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Doing Windows, Part 12: David and Goliath

Microsoft, intent on its mission to destroy Netscape, rolled out across the industry with all the subtlety and attendant goodwill of Germany invading Poland…

— Merrill R. Chapman

No one reacted more excitedly to the talk of Java as the dawn of a whole new way of computing than did the folks at Netscape. Marc Andreessen, whose head had swollen exactly as much as the average 24-year-old’s would upon being repeatedly called a great engineer, businessman, and social visionary all rolled into one, was soon proclaiming Netscape Navigator to be far more than just a Web browser: it was general-purpose computing’s next standard platform, possibly the last one it would ever need. Java, he said, generously sharing the credit for this development, was “as revolutionary as the Web itself.” As for Microsoft Windows, it was merely “a poorly debugged set of device drivers.” Many even inside Netscape wondered whether he was wise to poke the bear from Redmond so, but he was every inch a young man feeling his oats.

Just two weeks before the release of Windows 95, the United States Justice Department had ended a lengthy antitrust investigation of Microsoft’s business practices with a decision not to bring any charges. Bill Gates and his colleague took this to mean it was open season on Netscape.

Thus, just a few weeks after the bravura Windows 95 launch, a war that would dominate the business and computing press for the next three years began. The opening salvo from Microsoft came in a weirdly innocuous package: something called the “Windows Plus Pack,” which consisted mostly of slightly frivolous odds and ends that hadn’t made it into the main Windows 95 distribution — desktop themes, screensavers, sound effects, etc. But it also included the very first release of Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer browser, the fruit of the deal with Spyglass. After you put the Plus! CD into the drive and let the package install itself, it was as hard to get rid of Internet Explorer as it was a virus. For unlike all other applications, there appeared no handy “uninstall” option for Internet Explorer. Once it had its hooks in your computer, it wasn’t letting go for anything. And its preeminent mission in life there seemed to be to run roughshod over Netscape Navigator. It inserted itself in place of its arch-enemy in your file associations and everywhere else, so that it kept turning up like a bad penny every time you clicked a link. If you insisted on bringing up Netscape Navigator in its stead, you were greeted with the pointed “suggestion” that Internet Explorer was the better, more stable option.

Microsoft’s biggest problem at this juncture was that that assertion didn’t hold water; Internet Explorer 1.0 was only a modest improvement over the old NCSA Mosaic browser on whose code it was based. Meanwhile Netscape was pushing aggressively forward with its vision of the browser as a platform, a home for active content of all descriptions. Netscape Navigator 2.0, whose first beta release appeared almost simultaneously with Internet Explorer 1.0, doubled down on that vision by including an email and Usenet client. More importantly, it supported not only Java but a second programming language for creating active content on the Web — a language that would prove much more important to the evolution of the Web in the long run.

Even at this early stage — still four months before Sun would deign to grant Java its own 1.0 release — some of the issues with using it on the Web were becoming clear: namely, the weight of the virtual machine that had to be loaded and started before a Java applet could run, and said applet’s inability to communicate easily with the webpage that had spawned it. Netscape therefore decided to create something that lay between the static simplicity of vanilla HTML and the dynamic complexity of Java. The language called JavaScript would share much of its big brother’s syntax, but it would be interpreted rather than compiled, and would live in the same environment as the HTML that made up a webpage rather than in a sandbox of its own. In fact, it would be able to manipulate that HTML directly and effortlessly, changing the page’s appearance on the fly in response to the user’s actions. The idea was that programmers would use JavaScript for very simple forms of active content — like, say, a popup photo gallery or a scrolling stock ticker — and use Java for full-fledged in-browser software applications — i.e., your word processors and the like.

In contrast to Java, a compiled language walled off inside its own virtual machine, JavaScript is embedded directly into the HTML that makes up a webpage, using the handy “<script>” tag.

​There’s really no way to say this kindly: JavaScript was (and is) a pretty horrible programming language by any objective standard. Unlike Java, which was the product of years of thought, discussion, and experimentation, JavaScript was the very definition of “quick and dirty” in a computer-science context. Even its principal architect Brendan Eich doesn’t speak of it like an especially proud parent; he calls it “Java’s dumb little brother” and “a rush job.” Which it most certainly was: he designed and implemented JavaScript from scratch in a matter of bare weeks.

What he ended up with would revolutionize the Web not because it was good, but because it was good enough, filling a craving that turned out to be much more pressing and much more satisfiable in the here and now than the likes of in-browser word processing. The lightweight JavaScript could be used to bring the Web alive, to make it a responsive and interactive place, more quickly and organically than the heavyweight Java. Once JavaScript had reached a critical mass in that role, it just kept on rolling with all the relentlessness of a Microsoft operating system. Today an astonishing 98 percent of all webpages contain at least a little bit of JavaScript in addition to HTML, and a cottage industry has sprung up to modify and extend the language — and attempt to fix the many infelicities that haunt the sleep of computer-science professors all over the world. JavaScript has become, in other words, the modern world’s nearest equivalent to what BASIC was in the 1980s, a language whose ease of use, accessibility, and populist appeal make up for what it lacks in elegance. These days we even do online word processing in JavaScript. If you had told Brendan Eich that that would someday be the case back in 1995, he would have laughed as loud and long at you as anyone.

Although no one could know it at the time, JavaScript also represents the last major building block to the modern Web for which Marc Andreessen can take a substantial share of the credit, following on from the “image” tag for displaying inline graphics, the secure sockets layer (SSL) for online encryption (an essential for any form of e-commerce), and to a lesser extent the Java language. Microsoft, by contrast, was still very much playing catch-up.

