the first flight simulator that we might immediately recognize as such today. An electro-mechanical device driven by organ bellows in its prototype form, it looked like an amputated single-seater-airplane cockpit. The entire apparatus pitched and turned in response to a trainee’s movements of the controls therein, while an instructor sat next to the gadget to evaluate his performance. After an initially skeptical response from the market, usage of the Link Trainer around the world exploded with the various military buildups that began in the mid-1930s. It was used extensively, in both its official incarnation and in unlicensed knock-offs, by virtually every combatant nation in World War II; it was a rite of passage for tens of thousands of new pilots, marking the most widespread use of technology in the cause of simulation to that point in the history of the world.
An American student pilot in a Link Trainer, circa 1943.
The programmable digital computers which began to appear after the war held out the prospect of providing a more complete simulation of all aspect of flight than analog devices like the Link Trainer and its successors could hope to achieve. Already in 1950, the United States Navy funded a research effort in that direction at the University of Pennsylvania. Yet it wasn’t until ten years later that the first computerized flight simulators began to appear. Once again, Link Aviation Devices provided the breakthrough machine here, in the form of the Link Mark 1, whose three processors shared 10 K of memory to present the most credible imitation of real flight yet, with even wind and engine noise included if you bought the most advanced model. By 1970, virtually all flight simulators had gone digital.
But there was a persistent problem afflicting all of these efforts at flight simulation, even after the dawn of the digital age. Although the movements of cockpit instruments and even the physical motion of the aircraft itself could be practically implemented, the view out the window could not. What these machines thus wound up simulating was a totally blind form of flying, as in the heaviest of fogs or the darkest of nights, when the pilot has only her instruments to guide her. Flying-by-instruments was certainly a useful skill to have, but the inability of the simulators to portray even a ground and horizon for the pilot to sight on was a persistent source of frustration to those who dreamed of simulating flight as it more typically occurred in the real world.
Various schemes were devised to remedy the situation, some using reels of film that were projected on the “windows” of the cockpit, some even using a moving video camera which “flew” over model terrain. But snippets of static video are a crude tool indeed in an interactive context, and none of these solutions yielded anything close to the visual impression of real flight. What was needed was an out-the-window view that was generated on the fly in real time by the computer.
In 1973, McDonnell-Douglas introduced the VITAL II, a computerized visual display which could be added to existing flight simulators. Even its technology, however, was different in a fairly fundamental sense from that of the flight simulators that would appear later. The computers which ran the latter would use what’s known as raster-based or bitmap graphics: a grid of pixels stored in memory, which are painted to the monitor screen by the computer’s display circuitry without additional programming. VITAL II, by contrast, used something known as vector graphics, in which the computer’s processor directly controls the electron gun inside the display screen, telling it where to go and when to fire to produce an image on the screen. Although bitmap graphics are far easier for the programmer to work with and more flexible in countless ways, they do eat up memory, a commodity which most computers of the early 1970s had precious little of to spare. Therefore vector graphics were still being used for many applications, including this one.
Thanks to the limitations of its hardware, the VITAL II could only show white points of light on the surface of a black screen, and thus could only be used to depict a night flight. Indeed, it showed only lights — the lights of runways, airports, and to some extent their surrounding cities.
Such was the state of the art in flight simulation during the mid-1970s, when a young man named Bruce Artwick was attending the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Flight simulators aside, this university occupies an important place in the history of computing in that it was the home of PLATO, the pioneering computer network that anticipated much of the digital culture that would come two decades or more after it. A huge variety of games were developed for PLATO, including the first CRPGs and, most importantly for our purposes today, the first flight simulator to be intended for entertainment and casual exploration rather than professional pilot training. Brand Fortner’s game of Airfight wasn’t quite a real-time simulation as we think of it today — you had to hit the NEXT key over and over to update the screen — but it could almost feel like it ran in real time to those willing and able to pound their keyboards with sufficient gusto. Brian Dear described the experience in his book about the PLATO system:
By today’s standards, Airfight’s graphics and realism, like every other PLATO game, are hopelessly primitive. But in the 1970s Airfight was simply unbelievable. These rooms full of PLATO terminals weren’t “PLATO classrooms,” they were PLATO arcades, and they were free. If you were lucky enough to get in (there were always more people wanting to play than the game could handle), you joined the Circle or the Triangle teams, chose from a list of different airplane types to fly, and suddenly found yourself in a fighter plane, looking out of the cockpit window at the runway in front of you, with the control tower far down the runway… You’d hit “9” to set the throttle at maximum, “a” for afterburners, “w” a few times to pull the stick back, and then NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT NEXT to update the screen as you rolled down the runway, lifted off, and shot up into the sky to join the fight. It might be seconds or minutes, depending on how far away the enemy airplanes were, before you saw dots in the sky, dots that as you flew closer and closer turned into little circles and triangles. (So they weren’t photorealistic airplanes — it didn’t matter. You didn’t notice. This was battle. This was Airfight.) As you got closer and closer to one of these planes, the circles and triangles got more defined — still small, still pathetically primitive by today’s standards — but you knew you were getting closer and that’s all that mattered. As you got closer and closer you hit “s” to put up your sights, to aim. Eventually, if you were good, lucky, or both, you would be so close that you’d see a little empty space, an opening, inside the little circle or triangle icon. That’s when you were close enough to see what players called “the whites of their eyes” and that’s when you let ’em have it: SHIFT-S to shoot. SHIFT-S again. And again. Until you’d run out of ammo and KABOOM! It was glorious.
And it was addictive. People stayed up all night playing Airfight. If you went to a room full of PLATO terminals, you’d hear the clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-CLACKETY-CLACK-CLACK-BAM-BAM!-WHAM!-CLACK-CLACK! of everyone’s keyboards, as the gamers pounded them, mostly NEXT-NEXT-NEXT’ing to update their view and their radar displays (another innovation of this game — in-cockpit radar displays, showing you where the enemy was).
The standard PLATO terminal at that time was an astonishingly advanced piece of hardware to place at the disposal of everyday university students: a monochrome bitmap display of no less than 512 X 512 pixels. Thus Airfight, in addition to being the first casual flight simulator, was the first flight simulator of any kind to use a bitmap display. This fact wasn’t lost on Bruce Artwick when he first saw the game in action — for Artwick already knew a little something about the state of the art in serious flight simulation.
The University of Illinois’s Institute of Aviation was one of the premiere aerospace programs in the country, training both engineers and pilots. Artwick happened to be pursuing a master’s degree in general electrical engineering, but he roomed with one of the university’s so-called “aviation jocks”: an accomplished pilot named Stu Moment, who was training to become a flight instructor at the same time that he pursued a degree in business. “We agreed that Stu would teach me to fly if I taught him about digital electronics,” Artwick remembers. Although Artwick’s electrical-engineering program would seemingly mark him as a designer of hardware, the technological disciplines were more fluid in the 1970s than they’ve become today. His real passion, indulged willingly enough by his professors, had turned out to be the nascent field of bitmap 3D graphics. So, he found himself with one foot in the world of 3D programming, the other in that of aviation: the perfect resumé for a maker of flight simulators.
Airfight hit Artwick like a revelation. In a flash, he understood that the PLATO terminal could become the display technology behind a flight simulator used for more serious purposes. He sought and received funding from the Office of Naval Research to make a prototype 3D display useful for that purpose as his master’s thesis. Taking advantage of his knowledge of hardware engineering, he managed to connect a PLATO terminal to one of the DEC PDP-11 minicomputers used at the Aviation Institute. He then employed this setup to create what his final thesis called “a versatile computer-generated flight display,” submitting his code and a 60-page description of its workings to his instructors and to the Office of Naval Research.
It’s hard to say whether Artwick’s thesis, which he completed in May of 1976, was at all remarked among the makers of flight simulators already in use for pilot training. Many technical experiments like it came out of the aerospace-industrial complex’s web of affiliated institutions, sometimes to languish in obscurity, sometimes to provide a good idea or two for others to carry forward, but seldom to be given much credit after the fact. We can say, however, that by the end of the 1970s the shift to bitmap graphics was finally beginning among makers of serious flight simulators. And once begun, it happened with amazing speed; by the mid-1980s, quite impressive out-the-cockpit views, depicting nighttime or daytime scenery in full color, had become the norm, making the likes of the VITAL II system look like the most primordial of dinosaurs.
This photo from a 1986 brochure by a flight-simulator maker known as Rediffusion Simulation shows how far the technology progressed in a remarkably short period of time after bitmap 3D graphics were first introduced on the big simulators. Although the graphical resolution and detail are vastly less than one would find in a simulator of today, the Rubicon has already been crossed. From now on, improvements will be a question of degree rather than kind.
Meanwhile the same technology was coming home as well, looking a bit less impressive than the state-of-the-art simulators in military and civilian flight schools but a heck of a lot better than VITAL II. And Artwick’s early work on that PLATO terminal most definitely was a pivotal building block toward these simulators, given that the most important person behind them was none other than Artwick himself.
After university, Artwick parlayed his thesis into a job with Hughes Aircraft in California, but found it difficult to develop his innovations further within such a large corporate bureaucracy. His now-former roommate Stu Moment started working as a flight instructor right there in Champaign, only to find that equally unsatisfying. In early 1977, the two decided to form a software company to serve the new breed of hobbyist-oriented microcomputers. It was an auspicious moment to be doing so; the Trinity of 1977 — the Apple II, Radio Shack TRS-80, and Commodore PET, constituting the first three pre-assembled personal computers — was on the near horizon, poised to democratize the hobby for those who weren’t overly proficient with a soldering iron. Artwick and Moment named their company subLogic, after a type of computer circuit. It would prove a typical tech-startup partnership in many ways: the reserved, retiring Artwick would be the visionary and the technician, while the more flamboyant, outgoing Moment would be the manager and the salesman.
Artwick and Moment didn’t initially conceive of their company as a specialist in flight simulators; they rather imagined their specialty to be 3D graphics in all of their potential applications. Accordingly, their first product was “The subLogic Three-Dimensional Micrographics Package,” a set of libraries to help one code one’s own 3D graphics in the do-it-yourself spirit of the age. Similar technical tools continued to occupy them for the first couple of years, even as both partners continued to work their day jobs, hoping that grander things might await them in the future, once the market for personal computers had had time to mature a bit more.