Nevertheless, on December 7, 1995 — the symbolism of this anniversary of the United State’s entry into World War II was lost on no one — Bill Gates gave a major address to the Microsoft faithful and assembled press, in which he made it clear that Microsoft was in the browser war to win it. In addition to announcing that his company too would bite the bullet and license Java for Internet Explorer, he said that the latter browser would no longer be a Windows 95 exclusive, but would soon be made available for Windows 3 and even MacOS as well. And everywhere it appeared, it would continue to sport the very un-Microsoft price tag of free, proof that this old dog was learning some decidedly new tricks for achieving market penetration in this new era of online software distribution. “When we say the browser’s free, we’re saying something different from other people,” said Gates, in a barbed allusion to Netscape’s shareware distribution model. “We’re not saying, ‘You can use it for 90 days,’ or, ‘You can use it and then maybe next year we’ll charge you a bunch of money.'” Netscape, whose whole business revolved around its browser, couldn’t afford to give Navigator away, a fact of which Gates was only too well aware. (Some pundits couldn’t resist contrasting this stance with Gates’s famous 1976 “Open Letter To Hobbyists,” in which he had asked, “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?” Obviously Microsoft now could…)

Netscape’s stock price dropped by $28.75 that day. For Microsoft’s research budget alone was five times the size of Netscape’s total annual revenues, while the bigger company now had more than 800 people — twice Netscape’s total headcount — working on Internet Explorer alone. Marc Andreessen could offer only vague Silicon Valley aphorisms when queried about these disparities: “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain” — and Microsoft, he claimed, had now moved “onto our terrain.” The less abstractly philosophical Larry Ellison, head of the database giant Oracle and a man who had had more than his share of run-ins with Bill Gates in the past, joked darkly about the “four stages” of Microsoft stealing someone else’s innovation. Stage 1: to “ridicule” it. Stage 2: to admit that, “yeah, there are a few interesting ideas here.” Stage 3: to make its own version. Stage 4: to make the world forget that the non-Microsoft version had ever existed.

Yet for the time being the Netscape tail continued to wag the Microsoft dog. A more interactive and participatory vision of the Web, enabled by the magic of JavaScript, was spreading like wildfire by the middle of 1996. You still needed Netscape Navigator to experience this first taste of what would eventually be labelled Web 2.0, a World Wide Web that blurred the lines between readers and writers, between content consumers and content creators. For if you visited one of these cutting-edge sites with Internet Explorer, it simply wouldn’t work. Despite all of Microsoft’s efforts, Netscape in June of 1996 could still boast of a browser market share of 85 percent. Marc Andreessen’s Sun Tzu-lite philosophy appeared to have some merit to it after all; his company was by all indications still winning the browser war handily. Even in its 2.0 incarnation, which had been released at about the same time as Gates’s Pearl Harbor speech, Internet Explorer remained something of a joke among Windows users, the annoying mother-in-law you could never seem to get rid of once she showed up.

But then, grizzled veterans like Larry Ellison had seen this movie before; they knew that it was far too early to count Microsoft out. That August, both Netscape and Microsoft released 3.0 versions of their browsers. Netscape’s was a solid evolution of what had come before, but contained no game changers like JavaScript. Microsoft’s, however, was a dramatic leap forward. In addition to Java support, it introduced JScript, a lightweight scripting language that just so happened to have the same syntax as JavaScript. At a stroke, all of those sites which hadn’t worked with earlier versions of Internet Explorer now displayed perfectly well in either browser.

With his browser itself more or less on a par with Netscape’s, Bill Gates decided it was time to roll out his not-so-secret weapon. In October of 1996, Microsoft began shipping Windows 95’s “Service Pack 2,” the second substantial revision of the operating system since its launch. Along with a host of other improvements, it included Internet Explorer. From now on, the browser would ship with every single copy of Windows 95 and be installed automatically as part of the operating system, whether the user wanted it or not. New Windows users would have to make an active choice and then an active effort to go to Netscape’s site — using Internet Explorer, naturally! — and download the “alternative” browser. Microsoft was counting on the majority of these users not knowing anything about the browser war and/or just not wanting to be bothered.

Microsoft employed a variety of carrots and sticks to pressure other companies throughout the computing ecosystem to give or at the bare minimum to recommend Internet Explorer to their customers in lieu of Netscape Navigator. It wasn’t above making the favorable Windows licensing deals it signed with big consumer-computer manufacturers like Compaq dependent on precisely this. But the most surprising pact by far was the one Microsoft made with America Online (AOL).

Relations between the face of the everyday computing desktop and the face of the Internet in the eyes of millions of ordinary Americans had been anything but cordial in recent years. Bill Gates had reportedly told Steve Case, his opposite number at AOL, that he would “bury” him with his own Microsoft Network (MSN). Meanwhile Case had complained long and loud about Microsoft’s bullying tactics to the press, to the point of mooting a comparison between Gates and Adolf Hitler on at least one occasion. Now, though, Gates was willing to eat crow and embrace AOL, even at the expense of his own MSN, if he could stick it to Netscape in the process.

For its part, AOL had come as far as it could with its Booklink browser. The Web was evolving too rapidly for the little development team it had inherited with that acquisition to keep up. Case grudgingly accepted that he needed to offer his customers one of the Big Two browsers. All of his natural inclinations bent toward Netscape. And indeed, he signed a deal with Netscape to make Navigator the browser that shipped with AOL’s turnkey software suite — or so Netscape believed. It turned out that Netscape’s lawyers had overlooked one crucial detail: they had never stipulated exclusivity in the contract. This oversight wasn’t lost on the interested bystander Microsoft, which swooped in immediately to take advantage of it. AOL soon announced another deal, to provide its customers with Internet Explorer as well. Even worse for Netscape, this deal promised Microsoft not only availability but priority: Internet Explorer would be AOL’s recommended, default browser, Netscape Navigator merely an alternative for iconoclastic techies (of which there were, needless to say, very few in AOL’s subscriber base).

What did AOL get in return for getting into bed with Adolf Hitler and “jilting Netscape at the altar,” as the company’s own lead negotiator would later put it? An offer that was impossible for a man with Steve Case’s ambitions to refuse, as it happened. Microsoft would put an AOL icon on the desktop of every new Windows 95 installation, where the hundreds of thousands of Americans who were buying a computer every month in order to check out this Internet thing would see it sitting there front and center, and know, thanks to AOL’s nonstop advertising blitz, that the wonders of the Web were just one click on it away. It was a stunning concession on Microsoft’s part, not least because it came at the direct cost of MSN, the very online network Bill Gates had originally conceived as his method of “burying” AOL. Now, though, no price was too high to pay in his quest to destroy Netscape.

Which raises the question of why he was so obsessed, given that Microsoft was making literally no money from Internet Explorer. The answer is rooted in all that rhetoric that was flying around at the time about the browser as a computing platform — about the Web effectively turning into a giant computer in its own right, floating up there somewhere in the heavens, ready to give a little piece of itself to anyone with a minimalist machine running Netscape Navigator. Such a new world order would have no need for a Microsoft Windows — perish the thought! But if, on the other hand, Microsoft could wrest the title of leading browser developer out of the hands of Netscape, it could control the future evolution of this dangerously unruly beast known as the World Wide Web, and ensure that it didn’t encroach on its other businesses.

That the predictions which prompted Microsoft’s downright unhinged frenzy to destroy Netscape were themselves wildly overblown is ironic but not material. As tech journalist Merrill R. Chapman has put it, “The prediction that anyone was going to use Navigator or any other browser anytime soon to write documents, lay out publications, build budgets, store files, and design presentations was a fantasy. The people who made these breathless predictions apparently never tried to perform any of these tasks in a browser.” And yet in an odd sort of way this reality check didn’t matter. Perception can create its own reality, and Bill Gates’s perception of Netscape Navigator as an existential threat to the software empire he had spent the last two decades building was enough to make the browser war feel like a truly existential clash for both parties, even if the only one whose existence actually was threatened — urgently threatened! — was Netscape. Jim Clark, Marc Andreessen’s partner in founding Netscape, makes the eyebrow-raising claim that he “knew we were dead” in the long run well before the end of 1996, when the Department of Justice declined to respond to an urgent plea on Netscape’s part to take another look at Microsoft’s business practices.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the conflict is just how long Netscape’s long run proved to be. It was in most respects David versus Goliath: Netscape in 1996 had $300 million in annual revenues to Microsoft’s nearly $9 billion. But whatever the disparities of size, Netscape had built up a considerable reservoir of goodwill as the vehicle through which so many millions had experienced the Web for the first time. Microsoft found this soft power oddly tough to overcome, even with a browser of its own that was largely identical in functional terms. A remarkable number of people continued to make the active choice to use Netscape Navigator instead of the passive one to use Internet Explorer. By October of 1997, one year after Microsoft brought out the big gun and bundled Internet Explorer right into Windows 95, its browser’s market share had risen as high as 39 percent — but it was Netscape that still led the way at 51 percent.

Yet Netscape wasn’t using those advantages it did possess all that effectively. It was not a happy or harmonious company: there were escalating personality clashes between Jim Clark and Marc Andreesssen, and also between Andreessen and his programmers, who thought their leader had become a glory hound, too busy playing the role of the young dot.com millionaire to pay attention to the vital details of software development. Perchance as a result, Netscape’s drive to improve its browser in paradigm-shifting ways seemed to slowly dissipate after the landmark Navigator 2.0 release.

Netscape, so recently the darling of the dot.com age, was now finding it hard to make a valid case for itself merely as a viable business. The company’s most successful quarter in financial terms was the third of 1996 — just before Internet Explorer became an official part of Windows 95 — when it brought in $100 million in revenue. Receipts fell precipitously after that point, all the way down to just $18.5 million in the last quarter of 1997. By so aggressively promoting Internet Explorer as entirely and perpetually free, Bill Gates had, whether intentionally or inadvertently, instilled in the general public an impression that all browsers were or ought to be free, due to some unstated reason inherent in their nature. (This impression has never been overturned, as has been testified over the years by the failure of otherwise worthy commercial browsers like Opera to capture much market share.) Thus even the vast majority of those who did choose Netscape’s browser no longer seemed to feel any ethical compulsion to pay for it. Netscape was left in a position all too familiar to Web firms of the past and present alike: that of having immense name recognition and soft power, but no equally impressive revenue stream to accompany them. It tried frantically to pivot into back-end server architecture and corporate intranet solutions, but its efforts there were, as its bottom line will attest, not especially successful. It launched a Web portal and search engine known as Netcenter, but struggled to gain traction against Yahoo!, the leader in that space. Both Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen sold off large quantities of their personal stock, never a good sign in Silicon Valley.

Netscape Navigator was renamed Netscape Communicator for its 4.0 release in June of 1997. As the name would imply, Communicator was far more than just a browser, or even just a browser with an integrated email client and Usenet reader, as Navigator had been since version 2.0. Now it also sported an integrated editor for making your own websites from scratch, a real-time chat system, a conference caller, an appointment calendar, and a client for “pushing” usually unwanted content to your screen. It was all much, much too much, weighted down with features most people would never touch, big and bloated and slow and disturbingly crash-prone; small wonder that even many Netscape loyalists chose to stay with Navigator 3 after the release of Communicator. Microsoft had not heretofore been known for making particularly svelte software, but Internet Explorer, which did nothing but browse the Web, was a lean ballerina by comparison with the lumbering Sumo wrestler that was Netscape Communicator. The original Netscape Navigator had sprung from the hacker culture of institutional computing, but the company had apparently now forgotten one of that culture’s key dictums in its desire to make its browser a platform unto itself: the best programs are those that do only one thing, but do that one thing very, very well, leaving all of the other things to other programs.

Netscape Communicator. I’m told that there’s an actual Web browser buried somewhere in this pile. Probably a kitchen sink too, if you look hard enough.