In June of 1979, they decided that moment had come. Artwick quit his job at Hughes and joined Moment back in Champaign, where he started to work on subLogic’s first piece of real consumer software. Every time he had attempted to tell neophytes in the past about what it was his little company really did, he had been greeted with the same blank stare and the same stated or implied question: “But what can you really do with all this 3D-graphics stuff?” And he had learned that one response in particular on his part could almost always make his interlocutors’ eyes light up with excitement: “Well, you could use it to make a flight simulator, for instance.” So, subLogic would indeed make a flight simulator for the new microcomputers. Being owned and operated by two pilots — one of them a licensed flight instructor and the other one having considerable experience in coding for flight simulators running on bigger computers — subLogic was certainly as qualified as anyone for the task.
They released a product entitled simply Flight Simulator for the Apple II in January of 1980. One can’t help but draw comparisons with Will Crowther and Don Woods’s game of Adventure at this point; like it, Flight Simulator was not only the first of its kind but would lend its name to the entire genre of games that followed in its footsteps.
Fearing that his rudimentary, goal-less simulation would quickly bore its users, Artwick at the last minute added a mode called “British Ace,” which featured guns and enemy aircraft to be shot down in an experience distinctly reminiscent of Airfight. But he soon discovered, rather to his surprise, that most people didn’t find those additional accoutrements to be the most exciting aspect of the program. They enjoyed simply flying around this tiny virtual world with its single runway and bridge and mountain — enjoyed it despite all the compromises that a host machine with six-color graphics, 32 K of memory, and a 1 MHz 8-bit CPU demanded. It turned out that a substantial portion of early microcomputer owners were to a greater or lesser degree frustrated pilots, kept from taking to the air by the costs and all of the other logistics involved with acquiring a pilot’s license and getting time behind the controls of a real airplane. They were so eager to believe in what Flight Simulator purported to be that their imaginations were able to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized gap between aspiration and reality. This would continue to be the case over the course of the many years it would take for the former to catch up to the latter.
Flight Simulator on the Apple II.
Still, subLogic didn’t immediately go all-in for flight simulation. They released a variety of other entertainment products, from strategy games to arcade games. They even managed one big hit in the latter category, one that for a time outsold all versions of Flight Simulator: Bruce Artwick’s Night Mission Pinball was a sensation in Apple II circles upon its release in the spring of 1982, widely acknowledged as the best game of its type prior to Bill Budge’s landmark Pinball Construction Set the following year. subLogic wouldn’t release their last non-flight simulator until 1986, when an attempt to get a sports line off the ground fizzled out with subLogic Football. In the long run, though, it was indeed flight simulation that would make subLogic one of the most profitable companies in their industry, all thanks to a little software publisher known as Microsoft.
In late 1981, Microsoft came to subLogic looking to make a deal. IBM had outsourced to the former the operating system of the new IBM PC, whilst also charging them with creating or acquiring a variety of other software for the machine, including games. So, they wanted Artwick to create a “second generation” of his Flight Simulator for the IBM PC, taking full advantage of its comparatively torrid 4.77 MHz 16-bit processor.
Artwick spent a year on the project, working sixteen hours or more per day during the last quarter of that period. The program he turned in at the end of the year was both a dramatic improvement on what had come before and a remarkably complete simulation of flight for its era. Its implementation of aeronautics had now progressed to the point that a specific airplane could be said to be modeled: a Cessna 182 Skylane, a beloved staple of private and recreational aviation that was first manufactured in 1956 and has remained in production to this day. Artwick replaced the wire-frame graphics of the Apple II version with solid-filled color, replaced its single airport with more than twenty of them from the metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. He added weather, as well as everything you needed to fly through the thickest fog or darkest night using instruments alone; you could use radio transponders to navigate from airport to airport. You could even expect to contend with random engine failures if you were brave enough to turn that setting on. And, in a move that would have important implications in the future, Artwick also designed and implemented a coordinate system capable of encompassing the greater portion of North America, from southern Canada down to the Caribbean, although it was all just empty green space at this point outside of the four metropolitan areas.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 1.0
This first Microsoft Flight Simulator was released in late 1982, and promptly became ubiquitous on a computer that was otherwise not known as much of a game machine. Many stodgy business-oriented users who wouldn’t be caught dead playing any other game seemed to believe that this one was acceptable; it was something to do with the label of “simulator,” something to do with its stately, cerebral personality. Microsoft’s own brief spasm of interest in games in general would soon peter out, such that Flight Simulator would spend half a decade or more as the only game in their entire product catalog. Yet it would consistently sell in such numbers that they would never dream of dropping it.
When the first wave of PC clones hit the market soon after Flight Simulator was released, the computer magazines took to using it as a compatibility litmus test. After all, it pushed the CPU to its absolute limit, even as its code was full of tricky optimizations that took advantage of seemingly every single quirk of IBM’s own Color Graphics Adapter. Therefore, went the logic, if a PC clone could run Flight Simulator, it could probably run just about anything written for a real IBM PC. Soon all of the clone makers were rushing to buy copies of the game, to make sure their machines could pass the stringent test it represented before they shipped them out to reviewers.
Meanwhile Artwick began to port Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s innovations into versions for most other popular computers, under the rather confusing title of Flight Simulator II. (There had never been a subLogic Flight Simulator I on most of the computers for which this Flight Simulator II was released.) Evincing at least a modest spirit of vive la différence, these versions chose to simulate a Piper Cherokee, another private-aviation mainstay, instead of the Cessna.
Although the inexpensive 8-bit computers for which Flight Simulator II was first released were far better suited than the IBM PC for running many types of games, this particular game was not among them. Consider the case of the Commodore 64, the heart of the mid-1980s computer-gaming market. The 64’s graphics system had been designed with 2D arcade games in mind, not 3D flight simulators; its sprites — small images that could be overlaid onto the screen and moved about quickly — were perfect for representing, say, Pac-Man in his maze, but useless in the context of a flight simulator. At the same time, the differences between an IBM PC and a Commodore 64 in overall processing throughput made themselves painfully evident. On the IBM, Flight Simulator could usually manage a relatively acceptable ten frames or so per second; on the 64, you were lucky to get two or three. “We gave it a try and did the best we could,” was Artwick’s own less-than-promising assessment of the 8-bit ports.
Nevertheless, the Commodore 64 version of Flight Simulator II is the one that I spent many hours earnestly attempting to play as a boy. Doing so entailed peering at a landscape of garish green under a sky of solid blue, struggling to derive meaning from a few jagged white lines that shifted and rearranged themselves with agonizing slowness, each frame giving way to the next with a skip and a jerk. Does that line there represent the runway I’m looking for, or is it a part of one of the handful of other landmarks the game has deigned to implement, such as the Empire State Building? It was damnably hard to know.
Flight Simulator II on the Commodore 64.
As many a real pilot who tried Flight Simulator II noted, a virtual Piper Cherokee was perversely more difficult to fly than the real thing, thanks to the lack of perspective provided by the crude graphics, the clunky keyboard-based controls — it was possible to use a joystick, but wasn’t really recommended because of the imprecision of the instrument — and the extreme degree of lag that came with trying to cram so much physics modeling through the narrow aperture of an 8-bit microprocessor. Let’s say you’re attempting a landing. You hit a key to move the elevators a little bit and begin your glide path, but nothing happens for several long seconds. So, getting nervous as you see the white line that you think probably represents the runway getting a bit longer, you hit the same key again, then perhaps once more for good measure. And suddenly you’re in a power dive, your view out the screen a uniform block of green. So you desperately pound the up-elevator key and cut the throttle — and ten or twenty seconds later, you find the sky filling your screen, your plane on the verge of stalling and crashing to earth tail-first. More frantic course corrections ensue. And so it continues, with you swaying and bobbling through the sky like a drunken sailor transported to the new ocean of the heavens. Who needed enemy airplanes to shoot at in the face of all these challenges? Just getting your plane up and then down again in one piece — thankfully, the simulator didn’t really care at the end of the day whether it was on a runway or not! — was an epic achievement.
Needless to say, Flight Simulator II‘s appeal is utterly lost on me today. And yet in its day the sheer will to believe, from me and hundreds of thousands of other would-be pilots like me, allowed it to soar comfortably over all of the objections raised by its practical implementation of our grand dream of flight.
At a time when books on computer games had yet to find a place on the shelves of bookstores, books on Flight Simulator became the great exception. It began in 1985, when a fellow named Charles Gulick published 40 Great Flight Simulator Adventures, a collection of setups with exciting-sounding titles — “Low Pass on the Pacific,” “Dead-Stick off San Clemente” — that required one-tenth Flight Simulator and nine-tenths committed imagination to live up to their names. Gulick became the king of the literary sub-genre he had founded, writing five more books of a similar ilk over the following years. But he was far from alone: the website Flight Sim Books has collected no less than twenty of its namesake, all published between the the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, ranging from the hardcore likes of Realistic Commercial Flying with Flight Simulator to more whimsical fare like A Flight Simulator Odyssey. The fact that publishers kept churning them out indicates that there was a solid market for them, which in turn points to just how committed to the dream the community of virtual fliers really was.
Of course, the game that called itself simply Flight Simulator was by no means the only one in the genre it had spawned. While a few companies did try to sell their own civilian flight simulators, none managed to seriously challenge the ones from subLogic. But military flight simulators were a different matter; MicroProse Software in particular made their reputation with a string of these. Often designed and programmed by Sid Meier, MicroProse’s simulators were distinguished by their willingness to sacrifice a fair amount of realism to the cause of decent frame rates and general playability, with the added attraction of enemy aircraft to shoot down and cities to bomb. (While the old “British Ace” mode did remain a part of the subLogic Flight Simulator into the late 1980s, it never felt like more than the afterthought it was.) Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle, the most successful of all the MicroProse simulators, sold almost as well as subLogic’s products for a time; some sources claim that its total sales during the ten years after its initial release in 1984 reached 1 million units.
subLogic as well did dip a toe into military flight simulation with Jet in 1985. Programmed by one Charles Guy rather than Bruce Artwick, this F-16 and F/A-18 simulator was a bit more relaxed and a bit more traditionally game-like than the flagship product, offering air-, land-, and sea-based targets for your guns and bombs that could and did shoot back. Still, its presentation remained distinctly dry in comparison to the more gung-ho personality of the MicroProse simulators. Although reasonably successful, it never had the impact of its older civilian sibling. Instead Spectrum Holobyte’s Falcon, which debuted in 1987 for 16-bit and better machines only, took up the banner of realism-above-all-else in the realm of jet fighters — almost notoriously so, in fact: it came with a small-print spiral-bound manual of almost 300 pages, and required weeks of dedication just to learn to fly reasonably well, much less to fly into battle. And yet it too sold in the hundreds of thousands.
In the meantime, Artwick was continuing to plug steadily away, making his Flight Simulator slowly better. A version 2.0 of the Microsoft release, with four times as many airports to fly from and many other improvements, appeared already in 1984, soon after the 8-bit Flight Simulator II; it was then ported to the new Apple Macintosh, the only computing platform beside their own which Microsoft had chosen to officially support. When the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga appeared in 1985, sporting unprecedented audiovisual capabilities, subLogic released versions of Flight Simulator II for those machines with dazzling graphical improvements; these versions even gave you the option of flying a sleek Learjet instead of a humble single-prop airborne econobox. Version 3.0 of Microsoft Flight Simulator arrived in 1988, coming complete with the Learjet, support for the latest VGA graphics cards, and an in-game flight instructor among other enhancements.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 3.0 included the first attempt at in-program flight instruction. It would continue to appear in all subsequent releases, being slowly refined all the while, much like the simulator itself.
Betwixt and between these major releases, subLogic took advantage of Artwick’s foresight in designing a huge potential world into Flight Simulator by releasing a series of “scenery disks” to fill in all of that empty space with accurately modeled natural features and airports, along with selected other human-made landmarks. The sufficiently dedicated — i.e., those who were willing to purchase a dozen scenery disks at $20 or $30 a pop — could eventually fly all over the continental United States and beyond, exploring a virtual world larger than any other in existence at the time.
Indeed, the scenery disks added a whole new layer of interest to Flight Simulator. Taking in their sights and ferreting out all of their secrets became a game in itself, overlaid upon that of flying the airplane. It could add a much-needed sense of purpose to one’s airborne ramblings; inevitably, the books embraced this aspect with gusto, becoming in effect tour guides to the scenery disks. When they made a scenery disk for Hawaii in 1989, subLogic even saw fit to include “the very first structured scenery adventure”:
Locating the hidden jewel of the goddess Pele isn’t easy. You’ll have to find and follow an intricate set of clues scattered about the islands that, with luck, will guide you to your goal. This treasure hunt will challenge all of your flying skills, but the reward is an experience you’ll never forget!
The sales racked up by all of these products are impossible to calculate precisely, but we can say with surety that they were impressive. An interview with Artwick in the July 1985 issue of Computer Entertainment magazine states that Flight Simulator in all its versions has already surpassed 800,000 copies sold. The other piece of hard data I’ve been able to dig up is found in a Microsoft press release from December of 1995, where it’s stated that Microsoft Flight Simulator alone has sold over 3 million copies by that point. Added to that figure must be the sales of Flight Simulator II for various platforms, which must surely have been in the hundreds of thousands in their own right. And then Jet as well did reasonably well, while all of those scenery disks sold well enough that subLogic completed the planned dozen and then went still further, making special disks for Western Europe, Japan, and the aforementioned Hawaii, along with an ultra-detailed one covering San Francisco alone.
When we start with all this, and then add in the fact that subLogic remained a consistently small operation with just a handful of employees, we wind up with two founders who did very well for themselves indeed. Unsurprisingly, then, Bruce Artwick and Stu Moment, those two college friends made good, were a popular subject for magazine profiles. They were a dashing pair of young entrepreneurs, with the full complement of bachelor toys at their disposal, including a Cessna company plane which they flew to trade shows and, so they claimed, used to do modeling for their simulations. When David Hunter from the Apple II magazine Softalk visited them for a profile in January of 1983, he went so far as to compare them to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Sadly, he didn’t clarify which was which…)
Speed is exhilarating. Uncontrolled growth is intoxicating. As long as youth can dream, life will never move fast enough.
Whether it’s motorcycles, cars, planes, skiing, volleyball, or assembly language, Bruce Artwick likes speed. He likes Winchester disk drives, BMWs, zooming through undergraduate and graduate school in four years, and tearing down the Angeles Crest Highway on a Suzuki at a dangerous clip. The president of subLogic, Artwick is a tall, quiet, 29-year-old bachelor. He possesses a remarkable mind, which has created several of the finest programs ever to grace the Apple’s RAM.
Contrast Artwick with Stu Moment. Outgoing, of medium height, and possessed of an exceptional love of flying, Moment is subLogic’s chairman of the board. A businessman, Moment has steered the company to its present course, complementing Artwick’s superior software-engineering talents with organizational and financial skills. He’s even picked up some modest programming skills, designing a system for logging flight hours at a fair-sized flying institute.
Redford and Newman. Lewis and Clark. Laurel and Hardy. Jobs and Wozniak. Artwick and Moment. The grand adventurers riding the hard trail, living and playing at lives larger than life. It’s an old story.
Stu Moment and Bruce Artwick with their Cessna on a cold morning for flying, 1982.
When the journalists weren’t around, however, the dynamic duo’s relationship was more fractious than the public realized. Artwick wanted only to pursue the extremely profitable niche which subLogic had carved out for themselves, while Moment’s natural impulse was to expand into other areas of gaming. Most of all, though, it was likely just a case of two headstrong personalities in too close a proximity to one another, with far too much money flying through the air around them. That, alas, is also an old story.
As early as 1981, the two spent some time working out of separate offices, so badly were they treading on one another’s toes in the one. In 1984, Artwick, clearly planning for a potential future without Moment, formed his own Bruce Artwick Organization and started providing his software to subLogic, which was now solely Moment’s company, on a contract basis.
The final split didn’t happen until 1989, but when it did, it was ugly. Lawsuits flew back and forth, disputing what code and other intellectual property belonged to subLogic and what belonged to Artwick’s organization. To this day, each man prefers not to say the other’s name if he can avoid it.
This breakup marked the end of the Flight Simulator II product line — which was perhaps just as well, as the platforms on which it ran were soon to run out of rope anyway in North America. Moment tried to keep subLogic going with 1990’s Flight Assignment: Airline TransportPilot, a simulation of big commercial aircraft, but it didn’t do well. He then mothballed the company for several years, only to try again to revive it by hiring a team to make an easier flight simulator for beginners. He sold both the company and the product to Sierra in November of 1995, and Flight Light Plus shipped three months later. It too was a failure, and the subLogic name disappeared thereafter.
It was Artwick who walked away from the breakup with the real prize, in the form of the ongoing contract with Microsoft. So, Microsoft Flight Simulator continued its evolution under his steady hand. Version 4.0 shipped in 1989, version 5.0 in 1993. Artwick himself names the latter as the entire series’s watershed moment; running on a fast computer equipped with one of the latest high-resolution Super-VGA graphics cards, it finally provided the sort of experience he’d been dreaming of when he’d written his master’s thesis on the use of bitmap 3D graphics in flight simulation all those years before. Any further audiovisual improvements from here on out were just gravy as far as he was concerned.
Flying above San Francisco in Microsoft Flight Simulator 5.0.
Such a watershed strikes me as a good place to stop today. Having so belatedly broken my silence on the subject, I’ll try to do a better job now of keeping tabs on Flight Simulator as it goes on to become the most long-lived single franchise in the history of computer gaming. (As of this writing, a new version has just been released, spanning ten dual-layer DVDs in its physical-media version, some 85 GB of data — a marked contrast indeed to that first cassette-based Flight Simulator for the 16 K TRS-80.) Before I leave you today, though, we should perhaps take one more moment to appreciate the achievements of those 1980s versions.
It’s abundantly true that they’re not anything you’re likely to want to play today; time most definitely hasn’t been kind to them. In their day, though, they had a purity, even a nobility to them that we shouldn’t allow the passage of time to erase. They gave anyone who had ever looked up at an airplane passing overhead and dreamed of being behind its controls a way to live that dream, in however imperfect a way. Although it billed itself as a hardcore simulation, Flight Simulator was in reality as much an exercise in fantasy as any other game. It let kids like me soar into the heavens as someone else, someone leading a very different sort of life. Yes, its success was a tribute to its maker Bruce Artwick, but it was also, I would argue, a tribute to everyone who persevered with it in the face of a million reasons just to give up. The people who flew Flight Simulator religiously, who bought the books and worked through a pre-flight checklist before taking off each time and somehow managed to convince themselves that the crude pixelated screen in front of them actually showed a beautiful heavenly panorama, did so out of love of the idea of flight. For them, the blue-and-green world of Flight Simulator was a wonderland of Possibility. Far be it from me to look askance upon them from my perch in their future.
(Sources: the book The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture by Brian Dear and Taking Flight: History, Fundamentals, and Applications of Flight Simulation by Christopher D. Watkins and Stephen R. Marenka; Flight of December 10 1910 and March 22 1913; Softalk of January 1983; Kilobaud of October 1977; Softalk IBM of February 1983; Data Processing of April 1968; Compute!’s Gazette of January 1985; Computer Gaming World of April 1987 and September 1990; Computer Entertainment of July 1985; PC Magazine of January 1983; Illinois CS Alumni News of spring 1996; the article “High-Power Graphic Computers for Visual Simulation: A Real-Time Rendering Revolution” by Mary K. Kaiser, presented to the 1996 symposium Supercomputer Applications in Psychology; Bruce Artwick’s Masters thesis “A Versatile Computer-Generated Dynamic Flight Display”; flight-simulator product brochures from Link and Rediffusion; documents from the Sierra archive housed at The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York; a brochure from an exhibition on the Link Trainer at the Roberson Museum and Science Center in 2000. Online sources include a VITAL II product-demonstration video; an interview with Bruce Artwick by Robert Scoble; a panel discussion from the celebration of PLATO’s 50th anniversary at the Computer History Museum; “A Brief History of Aircraft Flight Simulation” by Kevin Moore; the books hosted at Flight Sim Books. My guiding light through this article has been Josef Havlik’s “History of Microsoft Flight Simulator.” He did at least half of the research so that I didn’t have to…)
There are two stories to be told about games on Microsoft Windows during the operating environment’s first ten years on the market. One of them is extremely short, the other a bit longer and far more interesting. We’ll dispense with the former first.