Luckily for Netscape, Internet Explorer 4.0, which arrived three months after Communicator, violated the same dictum in an even more inept way. It introduced what Microsoft called the “Active Desktop,” which let it bury its hooks deeper than ever into Windows itself. The Active Desktop was — or tried to be —  Bill Gates’s nightmare of a Web that was impossible to separate from one’s local computer come to life, but with Microsoft’s own logo on it. Ironically, it blurred the distinction between the local computer and the Internet more thoroughly than anything the likes of Sun or Netscape had produced to date; local files and applications became virtually indistinguishable from those that lived on the Internet in the new version of the Windows desktop it installed in place of the old. The end result served mainly to illustrate how half-baked all of the prognostications about a new era of computing exclusively in the cloud really were. The Active Desktop was slow and clumsy and confusing, and absolutely everyone who was exposed to it seemed to hate it and rush to find a way to turn it off. Fortunately for Microsoft, it was possible to do so without removing the Internet Explorer 4 browser itself.

The dreaded Active Desktop. Surprisingly, it was partially defended on philosophical grounds by Tim Berners-Lee, not normally a fan of Microsoft. “It was ridiculous for a person to have two separate interfaces, one for local information (the desktop for their own computer) and one for remote information (a browser to reach other computers),” he writes. “Why did we need an entire desktop for our own computer, but only get little windows through which to view the rest of the planet? Why, for that matter, should we have folders on our desktop but not on the Web? The Web was supposed to be the universe of all accessible information, which included, especially, information that happened to be stored locally. I argued that the entire topic of where information was physically stored should be made invisible to the user.” For better or for worse, though, the public didn’t agree. And even he had to allow that “this did not have to imply that the operating system and browser should be the same program.”

The Active Desktop damaged Internet Explorer’s reputation, but arguably not as badly as Netscape’s had been damaged by the bloated Communicator. For once you turned off all that nonsense, Internet Explorer 4 proved to be pretty good at doing the rest of its job. But there was no similar method for trimming the fat from Netscape Communicator.

While Microsoft and Netscape, those two for-profit corporations, had been vying with one another for supremacy on the Web, another, quieter party had been looking on with great concern. Before the Web had become the hottest topic of the business pages, it had been an idea in the head of the mild-mannered British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee. He had built the Web on the open Internet, using a new set of open standards; his inclination had never been to control his creation personally. It was to be a meeting place, a library, a forum, perhaps a marketplace if you liked — but always a public commons. When Berners-Lee formed the non-profit World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in October of 1994 in the hope of guiding an orderly evolution of the Web that kept it independent of the moneyed interests rushing to join the party, it struck many as a quaint endeavor at best. Key technologies like Java and JavaScript appeared and exploded in popularity without giving the W3C a chance to say anything about them. (Tellingly, the word “JavaScript” never even appears in Berners-Lee’s 1999 book about his history with and vision for the Web, despite the scripting language’s almost incalculable importance to making it the dynamic and diverse place it had become by that point.)

From the days when he had been a mere University of Illinois student making a browser on the side, Marc Andreessen had blazed his own trail without giving much thought to formal standards. When the things he unilaterally introduced proved useful, others rushed to copy them, and they became de-facto standards. This was as true of JavaScript as it was of anything else. As we’ve seen, it began as a Netscape-exclusive feature, but was so obviously transformative to what the Web could do and be that Microsoft had no choice but to copy it, to incorporate its own implementation of it into Internet Explorer.

But JavaScript was just about the last completely new feature to be rolled out and widely adopted in this ad-hoc fashion. As the Web reached a critical mass, with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer both powering users’ experiences of it in substantial numbers, site designers had a compelling reason not to use any technology that only worked on the one or the other; they wanted to reach as many people as possible, after all. This brought an uneasy sort of equilibrium to the Web.

Nevertheless, the first instinct of both Netscape and Microsoft remained to control rather than to share the Web. Both companies’ histories amply demonstrated that open standards meant little to them; they preferred to be the standard. What would happen if and when one company won the browser war, as Microsoft seemed slowly to be doing by 1997, what with the trend lines all going in its favor and Netscape in veritable financial free fall? Once 90 percent or more of the people browsing the Web were doing so with Internet Explorer, Microsoft would be free to give its instinct for dominance free reign. With an army of lawyers at its beck and call, it would be able to graft onto the Web proprietary, patented technologies that no upstart competitor would be able to reverse-engineer and copy, and pragmatic website designers would no longer have any reason not to use them, if they could make their sites better. And once many or most websites depended on these features that were available only in Internet Explorer, that would be that for the open Web. Despite its late start, Microsoft would have managed to embrace, extend, and in a very real sense destroy Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of a World Wide Web. The public commons would have become a Microsoft-branded theme park.

These worries were being bandied about with ever-increasing urgency in January of 1998, when Netscape made what may just have been the most audacious move of the entire dot.com boom. Like most such moves, it was born of sheer desperation, but that shouldn’t blind us to its importance and even bravery. First of all, Netscape made its browser free as in beer, finally giving up on even asking people to pay for the thing. Admittedly, though, this in itself was little more than an acceptance of the reality on the ground, as it were. It was the other part of the move that really shocked the tech world: Netscape also made its browser free as in freedom — it opened up its source code to all and sundry. “This was radical in its day,” remembers Mitchell Baker, one of the prime drivers of the initiative at Netscape. “Open source is mainstream now; it was not then. Open source was deep, deep, deep in the technical community. It never surfaced in a product. [This] was a very radical move.”

Netscape spun off a not-for-profit organization, led by Baker and called Mozilla, after a cartoon dinosaur that had been the company’s office mascot almost from day one. Coming well before the Linux operating system began conquering large swaths of corporate America, this was to be open source’s first trial by fire in the real world. Mozilla was to concentrate on the core code required for rendering webpages — the engine room of a browser, if you will. Then others — not least among them the for-profit arm of Netscape — would build the superstructures of finished applications around that sturdy core.

Alas, Netscape the for-profit company was already beyond saving. If anything, this move only hastened the end; Netscape had chosen to give away the one product it had that some tiny number of people were still willing to pay for. Some pundits talked it up as a dying warrior’s last defiant attempt to pass the sword to others, to continue the fight against Microsoft and Internet Explorer: “From the depths of Hell, I spit at thee!” Or, as Tim Berners-Lee put it more soberly: “Microsoft was bigger than Netscape, but Netscape was hoping the Web community was bigger than Microsoft.” And there may very well be something to these points of view. But regardless of the motivations behind it, the decision to open up Netscape’s browser proved both a landmark in the history of open-source software and a potent weapon in the fight to keep the Web itself open and free. Mozilla has had its ups and downs over the years since, but it remains with us to this day, still providing an alternative to the corporate-dominated browsers almost a quarter-century on, having outlived the more conventional corporation that spawned it by a factor of six.