During the first half of the aforementioned decade — the era of Windows 1 and 2 — the big game publishers, like most of their peers making other kinds of software, never looked twice at Microsoft’s GUI. Why should they? Very few people were even using the thing.
Yet even after Windows 3.0 hit the scene in 1990 and makers of other kinds of software stampeded to embrace it, game publishers continued to turn up their noses. The Windows API made life easier in countless ways for makers of word processors, spreadsheets, and databases, allowing them to craft attractive applications with a uniform look and feel. But it certainly hadn’t been designed with games in mind; they were so far down on Microsoft’s list of priorities as to be nonexistent. Games were in fact the one kind of software in which uniformity wasn’t a positive thing; gamers craved diverse experiences. As a programmer, you couldn’t even force a Windows game to go full-screen. Instead you were stuck all the time inside the borders of the window in which it ran; this, needless to say, didn’t do much for immersion. It was true that Windows’s library for programming graphics, known as the Graphics Device Interface, or GDI, liberated programmers from the tyranny of the hardware — from needing to program separate modules to interact properly with every video standard in the notoriously diverse MS-DOS ecosystem. Unfortunately, though, GDI was slow; it was fine for business graphics, but unusable for most of the popular game genres.
For all these reasons, game developers, alone among makers of software, stuck obstinately with MS-DOS throughout the early 1990s, even as everything else in mainstream computing went all Windows, all the time. It wouldn’t be until after the first decade of Windows was over that game developers would finally embrace it, helped along both by a carrot (Microsoft was finally beginning to pay serious attention to their needs) and a stick (the ever-expanding diversity of hardware on the market was making the MS-DOS bare-metal approach to programming untenable).
End of story number one.
The second, more interesting story about games on Windows deals with different kinds of games from the ones the traditional game publishers were flogging to the demographic who were happy to self-identify as gamers. The people who came to play these different kinds of games couldn’t imagine describing themselves in those terms — and, indeed, would likely have been somewhat insulted if you had suggested it to them. Yet they too would soon be putting in millions upon millions of hours every year playing games, albeit more often in antiseptic adult offices than in odoriferous teenage bedrooms. Whatever; the fact was, they were still playing games. In fact, they were playing games enough to make Windows, that alleged game-unfriendly operating environment, quite probably the most successful gaming platform of the early 1990s in terms of sheer number of person-hours spent playing. And all the while the “hardcore” gamers barely even noticed this most profound democratization of computer gaming that the world had yet seen.
Microsoft Windows, like its inspiration the Apple Macintosh, used what’s known as a skeuomorphic interface — an interface built out of analogues to real-world objects, such as paper documents, a desktop, and a trashcan — to present a friendlier face of computing to people who may have been uncomfortable with the blinking command prompt of yore. It thus comes as little surprise that most of the early Windows games were skeuomorphic as well, being computerized versions of non-threateningly old-fashioned card and board games. In this, they were something of a throwback to the earliest days of personal computing in general, when hobbyists passed around BASIC versions of these same hoary classics, whose simple designs constituted some of the only ones that could be made to fit into the minuscule memories of the first microcomputers. With Windows, it seemed, the old had become new again, as computer gaming started over to try to capture a whole new demographic.
The very first game ever programmed to run in Windows is appropriately prototypical. When Tandy Trower took over the fractious and directionless Windows project at Microsoft in January of 1985, he found that a handful of applets that weren’t, strictly speaking, a part of the operating environment itself had already been completed. These included a calculator, a rudimentary text editor, and a computerized version of a board game called Reversi.
Reversi is an abstract game for two players that looks a bit like checkers and plays like a faster-paced, simplified version of the Japanese classic Go. Its origins are somewhat murky, but it was first popularized as a commercial product in late Victorian England. In 1971, an enterprising Japanese businessman made a couple of minor changes to the rules of this game that had long been considered in the public domain, patented the result, and started selling it as Othello. Under this name, it enjoys modest worldwide popularity to this day. Under both of its names, it also became an early favorite on personal computers, where its simple rules and relatively constrained possibility space lent themselves well to the limitations of programming in BASIC on a 16 K computer; Byte magazine, the bible of early microcomputer hackers, published a type-in Othello as early as its October 1977 issue.
A member of the Windows team named Chris Peters had decided to write a new version of the game under its original (and non-trademarked) name of Reversi in 1984, largely as one of several experiments — proofs of concept, if you will — into Windows application programming. Tandy Trower then pushed to get some of his team’s experimental applets, among them Reversi, included with the first release of Windows in November of 1985:
When the Macintosh was announced, I noted that Apple bundled a small set of applications, which included a small word processor called MacWrite and a drawing application called MacPaint. In addition, Lotus and Borland had recently released DOS products called Metro and SideKick that consisted of a small suite of character-based applications that could be popped up with a keyboard combination while running other applications. Those packages included a simple text editor, a calculator, a calendar, and a business-card-like database. So I went to [Bill] Gates and [Steve] Ballmer with the recommendation that we bundle a similar set of applets with Windows, which would include refining the ones already in development, as well as a few more to match functions comparable to these other products.
Interestingly, MacOS did not include any full-fledged games among its suite of applets; the closest it came was a minimalist sliding-number puzzle that filled all of 600 bytes and a maze on the “Guided Tour of Macintosh” disk that was described as merely a tool for learning to use the mouse. Apple, whose Apple II was found in more schools and homes than businesses and who were therefore viewed with contempt by much of the conservative corporate computing establishment, ran scared from any association of their latest machine with games. But Microsoft, on whose operating system MS-DOS much of corporate America ran, must have felt they could get away with a little more frivolity.
Still, Windows Reversi didn’t ultimately have much impact on much of anyone. Reversi in general was a game more suited to the hacker mindset than the general public, lacking the immediate appeal of a more universally known design, while the execution of this particular version of Reversi was competent but no more. And then, of course, very few people bought Windows 1 in the first place.
For a long time thereafter, Microsoft gave little thought to making more games for Windows. Reversi stuck around unchanged in the only somewhat more successful Windows 2, and was earmarked to remain in Windows 3.0 as well. Beyond that, Microsoft had no major plans for Windows gaming. And then, in one of the stranger episodes in the whole history of gaming, they were handed the piece of software destined to become almost certainly the most popular computer game of all time, reckoned in terms of person-hours played: Windows Solitaire.
The idea of a single-player card game, perfect for passing the time on long coach or railway journeys, had first spread across Europe and then the world during the nineteenth century. The game of Solitaire — or Patience, as it is still more commonly known in Britain — is really a collection of many different games that all utilize a single deck of everyday playing cards. The overarching name is, however, often used interchangeably with the variant known as Klondike, by far the most popular form of Solitaire.
Klondike Solitaire, like the many other variants, has many qualities that make it attractive for computer adaptation on a platform that gives limited scope for programmer ambition. Depending on how one chooses to define such things, a “game” of Solitaire is arguably more of a puzzle than an actual game, and that’s a good thing in this context: the fact that this is a truly single-player endeavor means that the programmer doesn’t have to worry about artificial intelligence at all. In addition, the rules are simple, and playing cards are fairly trivial to represent using even the most primitive computer graphics. Unsurprisingly, then, Solitaire was another favorite among the earliest microcomputer game developers.
It was for all the same reasons that a university student named Wes Cherry, who worked at Microsoft as an intern during the summer of 1988, decided to make a version of Klondike Solitaire for Windows that was similar to one he had spent a lot of time playing on the Macintosh. (Yes, even when it came to the games written by Microsoft’s interns, Windows could never seem to escape the shadow of the Macintosh.) There was, according to Cherry himself, “nothing great” about the code of the game he wrote; it was no better nor worse than a thousand other computerized Solitaire games. After all, how much could you really do with Solitaire one way or the other? It either worked or it didn’t. Thankfully, Cherry’s did, and even came complete with a selection of cute little card backs, drawn by his girlfriend Leslie Kooy. Asked what was the hardest aspect of writing the game, he points today to the soon-to-be-iconic cascade of cards that accompanied victory: “I went through all kinds of hoops to get that final cascade as fast as possible.” (Here we have a fine example of why most game programmers held Windows in such contempt…) At the end of his summer internship, he put his Solitaire on a server full of games and other little experiments that Microsoft’s programmers had created while learning how Windows worked, and went back to university.
Months later, some unknown manager at Microsoft sifted through the same server and discovered Cherry’s Solitaire. It seems that Microsoft had belatedly started looking for a new game — something more interesting than Reversi — to include with the upcoming Windows 3.0, which they intended to pitch as hard to consumers as businesspeople. They now decided that Solitaire ought to be that game. So, they put it through a testing process, getting Cherry to fix the bugs they found from his dorm room in return for a new computer. Meanwhile Susan Kare, the famed designer of MacOS’s look who was now working for Microsoft, gave Leslie Kooy’s cards a bit more polishing.
And so, when Windows 3.0 shipped in May of 1990, Solitaire was included. According to Microsoft, its purpose was to teach people how to use a GUI in a fun way, but that explanation was always something of a red herring. The fact was that computing was changing, machines were entering homes in big numbers once again, and giving people a fun game to play as part of an otherwise serious operating environment was no longer anathema. Certainly huge numbers of people would find Solitaire more than compelling enough as an end unto itself.
The ubiquity that Windows Solitaire went on to achieve — and still maintains to a large extent to this day The game got a complete rewrite for Windows Vista in 2006. Presumably any traces of Wes Cherry’s original code that might have been left were excised at that time. Beginning with Windows 8 in 2012, a standalone Klondike Solitaire game was no longer included as a standard part of every Windows installation — a break with more than twenty years of tradition. Perhaps due to the ensuing public outcry, the advertising-supported Microsoft Solitaire Collection did become a component of Windows 10 upon the latter’s release in 2015. — is as difficult to overstate as it is to quantify. Microsoft themselves soon announced it to be the “most used” Windows application of all, easily besting heavyweight businesslike contenders like Word, Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and WordPerfect. The game became a staple of office life all over the world, to be hauled out during coffee breaks and down times, to be kept always lurking minimized in the background, much to the chagrin of officious middle managers. By 1994, a Washington Post article would ask, only half facetiously, if Windows Solitaire was sowing the seeds of “the collapse of American capitalism.”