Mozilla’s story is an important one, but we’ll have to leave the details of it for another day. For now, we return to the other players in today’s drama.

While Microsoft and Netscape were battling one another, AOL was soaring into the stratosphere, the happy beneficiary of Microsoft’s decision to give it an icon on the Windows 95 desktop in the name of vanquishing Netscape. In 1997, in a move fraught with symbolic significance, AOL bought CompuServe, its last remaining competitor from the pre-Web era of closed, proprietary online services. By the time Netscape open-sourced its browser, AOL had 12 million subscribers and annual profits — profits, mind you, not revenues — of over $500 million, thanks not only to subscription fees but to the new frontier of online advertising, where revenues and profits were almost one and the same. At not quite 40 years old, Steve Case had become a billionaire.

“AOL is the Internet blue chip,” wrote the respected stock analyst Henry Blodget. And indeed, for all of its association with new and shiny technology, there was something comfortingly stolid — even old-fashioned — about the company. Unlike so many of his dot.com compatriots, Steve Case had found a way to combine name recognition and a desirable product with a way of getting his customers to actually pay for said product. He liked to compare AOL with a cable-television provider; this was a comparison that even the most hidebound investors could easily understand. Real, honest-to-God checks rolled into AOL’s headquarters every month from real, honest-to-God people who signed up for real, honest-to-God paid subscriptions. So what if the tech intelligentsia laughed and mocked, called AOL “the cockroach of cyberspace,” and took an “@AOL.com” suffix on someone’s email address as a sign that they were too stupid to be worth talking to? Case and his shareholders knew that money from the unwashed masses spent just as well as money from the tech elites.

Microsoft could finally declare victory in the browser war in the summer of 1998, when the two browsers’ trend lines crossed one another. At long last, Internet Explorer’s popularity equaled and then rapidly eclipsed that of Netscape Navigator/Communicator. It hadn’t been clean or pretty, but Microsoft had bludgeoned its way to the market share it craved.

A few months later, AOL acquired Netscape through a stock swap that involved no cash, but was worth a cool $9.8 billion on paper — an almost comical sum in relation to the amount of actual revenue the purchased company had brought in during its lifetime. Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen walked away very, very rich men. Just as Netscape’s big IPO had been the first of its breed, the herald of the dot.com boom, Netscape now became the first exemplar of the boom’s unique style of accounting, which allowed people to get rich without ever having run a profitable business.

Even at the time, it was hard to figure out just what it was about Netscape that AOL thought was worth so much money. The deal is probably best understood as a product of Steve Case’s fear of a Microsoft-dominated Web; despite that AOL icon on the Windows desktop, he still didn’t trust Bill Gates any farther than he could throw him. In the end, however, AOL got almost nothing for its billions. Netscape Communicator was renamed AOL Communicator and offered to the service’s subscribers, but even most of them, technically unsophisticated though they tended to be, could see that Internet Explorer was the cleaner and faster and just plain better choice at this juncture. (The open-source coders working with Mozilla belatedly realized the same; they would wind up spending years writing a brand-new browser engine from scratch after deciding that Netscape’s just wasn’t up to snuff.)

Most of Netscape’s remaining engineers walked soon after the deal was made. They tended to describe the company’s meteoric rise and fall in the terms of a Shakespearean tragedy. “At least the old timers among us came to Netscape to change the world,” lamented one. “Getting killed by the Evil Empire, being gobbled up by a big corporation — it’s incredibly sad.” If that’s painting with rather too broad a brush — one should always run away screaming when a Silicon Valley denizen starts talking about “changing the world” — it can’t be denied that Netscape at no time enjoyed a level playing field in its war against Microsoft.

But times do change, as Microsoft was about to learn to its cost. In May of 1998, the Department of Justice filed suit against Microsoft for illegally exploiting its Windows monopoly in order to crush Netscape. The suit came too late to save the latter, but it was all over the news even as the first copies of Windows 98, the hotly anticipated successor to Windows 95, were reaching store shelves. Bill Gates had gotten his wish; Internet Explorer and Windows were now indissolubly bound together. Soon he would have cause to wish that he had not striven for that outcome quite so vigorously.

(Sources: the books Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace by James Wallace, The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan, Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid, Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and Its Battle with Microsoft by Michael Cusumano and David B. Yoffie, dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by John Cassidy, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher, In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters by Merrill R. Chapman, Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming by Peter Seibel, and Weaving the Web by Tim Berners-Lee. Online sources include “1995: The Birth of JavaScript” at Web Development History, the New York Times timeline of AOL’s history, and Mitchell Baker’s talk about the history of Mozilla, which is available on Wikipedia.)

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Doing Windows, Part 11: The Internet Tidal Wave

On August 6, 1991, when Microsoft was still in the earliest planning stages of creating the operating system that would become known as Windows 95, an obscure British researcher named Tim Berners-Lee, working out of the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN) in Switzerland, put the world’s first publicly accessible website online. For years to come, these two projects would continue to evolve separately, blissfully unconcerned by if not unaware of one another’s existence. And indeed, it is difficult to imagine two computing projects with more opposite personalities. Mirroring its co-founder and CEO Bill Gates, Microsoft was intensely pragmatic and maniacally competitive. Tim Berners-Lee, on the other hand, was a classic academic, a theorist and idealist rather than a businessman. The computers on which he and his ilk built the early Web ran esoteric operating systems like NeXTSTEP and Unix, or at their most plebeian MacOS, not Microsoft’s mass-market workhorse Windows. Microsoft gave you tools for getting everyday things done, while the World Wide Web spent the first couple of years of its existence as little more than an airy proof of concept, to be evangelized by wide-eyed adherents who often appeared to have read one too many William Gibson novels. Forbes magazine was soon to anoint Bill Gates the world’s richest person, his reward for capturing almost half of the international software market; the nascent Web was nowhere to be found in the likes of Forbes.