“Yup, sure,” says Frank Burns, a principal in the region’s largest computer bulletin board, the MetaNet. “You used to see offices laid out with the back of the video monitor toward the wall. Now it’s the other way around, so the boss can’t see you playing Solitaire.”
“It’s swallowed entire companies,” says Dennis J. “Gomer” Pyles, president of Able Bodied Computers in The Plains, Virginia. “The water-treatment plant in Warrenton, I installed [Windows on] their systems, and the next time I saw the client, the first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve got 2000 points in Solitaire.'”
Airplanes full of businessmen resemble not board meetings but video arcades. Large gray men in large gray suits — lugging laptops loaded with spreadsheets — are consumed by beating their Solitaire scores, flight attendants observe.
Some companies, such as Boeing, routinely remove Solitaire from the Windows package when it arrives, or, in some cases, demand that Microsoft not even ship the product with the game inside. Even PC Magazine banned game-playing during office hours. “Our editor wanted to lessen the dormitory feel of our offices. Advertisers would come in and the entire research department was playing Solitaire. It didn’t leave the best impression,” reported Tin Albano, a staff editor.
Such articles have continued to crop up from time to time in the business pages ever since — as, for instance, the time in 2006 when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg summarily terminated an employee for playing Solitaire on the job, creating a wave of press coverage both positive and negative. But the crackdowns have always been to no avail; it’s as hard to imagine the modern office without Microsoft Solitaire as it is to imagine it without Microsoft Office.
Which isn’t to say that the Solitaire phenomenon is limited to office life. My retired in-laws, who have quite possibly never played another computer game in either of their lives, both devote hours every week to Solitaire in their living room. A Finnish study from 2007 found it to be the favorite game of 36 percent of women and 13 percent of men; no other game came close to those numbers. Even more so than Tetris, that other great proto-casual game of the early 1990s, Solitaire is, to certain types of personality at any rate, endlessly appealing. Why should that be?
To begin to answer that question, we might turn to the game’s pre-digital past. Whitmore Jones’s Games of Patience for One or More Players, a compendium of many Solitaire variants, was first published in 1898. Its introduction is fascinating, presaging much of the modern discussion about Microsoft Solitaire and casual gaming in general.
In days gone by, before the world lived at the railway speed as it is doing now, the game of Patience was looked upon with somewhat contemptuous toleration, as a harmless but dull amusement for idle ladies, and was ironically described as “a roundabout method of sorting the cards”; but it has gradually won for itself a higher place. For now, when the work, and still more the worries, of life have so enormously increased and multiplied, the value of a pursuit interesting enough to absorb the attention without unduly exciting the brain, and so giving the mind a rest, as it were, a breathing space wherein to recruit its faculties, is becoming more and more recognised and appreciated.
In addition to illustrating how concerns about the pace of contemporary life and nostalgia for the good old days are an eternal part of the human psyche, this passage points to the heart of Solitaire’s appeal, whether played with real cards or on a computer: the way that it can “absorb the attention without unduly exciting the brain.” It’s the perfect game to play when killing time at the end of the workday, as a palate cleanser between one task and another, or, as in the case of my in-laws, as a semi-active accompaniment to the idle practice of watching the boob tube.
Yet Solitaire isn’t a strictly rote pursuit even for those with hundreds of hours of experience playing it; if it was, it would have far less appeal. Indeed, it isn’t even particularly fair. About 20 percent of shuffles will result in a game that isn’t winnable at all, and Wes Cherry’s original computer implementation at least does nothing to protect you from this harsh mathematical reality. Still, when you get stuck there’s always that “Deal” menu option waiting for you up there in the corner, a tempting chance to reshuffle the cards and try your hand at a new combination. So, while Solitaire is the very definition of a low-engagement game, it’s also a game that has no natural end point; somehow the “Deal” option looks equally tempting whether you’ve just won or just lost. After being sucked in by its comfortable similarity to an analog game of cards almost everyone of a certain age has played, people can and do proceed to keep playing it for a lifetime.
As in the case of Tetris, there’s room to debate whether spending so many hours upon such a repetitive activity as playing Solitaire is psychologically healthy. For my own part, I avoid it and similar “time waster” games as just that — a waste of time that doesn’t leave me feeling good about myself afterward. By way of another perspective, though, there is this touching comment that was once left by a Reddit user to Wes Cherry himself:
I just want to tell you that this is the only game I play. I have autism and don’t game due to not being able to cope with the sensory processing – but Solitaire is “my” game.
I have a window of it open all day, every day and the repetitive clicking is really soothing. It helps me calm down and mentally function like a regular person. It makes a huge difference in my quality of life. I’m so glad it exists. Never thought there would be anyone I could thank for this, but maybe I can thank you. *random Internet stranger hugs*
Cherry wrote Solitaire in Microsoft’s offices on company time, and thus it was always destined to be their intellectual property. He was never paid anything at all, beyond a free computer, for creating the most popular computer game in history. He says he’s fine with this. He’s long since left the computer industry, and now owns and operates a cider distillery on Vashon Island in Puget Sound.
The popularity of Solitaire convinced Microsoft, if they needed convincing, that simple games like this had a place — potentially a profitable place — in Windows. Between 1990 and 1992, they released four “Microsoft Entertainment Packs,” each of which contained seven little games of varying degrees of inspiration, largely cobbled together from more of the projects coded by their programmers in their spare time. These games were the polar opposite of the ones being sold by traditional game publishers, which were growing ever more ambitious, with increasingly elaborate storylines and increasing use of video and sound recorded from the real world. The games from Microsoft were instead cast in the mold of Cherry’s Solitaire: simple games that placed few demands on either their players or the everyday office computers Microsoft envisioned running them, as indicated by the blurbs on the boxes: “No more boring coffee breaks!”; “You’ll never get out of the office!” Bruce Ryan, the manager placed in charge of the Entertainment Packs, later summarized the target demographic as “loosely supervised businesspeople.”
The centerpiece of the first Entertainment Pack was a passable version of Tetris, created under license from Spectrum Holobyte, who owned the computer rights to the game. Wes Cherry, still working out of his dorm room, provided a clone of another older puzzle game called Pipe Dream to be the second Entertainment Pack’s standard bearer; he was even compensated this time, at least modestly. As these examples illustrate, the Entertainment Packs weren’t conceptually ambitious in the least, being largely content to provide workmanlike copies of established designs from both the analog and digital realms. Among the other games included were Solitaire variants other than Klondike, a clone of the Activision tile-matching hit Shanghai, a 3D Tic-tac-toe game, a golf game (for the ultimate clichéd business-executive experience), and even a version of John Horton Conway’s venerable study of cellular life cycles, better known as the game of Life. (One does have to wonder what bored office workers made of that).
Established journals of record like Computer Gaming World barely noticed the Entertainment Packs, but they sold more than half a million copies in two years, equaling or besting the numbers of the biggest hardcore hits of the era, such as the Wing Commander series. Yet even that impressive number rather understates the popularity of Microsoft’s time wasters. Given that they had no copy protection, and given that they would run on any computer capable of running Windows, the Entertainment Packs were by all reports pirated at a mind-boggling rate, passed around offices like cakes baked for the Christmas potluck.
For all their success, though, nothing on any of the Entertainment Packs came close to rivaling Wes Cherry’s original Solitaire game in terms of sheer number of person-hours played. The key factor here was that the Entertainment Packs were add-on products; getting access to these games required motivation and effort from the would-be player, along with — at least in the case of the stereotypical coffee-break player from Microsoft’s own promotional literature — an office environment easygoing enough that one could carry in software and install it on one’s work computer. Solitaire, on the other hand, came already included with every fresh Windows installation, so long as an office’s system administrators weren’t savvy and heartless enough to seek it out and delete it. The archetypal low-effort game, its popularity was enabled by the fact that it also took no effort whatsoever to gain access to it. You just sort of stumbled over it while trying to figure out this new Windows thing that the office geek had just installed on your faithful old computer, or when you saw your neighbor in the next cubicle playing and asked what the heck she was doing. Five minutes later, it had its hooks in you.
It was therefore significant when Microsoft added a new game — or rather an old one — to 1992’s Windows 3.1. Minesweeper had actually debuted as part of the first Entertainment Pack, where it had become a favorite of quite a number of players. Among them was none other than Bill Gates himself, who became so addicted that he finally deleted the game from his computer — only to start getting his fix on his colleagues’ machines. (This creates all sorts of interesting fuel for the imagination. How do you handle it when your boss, who also happens to be the richest man in the world, is hogging your computer to play Minesweeper?) Perhaps due to the CEO’s patronage, Minesweeper became part of Windows’s standard equipment in 1992, replacing the unloved Reversi.
Unlike Solitaire and most of the Entertainment Pack games, Minesweeper was an original design, written by staff programmers Robert Donner and Curt Johnson in their spare time. That said, it does owe something to the old board game Battleship, to very early computer games like Hunt the Wumpus, and in particular to a 1985 computer game called Relentless Logic. You click on squares in a grid to uncover their contents, which can be one of three things: nothing at all, indicating that neither this square nor any of its adjacent squares contain mines; a number, indicating that this square is clear but said number of its adjacent squares do contain mines; or — unlucky you! — an actual mine, which kills you, ending the game. Like Solitaire, Minesweeper straddles the line — if such a line exists — between game and puzzle, and it isn’t a terribly fair take on either: while the program does protect you to the extent that the first square you click will never contain a mine, it’s possible to get into a situation through no fault of your own where you can do nothing but play the odds on your next click. But, unlike Solitaire, Minesweeper does have more of the trappings of a conventional videogame, including a timer which encourages you to play quickly to achieve the maximum score.
Doubtless because of those more overt videogame trappings, Minesweeper never became quite the office fixture that Solitaire did. Those who did get sucked in by it, however, found it even more addictive, perhaps not least because it does demand a somewhat higher level of engagement. It too became an iconic part of life with Microsoft Windows, and must rank high on any list of most-played computer games of all time, if the data only existed to compile such a thing. After all, it did enjoy one major advantage over even Solitaire for office workers with uptight bosses: it ran in a much smaller window, and thus stood out far less on a crowded screen when peering eyes glanced into one’s cubicle.