Those critics who claim that Microsoft was never a visionary company — that it instead thrived by letting others innovate, then swooping in and taking taking over the markets thus opened — love to point to its history with the World Wide Web as Exhibit Number One. Despite having a role which presumably demanded that he stay familiar with all leading-edge developments in computing, Bill Gates by his own admission never even heard of the Web until April of 1993, twenty months after that first site went up. And he didn’t actually surf the Web for himself until another six months after that — perhaps not coincidentally, shortly after a Windows version of NCSA Mosaic, the user-friendly graphical browser that made the Web a welcoming place even for those whose souls didn’t burn with a passion for information theory, had finally been released.

Gates focused instead on a different model of online communication, one arguably more in keeping with his instincts than was the free and open Web. For almost a decade and a half by 1993, various companies had been offering proprieatary dial-up services aimed at owners of home computers. These came complete with early incarnations of many of the staples of modern online life: email, chat lines, discussion forums, online shopping, online banking, online gaming, even online dating. They were different from the Web in that they were walled gardens that provided no access to anything that lay beyond the big mainframes that hosted them. Yet within their walls lived bustling communities whose citizens paid their landlords by the minute for the privilege of participation.

The 500-pound gorilla of this market had always been CompuServe, which had been in the business since the days when a state-of-the-art home computer had 16 K of memory and used cassette tapes for storage. Of late, however, an upstart service called America Online (AOL) had been making waves. Under Steve Case, its wunderkind CEO, AOL aimed its pitch straight at the heart of Middle America rather than the tech-savvy elite. Over the course of 1993 alone, it went from 300,000 to 500,000 subscribers. But that was only the beginning if one listened to Case. For a second Home Computer Revolution, destined to be infinitely more successful and long-lasting than the first, was now in full swing, powered along by the ease of use of Windows 3 and by the latest consumer-grade hardware, which made computing faster and more aesthetically attractive than it had ever been before. AOL’s quick and easy custom software fit in perfectly with these trends. Surely this model of the online future — of curated content offered up by a firm whose stated ambition was to be the latest big player in mass media as a whole; of a subscription model that functioned much like the cable television which the large majority of Americans were already paying for — was more likely to take hold than the anarchic jungle that was the World Wide Web. It was, at any rate, a model that Bill Gates could understand very well, and naturally gravitated toward. Never one to leave cash on the table, he started asking himself how Microsoft could get a piece of this action as well.

Steve Case celebrates outside the New York Stock Exchange on March 19, 1992, the day America Online went public.

Gates proceeded in his standard fashion: in May of 1993, he tried to buy AOL outright. But Steve Case, who nursed dreams of becoming a media mogul on the scale of Walt Disney or Jack Warner, turned him down flat. At this juncture, Russ Siegelman, a 33-year-old physicist-by-education whom Gates had made his point man for online strategy, suggested a second classically Microsoft solution to the dilemma: they could build their own online service that copied AOL in most respects, then bury their rival with money and sheer ubiquity. They could, Siegelman suggested, make their own network an integral part of the eventual Windows 95, make signing up for it just another step in the installation process. How could AOL possibly compete with that? It was the first step down a fraught road that would lead to widespread outrage inside the computer industry and one of the most high-stakes anti-trust investigations in the history of American business — but for all that, the broad strategy would prove very, very effective once it reached its final form. It had a ways still to go at this stage, though, targeting as it did AOL instead of the Web.

Gates put Siegelman in charge of building Microsoft’s online service, which was code-named Project Marvel. “We were not thinking about the Internet at all,” admits one of the project’s managers. “Our competition was CompuServe and America Online. That’s what we were focused on, a proprietary online service.” At the time, there were exactly two computers in Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Washington, campus that were connected to the Internet. “Most college kids knew much more than we did because they were exposed to it,” says the Marvel manager. “If I had wanted to connect to the Internet, it would have been easier for me to get into my car and drive over to the University of Washington than to try and get on the Internet at Microsoft.”

It came down to the old “not built here” syndrome that dogs so many large institutions, as well as the fact that the Web and the Internet on which it lived were free, and Bill Gates tended to hold that which was free in contempt. Anyone who attempted to help him over his mental block — and there were more than a few of them at Microsoft — was greeted with an all-purpose rejoinder: “How are we going to make money off of free?” The biggest revolution in computing since the arrival of the first pre-assembled personal computers back in 1977 was taking place all around him, and Gates seemed constitutionally incapable of seeing it for what it was.

In the meantime, others were beginning to address the vexing question of how you made money out of free. On April 4, 1994, Marc Andreessen, the impetus behind the NCSA Mosaic browser, joined forces with Jim Clark, a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to found Netscape Communications for the purpose of making a commercial version of the Mosaic browser. A team of programmers, working without consulting the Mosaic source code so as to avoid legal problems, soon did just that, and uploaded Netscape Navigator to the Web on October 13, 1994. Distributed under the shareware model, with a $39 licensing fee requested but not demanded after a 90-day trial period was up, the new browser was installed on more than 10 million computers within nine months.

AOL’s growth had continued apace despite the concurrent explosion of the open Web; by the time of Netscape Navigator’s release, the service had 1.25 million subscribers. Yet Steve Case, no one’s idea of a hardcore techie, was ironically faster to see the potential — or threat — of the Web than was Bill Gates. He adopted a strategy in response that would make him for a time at least a superhero of the business press and the investor set. Instead of fighting the Web, AOL would embrace it — would offer its own Web browser to go along with its proprietary content, thereby adding a gate to its garden wall and tempting subscribers with the best of both worlds. As always for AOL, the whole package would be pitched toward neophytes, with a friendly interface and lots of safeguards — “training wheels,” as the tech cognoscenti dismissively dubbed them — to keep the unwashed masses safe when they did venture out into the untamed wilds of the Web.