Microsoft included a third game with Windows for Workgroups 3.1, a variant intended for a networked office environment. True to that theme, Hearts was a version of the evergreen card game which could be played against computer opponents, but which was most entertaining when played together by up to four real people, all on separate computers. Its popularity was somewhat limited by the fact that it came only with Windows for Workgroups, but, again, that adjective is relative. By any normal computer-gaming standard, Hearts was hugely popular indeed for quite some years, serving for many people as their introduction to the very concept of online gaming — a concept destined to remake much of the landscape of computer gaming in general in years to come. Certainly I can remember many a spirited Hearts tournament at my workplaces during the 1990s. The human, competitive element always made Hearts far more appealing to me than the other games I’ve discussed in this article.
But whatever your favorite happened to be, the games of Windows became a vital part of a process I’ve been documenting in fits and starts over the last year or two of writing this history: an expansion of the demographics that were playing games, accomplished not by making parents and office workers suddenly fall in love with the massive, time-consuming science-fiction or fantasy epics upon which most of the traditional computer-game industry remained fixated, but rather by meeting them where they lived. Instead of five-course meals, Microsoft provided ludic snacks suited to busy lives and limited attention spans. None of the games I’ve written about here are examples of genius game design in the abstract; their genius, to whatever extent it exists, is confined to worming their way into the psyche in a way that can turn them into compulsions. Yet, simply by being a part of the software that just about everybody, with the exception of a few Macintosh stalwarts, had on their computers in the 1990s, they got hundreds of millions of people playing computer games for the first time. The mainstream Ludic Revolution, encompassing the gamification of major swaths of daily life, began in earnest on Microsoft Windows.
The game got a complete rewrite for Windows Vista in 2006. Presumably any traces of Wes Cherry’s original code that might have been left were excised at that time. Beginning with Windows 8 in 2012, a standalone Klondike Solitaire game was no longer included as a standard part of every Windows installation — a break with more than twenty years of tradition. Perhaps due to the ensuing public outcry, the advertising-supported Microsoft Solitaire Collection did become a component of Windows 10 upon the latter’s release in 2015.
This series of articles so far has been a story of business-oriented personal computing. Corporate America had been running for decades on IBM before the IBM PC appeared, so it was only natural that the standard IBM introduced would be embraced as the way to get serious, businesslike things done on a personal computer. Yet long before IBM entered the picture, personal computing in general had been pioneered by hackers and hobbyists, many of whom nursed grander dreams than giving secretaries a better typewriter or giving accountants a better way to add up figures. These pioneers didn’t go away after 1981, but neither did they embrace the IBM PC, which most of them dismissed as technically unimaginative and aesthetically disastrous. Instead they spent the balance of the 1980s using computers like the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Commodore Amiga, and the Atari ST to communicate with one another, to draw pictures, to make music, and of course to write and play lots and lots of games. Dwarfed already in terms of dollars and cents at mid-decade by the business-computing monster the IBM PC had birthed, this vibrant alternative computing ecosystem — sometimes called home computing, sometimes consumer computing — makes a far more interesting subject for the cultural historian of today than the world of IBM and Microsoft, with its boring green screens and boring corporate spokesmen running scared from the merest mention of digital creativity. It’s for this reason that, a few series like this one aside, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time on this blog talking about the cultures of creative computing rather than those of IBM and Microsoft.
Consumer computing did enjoy one brief boom in the 1980s. From roughly 1982 to 1984, a narrative took hold within the mainstream media and the offices of venture capitalists alike that full-fledged computers would replace the Atari VCS and other game consoles in American homes on a massive scale. After all, computers could play games just like the consoles, but they alone could also be used to educate the kids, write school reports and letters, balance the checkbook, and — that old favorite to which the pundits returned again and again — store the family recipes.
All too soon, though, the limitations of the cheap 8-bit computers that had fueled the boom struck home. As a consumer product, those early computers with their cryptic blinking command prompts were hopeless; at least with an Atari VCS you could just put a cartridge in the slot, turn it on, and play. There were very few practical applications for which they weren’t more trouble than they were worth. If you needed to write a school report, a standalone word-processing machine designed for that purpose alone was often a cheaper and better solution, and the family accounts and recipes were actually much easier to store on paper than in a slow, balky computer program. Certainly paper was the safer choice over a pile of fragile floppy disks.
So, what we might call the First Home Computer Revolution fizzled out, with most of the computers that had been purchased over its course making the slow march of shame from closet to attic to landfill. That minority who persisted with their new computers was made up of the same sorts of personalities who had had computers in their homes before the boom — for the one concrete thing the First Home Computer Revolution had achieved was to make home computers in general more affordable, and thus put them within the reach of more people who were inclined toward them anyway. People with sufficient patience continued to find home computers great for playing games that offered more depth than the games on the consoles, while others found them objects of wonder unto themselves, new oceans just waiting to have their technological depths plumbed by intrepid digital divers. It was mostly young people, who had free time on their hands, who were open to novelty, who were malleable enough to learn something new, and who were in love with escapist fictions of all stripes, who became the biggest home-computer users.
Their numbers grew at a modest pace every year, but the real money, it was now clear, was in business computing. Why try to sell computers piecemeal to teenagers when you could sell them in bulk to corporations? IBM, after having made one abortive stab at capturing home computing as well via the ill-fated PCjr, went where the money was, and all but a few other computer makers — most notable among these home-computer loyalists were Commodore, Atari, and Radio Shack — followed them there. The teenagers, for their part, responded to the business-computing majority’s contempt in kind, piling scorn onto the IBM PC’s ludicrously ugly CGA graphics and its speaker that could do little more than beep and fart at you, all while embracing their own more colorful platforms with typical adolescent zeal.
As the 1980s neared their end, however, the ugly old MS-DOS computer started down an unanticipated road of transformation. In 1987, as part of the misbegotten PS/2 line, IBM introduced a new graphics standard called VGA that, with up to 256 onscreen colors from a palette of more than 260,000, outdid all of the common home computers of the time. Soon after, enterprising third parties like Ad Lib and Creative Labs started making add-on sound cards for MS-DOS machines that could make real music and — just as important for game fanatics — real explosions. Many a home hacker woke up one morning to realize that the dreaded PC clone suddenly wasn’t looking all that bad. No, the technical architecture wasn’t beautiful, but it was robust and mature, and the pressure of having dozens of competitors manufacturing machines meeting the standard kept the bang-for-your-buck ratio very good. And if you — or your parents — did want to do any word processing or checkbook balancing, the software for doing so was excellent, honed by years of catering to the most demanding of corporate users. Ditto the programming tools that were nearer to a hacker’s heart; Borland’s Turbo Pascal alone was a thing of wonder, better than any other programming environment on any other personal computer.
Meanwhile 8-bit home computers like the Apple II and the Commodore 64 were getting decidedly long in the tooth, and the companies that made them were doing a peculiarly poor job of replacing them. The Apple Macintosh was so expensive as to be out of reach of most, and even the latest Apple II, known as the IIGS, was priced way too high for what it was; Apple, having joined the business-computing rat race, seemed vaguely embarrassed by the continuing existence of the Apple II, the platform that had made them. The Commodore Amiga 500 was perhaps a more promising contender to inherit the crown of the Commodore 64, but its parent company had mismanaged their brand almost beyond hope of redemption in the United States.
So, in 1988 and 1989 MS-DOS-based computing started coming home, thanks both to its own sturdy merits and a lack of compelling alternatives from the traditional makers of home computers. The process was helped along by Sierra Online, a major publisher of consumer software who had bet big and early on the MS-DOS standard conquering the home in the end, and were thus out in front of its progress now with a range of appealing games that took full advantage of the new graphics and sound cards. Other publishers, reeling before a Nintendo onslaught that was devastating the remnants of the 8-bit software market, soon followed their lead. By 1990, the vast majority of the American consumer-software industry had joined their counterparts in business software in embracing MS-DOS as their platform of first — often, of only — priority.
Bill Gates had always gone where the most money was. In years past, the money had been in business computing, and so Microsoft, after experimenting briefly with consumer software in the period just before the release of the IBM PC, had all but ignored the consumer market in favor of system software and applications targeted squarely at corporate America. Now, though, the times were changing, as home computers became powerful and cheap enough to truly go mainstream. The media was buzzing about the subject as they hadn’t for years; everywhere it was multimedia this, CD-ROM that. Services like Prodigy and America Online were putting a new, friendlier face on the computer as a tool for communicating and socializing, and game developers were buzzing about an emerging new form of mass-market entertainment, a merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Gates wasn’t alone in smelling a Second Home Computer Revolution in the wind, one that would make the computer a permanent fixture of modern American home life in all the ways the first had failed to do so.
This, then, was the zeitgeist into which Microsoft Windows 3.0 made its splashy debut in May of 1990. It was perfectly positioned both to drive the Second Home Computer Revolution and to benefit from it. Small wonder that Microsoft undertook a dramatic branding overhaul this year, striving to project a cooler, more entertaining image — an image appropriate for a company which marketed not to other companies but to individual consumers. One might say that the Microsoft we still know today was born on May 22, 1990, when Bill Gates strode onto a stage — tellingly, not a stage at Comdex or some other stodgy business-oriented computing event — to introduce the world to Windows 3.0 over a backdrop of confetti cannons, thumping music, and huge projection screens.
The delirious sales of Windows 3.0 that followed were not — could not be, given their quantity — driven exclusively by sales to corporate America. The world of computing had turned topsy-turvy; consumer computing was where the real action was now. Even as they continued to own business-oriented personal computing, Microsoft suddenly dominated in the home as well, thanks to the capitulation without much of a fight of all of the potential rivals to MS-DOS and Windows. Countless copies of Windows 3.0 were sold by Microsoft directly to Joe Public to install on his existing home computer, through a toll-free hotline they set up for the purpose. (“Have your credit card ready and call!”) Even more importantly, as new computers entered American homes in mass quantities for the second time in history, they did so with Windows already on their hard drives, thanks to Microsoft’s longstanding deals with the companies that made them.
In April of 1992, Windows 3.1 appeared, sporting as one of its most important new features a set of “multimedia extensions” — this meaning tools for recording and playing back sounds, for playing audio CDs, and, most of all, for running a new generation of CD-ROM-based software sporting digitized voices and music and video clips — which were plainly aimed at the home rather than the business user. Although Windows 3.1 wasn’t as dramatic a leap forward as its predecessor had been, Microsoft nevertheless hyped it to the skies in the mass media, rolling out an $8 million television-advertising campaign among other promotional strategies that would have been unthinkable from the business-focused Microsoft of just a few years earlier. It sold even faster than had its predecessor.
A Quick Tour of Windows for Workgroups 3.1
Released in April of 1992, Windows 3.1 was the ultimate incarnation of Windows’s third generation. (A version 3.11 was released the following year, but it confined itself to bug fixes and modest performance tweaks, introducing no significant new features.) It dropped support for 8088-based machines, and with it the old “real mode” of operation; it now ran only in protected mode or 386 enhanced mode. It made welcome strides in terms of stability, even as it still left much to be desired on that front. And this Windows was the last to be sold as an add-on to an MS-DOS which had to be purchased separately. Consumer-grade incarnations of Windows would continue to be built on top of MS-DOS for the rest of the decade, but from Windows 95 on Microsoft would do a better job of hiding their humble foundation by packaging the whole software stack together as a single product.
Stuff like this is the reason Windows always took such a drubbing in comparison to other, slicker computing platforms. In truth, Microsoft was doing the best they could to support a bewildering variety of hardware, a problem with which vendors of turnkey systems like Apple didn’t have to contend. Still, it’s never a great look to have to tell your customers, “If this crashes your computer, don’t worry about it, just try again.” Much the same advice applied to daily life with Windows, noted the scoffers.
Microsoft was rather shockingly lax about validating Windows 3 installations. The product had no copy protection of any sort, meaning one person in a neighborhood could (and often did) purchase a copy and share it with every other house on the block. Others in the industry had a sneaking suspicion that Microsoft really didn’t mind that much if Windows was widely pirated among their non-business customers — that they’d rather people run pirated copies of Windows than a competing product. It was all about achieving the ubiquity which would open the door to all sorts of new profit potential through the sale of applications. And indeed, Windows 3 was pirated like crazy, but it also became thoroughly ubiquitous. As for the end to which Windows’s ubiquity was the means: by the time applications came to represent 25 percent of Microsoft’s unit sales, they already accounted for 51 percent of their revenue. Bill Gates always had an instinct for sniffing out where the money was.
Probably the most important single enhancements in Windows 3.1 was its TrueType fonts. The rudimentary bitmap fonts which shipped with older versions looked… not all that nice on the screen or on the page, reportedly due to Bill Gates’s adamant refusal to pay a royalty for fonts to an established foundry like Adobe, as Apple had always done. This decision led to a confusion of aftermarket fonts in competing formats. If you used some of these more stylish fonts in a document, you couldn’t share that document with anyone else unless she also had installed the same fonts. So, you could either share ugly documents or keep nice-looking ones to yourself. Some choice! Thankfully, TrueType came along to fix all that, giving Macintosh users at least one less thing to laugh at when it came to Windows.
The TrueType format was the result of an unusual cooperative project led by Microsoft and Apple — yes, even as they were battling one another in court. The system of glyphs and the underlying technology to render them were intended to break the stranglehold Adobe Systems enjoyed over high-end printing; Adobe charged a royalty of up to $100 per gadget that employed their own PostScript font system, and were widely seen in consequence as a retrograde force holding back the entire desktop-publishing and GUI ecosystem. TrueType would succeed splendidly in its monopoly-busting goal, to such an extent that it remains the standard for fonts on Microsoft Windows and Apple’s OS X to this day. Bill Gates, no stranger to vindictiveness, joked that “we made [the widely disliked Adobe head] John Warnock cry.”
The other big addition to Windows 3.1 was the “multimedia extensions.” These let you do things like record sounds using an attached microphone and play your audio CDs on your computer. That they were added to what used to be a very businesslike operating environment says much about how important home users had become to Microsoft’s strategy.
In a throwback to an earlier era of computing, MS-DOS still shipped with a copy of BASIC included, and Windows 3.1 automatically found it and configured it for easy access right out of the box — this even though home computing was now well beyond the point where most users would ever try to become programmers. Bill Gates’s sentimental attachment to BASIC, the language on which he built his company before the IBM PC came along, has often been remarked upon by his colleagues, especially since he wasn’t normally a man given to much sentimentality. It was the widespread perception of Borland’s Turbo Pascal as the logical successor to BASIC — the latest great programming tool for the masses — that drove the longstanding antipathy between Gates and Borland’s flamboyant leader, Philippe Kahn. Later, it was supposedly at Gates’s insistence that Microsoft’s Visual BASIC, a Pascal-killer which bore little resemblance to BASIC as most people knew it, nevertheless bore the name.
Windows for Workgroups — a separate, pricier version of the environment aimed at businesses — was distinguished by having built-in support for networking. This wasn’t, however, networking as we think of it today. It was rather intended to connect machines together only in a local office environment. No TCP/IP stack — the networking technology that powers the Internet — was included.
But you could get on the Internet with the right additional software. Here, just for fun, I’m trying to browse the web using Internet Explorer 5 from 1999, the last version made for Windows 3. Google is one of the few sites that work at all — albeit, as you can see, not very well.
All this success — this reality of a single company now controlling almost all personal computing, in the office and in the home — brought with it plenty of blowback. The metaphor of Microsoft as the Evil Empire, and of Bill Gates as the computer industry’s very own Darth Vader, began in earnest in these years of Windows 3’s dominance. Neither Gates nor his company had ever been beloved among their peers, having always preferred making money to making friends. Now, though, the naysayers came out in force. Bob Metcalfe, a Xerox PARC alum famous in hacker lore as the inventor of the Ethernet networking protocol, talked about Microsoft’s expanding “death grip” on innovation in the computer industry. Indeed, zombie imagery was prevalent among many of Microsoft’s rivals; Mitch Kapor of Lotus called the new Windows-driven industry “the kingdom of the dead”: “The revolution is over, and free-wheeling innovation in the software industry has ground to a halt.” Any number of anonymous commenters mused about doing Gates any number of forms of bodily harm. “It’s remarkable how widespread the negative feelings toward Microsoft are,” mused Stewart Alsop. “No one wants to work with Microsoft anymore,” said noted Gates-basher Phillipe Kahn of Borland. “We sure won’t. They don’t have any friends left.” Channeling such sentiments, Business Month magazine cropped his nerdy face onto a body-builder’s body and labeled him the “Silicon Bully” on its cover: “How long can Bill Gates kick sand in the face of the computer industry?”
Setting aside the jealousy that always follows great success, even setting aside for the moment the countless ways in which Microsoft really did play hardball with their competitors, something about Bill Gates rubbed many people the wrong way on a personal, visceral level. In keeping with their new, consumer-friendly image, Microsoft had hired consultants to fix up his wardrobe and work on his speaking style — not to mention to teach him the value of personal hygiene — and he could now get through a canned presentation ably enough. When it came to off-the-cuff interactions, though, he continued to strike many as insufferable. To judge him on the basis of his weedy physique and nasally speaking voice — the voice of the kid who always had to show how smart he was to the rest of the class — was perhaps unfair. But one certainly could find him guilty of a thoroughgoing lack of graciousness.
His team of PR coaches could have told him that, when asked who had contributed the most to the personal-computer revolution, he ought to politely decline to answer, or, even better, modestly reflect on the achievements of someone like his old friend Steve Jobs. But they weren’t in the room with him one day when that exact question was put to him by a smiling reporter, and so, after acknowledging that it really should be answered by “others less biased than me,” he proceeded to make the case for himself: “I will say that I started the first microcomputer-software company. I put BASIC in micros before 1980. I was influential in making the IBM PC a 16-bit machine. My DOS is in 50 million computers. I wrote software for the Mac.” I, I, I. Everything he said was true, at least if one presumed that “I” meant “Bill Gates and the others at Microsoft” in this context. Yet there was something unappetizing about this laundry list of achievements he could so easily rattle off, and about the almost pathological competitiveness it betrayed. We love to praise ambition in the abstract, but most of us find such naked ambition as that constantly displayed by Gates profoundly off-putting. The growing dislike for Microsoft in the computer industry and even in much of the technology press was fueled to a large extent by a personal aversion to their founder.
Which isn’t to say that there weren’t valid grounds for concern when it came to Microsoft’s complete dominance of personal-computer system software. Comparisons to the Standard Oil trust of the Gilded Age were in the air, so much so that by 1992 it was already becoming ironically useful for Microsoft to keep the Macintosh and OS/2 alive and allow them their paltry market share, just so the alleged monopolists could point to a couple of semi-viable competitors to Windows. It was clear that Microsoft’s ambitions didn’t end with controlling the operating system installed on the vast majority of computers in the country and, soon, the world. On the contrary, that was only a means to their real end. They were already using their status as the company that made Windows to cut deep into the application market, invading territory that had once belonged to the likes of Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Now, those names were slowly being edged out by Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word. Microsoft wanted to own more or less all of the software on your computer. Any niche outside developers that remained in computing’s new order, it seemed, would do so at Microsoft’s sufferance. The established makers of big-ticket business applications would have been chilled if they had been privy to the words spoken by Mike Maples, Microsoft’s head of applications, to his own people: “If someone thinks we’re not after Lotus and after WordPerfect and after Borland, they’re confused. My job is to get a fair share of the software applications market, and to me that’s 100 percent.” This was always the problem with Microsoft. They didn’t want to compete in the markets they entered; they wanted to own them.
Microsoft’s control of Windows gave them all sorts of advantages over other application developers which may not have been immediately apparent to the non-technical public. Take, for instance, the esoteric-sounding technology of Object Linking and Embedding, or OLE, which debuted with Windows 3.0 and still exists in current versions. OLE allows applications to share all sorts of dynamic data between themselves. Thanks to it, a word-processor document can include charts and graphs from a spreadsheet, with the one updating itself automatically when the other gets updated. Microsoft built OLE support into new versions of Word and Excel that accompanied Windows 3.0’s release, but refused for many months to tell outside developers how to use it. Thus Microsoft’s applications had hugely desirable capabilities which their competitors did not for a long, long time. Similar stories played out again and again, driving the competition to distraction while Bill Gates shrugged his shoulders and played innocent. “We bend over backwards to make sure we’re not getting special advantage,” he said, while Steve Ballmer talked about a “Chinese wall” between Microsoft’s application and system programmers — a wall which people who had actually worked there insisted simply didn’t exist.