But Case needed a browser of his own in order to execute his strategy, and he needed it in a hurry. He needed, in short, to buy a browser rather than build one. He saw three possibilities. One was to bring Netscape and its Navigator into the AOL fold. Another was a small company called Spyglass, a spinoff of the National Center for Supercomputing (NCSA) which was attempting to commercialize the original NCSA Mosaic browser. And the last was a startup called Booklink Technologies, which was making a browser from scratch.

Netscape was undoubtedly the superstar of the bunch, but that didn’t help AOL’s cause any; Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark weren’t about to sell out to anyone. Spyglass, on the other hand, struck Case as an unimaginative Johnny-come-lately that was trying to shut the barn door long after the horse called Netscape had busted out. That left only Booklink. In November of 1994, AOL paid $30 million for the company. The business press scoffed, deeming it a well-nigh flabbergasting over-payment. But Case would get the last laugh.

While AOL was thus rushing urgently to “embrace and extend” the Web, to choose an ominous phrase normally associated with Microsoft, the latter was dawdling along more lackadaisically toward a reckoning with the Internet. During that same busy fall of 1994, IBM released OS/2 3.0, which was marketed as OS/2 Warp in the hope of lending it some much-needed excitement. By either name, it was the latest iteration of an operating system that IBM had originally developed in partnership with Microsoft, an operating system that had once been regarded by both companies as nothing less than the future of mainstream computing. But since the pair’s final falling out in 1991, OS/2 had become an irrelevancy in the face of the Windows juggernaut, winning a measure of affection only in some hacker circles and a few other specialized niches. Despite its snazzy new name and despite being an impressive piece of software from a purely technical perspective, OS/2 Warp wasn’t widely expected to change those fortunes before its release, and this lack of expectations proved well-founded afterward. Yet it was a landmark in another way, being the first operating system to include a Web browser as an integral component, in this case a program called Web Explorer, created by IBM itself because no one else seemed much interested in making a browser for the unpopular OS/2.

This appears to have gotten some gears turning in Bill Gates’s head. Microsoft already planned to include more networking tools than ever before in Windows 95. They had, for example, finally decided to bow to customer demand and build right into the operating system TCP/IP, the networking protocol that allowed a computer to join the Internet; Windows 3 required the installation of a third-party add-on for the same purpose. (“I don’t know what it is, and I don’t want to know what it is,” said Steve Ballmer, Gates’s right-hand man, to his programmers on the subject of TCP/IP. “[But] my customers are screaming about it. Make the pain go away.”) Maybe a Microsoft-branded Web browser for Windows 95 would be a good idea as well, if they could acquire one without breaking the bank.

Just days after AOL bought Booklink for $30 million, Microsoft agreed to give $2 million to Spyglass. In return, Spyglass would give Microsoft a copy of the Mosaic source code, which it could then use as the basis for its own browser. But, lest you be tempted to see this transaction as evidence that Gates’s opinions about the online future had already undergone a sea change by this date, know that the very day this deal went down was also the one on which he chose to publicly announce Microsoft’s own proprietary AOL competitor, to be known as simply the Microsoft Network, or MSN. At most, Gates saw the open Web at this stage as an adjunct to MSN, just as it would soon become to AOL. MSN would come bundled into Windows 95, he told the assembled press, so that anyone who wished to could become a subscriber at the click of a mouse.

The announcement caused alarm bells to ring at AOL. “The Windows operating system is what the dial tone is to the phone industry,” said Steve Case. He thus became neither the first nor the last of Gates’s rival to hint at the need for government intervention: “There needs to be a level playing field on which companies compete.” Some pundits projected that Microsoft might sign up 20 million subscribers to MSN before 1995 was out. Others — the ones whom time would prove to have been more prescient — shook their heads and wondered how Microsoft could still be so clueless about the revolutionary nature of the World Wide Web.

AOL leveraged the Booklink browser to begin offering its subscribers Web access very early in 1995, whereupon its previously robust rate of growth turned downright torrid. By November of 1995, it would have 4 million subscribers. The personable and photogenic Steve Case became a celebrity in his own right, to the point of starring in a splashy advertising campaign for The Gap’s line of khakis; the man and the pants represented respectively the personification and the uniform of the trend in corporate America toward “business casual.” Meanwhile Case’s company became an indelible part of the 1990s zeitgeist. “You’ve got mail!,” the words AOL’s software spoke every time a new email arrived — something that was still very much a novel experience for many subscribers — was featured as a sample in a Prince song, and eventually became the name of a hugely popular romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. CompuServe and AOL’s other old rivals in the proprietary space tried to compete by setting up Internet gateways of their own, but were never able to negotiate the transition from one era of online life to another with the same aplomb as AOL, and gradually faded into irrelevancy.

Thankfully for Microsoft’s shareholders, Bill Gates’s eyes were opened before his company suffered the same fate. At the eleventh hour, with what were supposed to be the final touches being put onto Windows 95, he made a sharp swerve in strategy. He grasped at last that the open Web was the here, the now, and the future, the first major development in mainstream consumer computing in years that hadn’t been more or less dictated by Microsoft — but be that as it may, the Web wasn’t going anywhere. On May 26, 1995, he wrote a memo to every Microsoft employee that exuded an all-hands-on-deck sense of urgency. Gates, the longstanding Internet agnostic, had well and truly gotten the Internet religion.

I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is critical to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981. It is even more important than the arrival of [the] graphical user interface (GUI). The PC analogy is apt for many reasons. The PC wasn’t perfect. Aspects of the PC were arbitrary or even poor. However, a phenomena [sic] grew up around the IBM PC that made it a key element of everything that would happen for the next fifteen years. Companies that tried to fight the PC standard often had good reasons for doing so, but they failed because the phenomena overcame any weakness that [the] resistors identified.

Over the last year, a number of people [at Microsoft] have championed embracing TCP/IP, hyperlinking, HTML, and building clients, tools, and servers that compete on the Internet. However, we still have a lot to do. I want every product plan to try and go overboard on Internet features.