On March 1, 1991, news broke that the Federal Trade Commission was investigating Microsoft for anti-trust violations and monopolistic practices. The investigators specifically point to that agreement with IBM that had been announced at the Fall 1989 Comdex, to target low-end computers with Microsoft’s Windows and high-end computers with the two companies’ joint operating system OS/2 — ironically, an “anti-competitive” initiative that Microsoft had never taken all that seriously. Once the FTC started digging, however, they found that there was plenty of other evidence to be turned up, from both the previous decade and this new one.
There was, for instance, little question that Microsoft had always leveraged their status as the maker of MS-DOS in every way they could. When Windows 3.0 came out, they helped to ensure its acceptance by telling hardware makers that the only way they would continue to be allowed to buy MS-DOS for pre-installation on their computers was to buy Windows and start pre-installing that too. Later, part of their strategy for muscling into the application market was to get Microsoft Works, a stripped-down version of the full Microsoft Office suite, pre-installed on computers as well. How many people were likely to go out and buy Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect when they already had similar software on their computer? Of course, if they did need something more powerful, said the little card included with every computer, they could have the more advanced version of Microsoft Works for the cost of a nominal upgrade fee…
And there were other, far more nefarious stories to tell. There was, for instance, the tale of DR-DOS, a 1988 alternative to MS-DOS from Digital Research which was compatible with Microsoft’s operating system but offered a lot of welcome enhancements. Microsoft went after any clone maker who tried to offer DR-DOS pre-installed on their machines with both carrots (they would undercut Digital Research’s price to the point of basically giving MS-DOS away if necessary) and sticks (they would refuse to license them the upcoming, hotly anticipated Windows 3.0 if they persisted in their loyalty to Digital Research). Later, once the DR-DOS threat had been quelled, most of the features that had made it so desirable turned up in the next release of MS-DOS. Digital Research — a company which Bill Gates seemed to delight in tormenting — had once again been, in the industry’s latest parlance, “Microslimed.”
But Digital Research was neither the first nor the last such company. Microsoft, it was often claimed, had a habit of negotiating with smaller companies under false pretenses, learning what made their technology tick under the guise of due diligence, and then launching their own product based on what they had learned. In early 1990, Microsoft told Intuit, a maker of a hugely successful money-management package called Quicken, that they were interested in acquiring them. After several weeks of negotiations, including lots of discussions about how Quicken was programmed, how it was used in the wild, and what marketing strategies had been most effective, Microsoft abruptly broke off the talks, saying they “couldn’t find a way to make it work.” Before the end of 1990, they had announced Microsoft Money, their own money-management product.
More and more of these types of stories were being passed around. A startup who called themselves Go came to Microsoft with a pen-based computing interface. (The latter was all the rage at the time; Apple as well was working on something called the Newton, a sort of pen-based proto-iPad that, like all of the other initiatives in this direction, would turn into an expensive failure.) After spending weeks examining Go’s technology, Microsoft elected not to purchase it or sign them to a contract. But, just days later, they started an internal project to create a pen-based interface for Windows, headed by the engineer who had been in charge of “evaluating” Go’s technology. A meme was emerging, by no means entirely true but perhaps not entirely untrue either, of Microsoft as a company better at doing business than doing technology, who would prefer to copy the innovations of others than do the hard work of coming up with their own ideas.
In a way, though, this very quality was a source of strength for Microsoft, the reason that corporate clients flocked to them now like they once had to IBM; the mantra that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” was fast being replaced in corporate America by “no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft.” “We don’t do innovative stuff, like completely new revolutionary stuff,” Bill Gates admitted in an unguarded moment. “One of the things we are really, really good at doing is seeing what stuff is out there and taking the right mix of good features from different products.” For businesses and, now, tens of millions of individual consumers, Microsoft really was the new IBM: they were safe. You bought a Windows machine not because it was the slickest or sexiest box on the block but because you knew it was going to be well-supported, knew there would be software on the shelves for it for a long time to come, knew that when you did decide to upgrade the transition would be a relatively painless one. You didn’t get that kind of security from any other platform. If Microsoft’s business practices were sometimes a little questionable, even if Windows crashed sometimes or kept on running inexplicably slower the longer you had it on your computer, well, you could live with that. Alan Boyd, an executive at Microsoft for a number of years:
Does Bill have a vision? No. Has he done it the right way? Yes. He’s done it by being conservative. I mean, Bill used to say to me that his job is to say no. That’s his job.
Which is why I can understand [that] he’s real sensitive about that. Is Bill innovative? Yes. Does he appear innovative? No. Bill personally is a lot more innovative than Microsoft ever could be, simply because his way of doing business is to do it very steadfastly and very conservatively. So that’s where there’s an internal clash in Bill: between his ability to innovate and his need to innovate. The need to innovate isn’t there because Microsoft is doing well. And innovation… you get a lot of arrows in your back. He lets things get out in the market and be tried first before he moves into them. And that’s valid. It’s like IBM.
Of course, the ethical problem with this approach to doing business was that it left no space for the little guys who actually had done the hard work of innovating the technologies which Microsoft then proceeded to co-opt. “Seeing what stuff is out there and taking it” — to use Gates’s own words against him — is a very good way indeed to make yourself hated.
During the 1990s, Windows was widely seen by the tech intelligentsia as the archetypal Microsoft product, an unimaginative, clunky amalgam of other people’s ideas. In his seminal (and frequently hilarious) 1999 essay “In the Beginning… Was the Command Line,” Neal Stephenson described operating systems in terms of vehicles. Windows 3 was a moped in this telling, “a Rube Goldberg contraption that, when bolted onto a three-speed bicycle [MS-DOS], enabled it to keep up, just barely, with Apple-cars. The users had to wear goggles and were always picking bugs out of their teeth while Apple owners sped along in hermetically sealed comfort, sneering out the windows. But the Micro-mopeds were cheap, and easy to fix compared with the Apple-cars, and their market share waxed.”
And yet if we wished to identify one Microsoft product that truly was visionary, we could do worse than boring old ramshackle Windows. Bill Gates first put his people to work on it, we should remember, before the original IBM PC and the first version of MS-DOS had even been released — so strongly did he believe even then, just as much as that more heralded visionary Steve Jobs, that the GUI was the future of computing. By the time Windows finally reached the market four years later, it had had occasion to borrow much from the Apple Macintosh, the platform with which it was doomed always to be unfavorably compared. But Windows 1 also included vital features of modern computing that the Mac did not, such as multitasking and virtual memory. No, it didn’t take a genius to realize that these must eventually make their way to personal computers; Microsoft had fine examples of them to look at from the more mature ecosystems of institutional computing, and thus could be said, once again, to have implemented and popularized but not innovated them.
Still, we should save some credit for the popularizers. Apple, building upon the work done at Xerox, perfected the concept of the GUI to such an extent in LisaOS and MacOS that one could say that all of the improvements made to it since have been mere details. But, entrenched in a business model that demanded high profit margins and proprietary hardware, they were doomed to produce luxury products rather than ubiquitous ones. This was the logical flaw at the heart of the much-discussed “1984” television advertisement and much of the rhetoric that continued to surround the Macintosh in the years that followed. If you want to change the world through better computing, you have to give the people a computer they can afford. Thanks to Apple’s unwillingness or inability to do that, it was Microsoft that brought the GUI to the world in their stead — in however imperfect a form.
The rewards for doing so were almost beyond belief. Microsoft’s revenues climbed by roughly 50 percent every year in the few years after the introduction of Windows 3.0, as the company stormed past Boeing to become the biggest corporation in the Pacific Northwest. Someone who had invested $1000 in Microsoft in 1986 would have seen her investment grow to $30,000 by 1991. By the same point, over 2000 employees or former employees had become millionaires. In 1992, Bill Gates was anointed by Forbes magazine the richest person in the world, a distinction he would enjoy for the next 25 years by most reckonings. The man who had been so excited when his company grew to be bigger than Lotus in 1987 now owned a company that was larger than the next five biggest software publishers combined. And as for Lotus alone? Well, Microsoft was now over four times their size. And the Decade of Microsoft had only just begun.
In 2000, the company’s high-water point, an astonishing 97 percent of all consumer computing devices would have some sort of Microsoft software installed on them. In the vast majority of cases, of course, said software would include Microsoft Windows. There would be all sorts of grounds for concern about this kind of dominance even had it not been enjoyed by a company with such a reputation for playing rough as Microsoft. (Or would a company that didn’t play rough ever have gotten to be so dominant in the first place?) In future articles, we’ll be forced to spend a lot more time dealing with Microsoft’s various scandals and controversies, along with reactions to them that took the form of legal challenges from the American government and the European Union and the rise of an alternative ideology of software called the open-source movement.
But, as we come to the end of this particular series of articles on the early days of Windows, we really should give Bill Gates some credit as well. Had he not kept doggedly on with Windows in the face of a business-computing culture that for years wanted nothing to do with it, his company could very easily have gone the way of VisiCorp, Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland, and, one might even say, IBM and Apple for a while: a star of one era of computing that was unable to adapt to the changing times. Instead, by never wavering in his belief that the GUI was computing’s future, Gates conquered the world. That he did so while still relying on the rickety foundation of MS-DOS is, yes, kind of appalling for anyone who values clean, beautiful computer engineering. Yet it also says much about his programmers’ creativity and skill, belying any notion of Microsoft as a place bereft of such qualities. Whatever else you can say about the sometimes shaky edifices that were Windows 3 and its next few generations of successors, the fact that they worked at all was something of a minor miracle.
Most of all, we should remember the huge role that Windows played in bringing computing home once again — and, this time, permanently. The third generation of Microsoft’s GUI arrived at the perfect time, just when the technology and the culture were ready for it. Once a laughingstock, Windows became for quite some time the only face of computing many people knew — in the office and in the home. Who could have dreamed it? Perhaps only one person: a not particularly dreamy man named Bill Gates.
(Sources: the books 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 In the Beginning… Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson; Computer Power User of October 2004; InfoWorld of May 20 1991 and January 31 1994. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)
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 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,This has changed since this article was written; see Ian Crossfield’s comment below. 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.”)