Everything changed that day. Instead of walling its campus off from the Internet, Microsoft put the Web at every employee’s fingertips. Gates himself sent his people lists of hot new websites to explore and learn from. The team tasked with building the Microsoft browser, who had heretofore labored in under-staffed obscurity, suddenly had all the resources of the company at their beck and call. The fact was, Gates was scared; his fear oozes palpably from the aggressive language of the memo above. (Other people talked of “joining” the Internet; Gates wanted to “compete” on it.)

But just what was he so afraid of? A pair of data points provides us with some clues. Three days before he wrote his memo, a new programming language and run-time environment had taken the industry by storm. And the day after he did so, a Microsoft executive named Ben Slivka sent out a memo of his own with Gate’s blessing, bearing the odd title of “The Web Is the Next Platform.” To understand what Slivka was driving at, and why Bill Gates took it as such an imminent existential threat to his company’s core business model, we need to back up a few years and look at the origins of the aforementioned programming language.


Bill Joy, an old-school hacker who had made fundamental contributions to the Unix operating system, was regarded as something between a guru and an elder statesman by 1990s techies, who liked to call him “the other Bill.” In early 1991, he shared an eye-opening piece of his mind at a formal dinner for select insiders. Microsoft was then on the ascendant, he acknowledged, but they were “cruising for a bruising.” Sticking with the automotive theme, he compared their products to the American-made cars that had dominated until the 1970s — until the Japanese had come along peddling cars of their own that were more efficient, more reliable, and just plain better than the domestic competition. He said that the same fate would probably befall Microsoft within five to seven years, when a wind of change of one sort or another came along to upend the company and its bloated, ugly products. Just four years later, people would be pointing to a piece of technology from his own company Sun Microsystems as the prophesied agent of Microsoft’s undoing.

Sun had been founded in 1982 to leverage the skills of Joy along with those of a German hardware engineer named Andy Bechtolsheim, who had recently built an elegant desktop computer inspired by the legendary Alto machines of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Over the remainder of the 1980s, Sun made a good living as the premier maker of Unix-based workstations: computers that were a bit too expensive to be marketed to even the most well-heeled consumers, but were among the most powerful of their day that could be fit onto or under a single desktop. Sun possessed a healthy antipathy for Microsoft, for all of the usual reasons cited by the hacker contingent: they considered Microsoft’s software derivative and boring, considered the Intel hardware on which it ran equally clunky and kludgy (Sun first employed Motorola chips, then processors of their own design), and loathed Microsoft’s intensely adversarial and proprietorial approach to everything it touched. For some time, however, Sun’s objections remained merely philosophical; occupying opposite ends of the market as they did, the two companies seldom crossed one another’s paths. But by the end of the decade, the latest Intel hardware had advanced enough to be comparable with that being peddled by Sun. And by the time that Bill Joy made his prediction, Sun knew that something called Windows NT was in the works, knew that Microsoft would be coming in earnest for the high-end-computing space very soon.

About six months after Joy played the oracle, Sun’s management agreed to allow one of their star programmers, a fellow named James Gosling, to form a small independent group in order to explore an idea that had little obviously to do with the company’s main business. “When someone as smart as James wants to pursue an area, we’ll do our best to provide an environment,” said Chief Technology Officer Eric Schmidt.

James Gosling

The specific “area” — or, perhaps better said, problem — that Gosling wanted to address was one that still exists to a large extent today: the inscrutability and lack of interoperability of so many of the gadgets that power our daily lives. The problem would be neatly crystalized almost five years later by one of the milquetoast jokes Jay Leno made at the Windows 95 launch, about how the VCR in even Bill Gates’s living room was still blinking “12:00” because he had never figured out how to set the thing’s clock. What if everything in your house could be made to talk together, wondered Gosling, so that setting one clock would set all of them — so that you didn’t have to have a separate remote control for your television and your VCR, each with about 80 buttons on it that you didn’t understand what they did and never, ever pressed. “What does it take to watch a videotape?” he mused. “You go plunk, plunk, plunk on all of these things in certain magic sequences before you can actually watch your videotape! Why is it so hard? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just slide the tape into the VCR, [and] the system sort of figures it out: ‘Oh, gee, I guess he wants to watch it, so I ought to power up the television set.'”

But when Gosling and his colleagues started to ponder how best to realize their semi-autonomous home of the future, they tripped over a major stumbling block. While it was true that more and more gadgets were becoming “smart,” in the sense of incorporating programmable microprocessors, the details of their digital designs varied enormously. Each program to link each individual model of, say, VCR into the home network would have to be written, tested, and debugged from scratch. Unless, that is, the program could be made to run in a virtual machine.

A virtual machine is an imaginary computer which a real computer can be programmed to simulate. It permits a “write once, run everywhere” approach to software: once a given real computer has an interpreter for a given virtual machine, it can run any and all programs that have been or will be written for that virtual machine, albeit at some cost in performance.

Like almost every other part of the programming language that would eventually become known as Java, the idea of a virtual machine was far from new in the abstract. (“In some sense, I would like to think that there was nothing invented in Java,” says Gosling.) For example, a decade before Gosling went to work on his virtual machine, the Apple Pascal compiler was already targeting one that ran on the lowly Apple II, even as the games publisher Infocom was distributing its text adventures across dozens of otherwise incompatible platforms thanks to its Z-Machine.

Unfortunately, Gosling’s new implementation of this old concept proved unable to solve by itself the original problem for which it had been invented. Even Wi-Fi didn’t exist at this stage, much less the likes of Bluetooth. Just how were all of these smart gadgets supposed to actually talk to one another, to say nothing of pulling down the regular software updates which Gosling envisioned as another benefit of his project? (Building a floppy-disk drive into every toaster was an obvious nonstarter.) After reluctantly giving up on their home of the future, the team pivoted for a while toward “interactive television,” a would-be on-demand streaming system much like our modern Netflix. But Sun had no real record in the consumer space, and cable-television providers and other possible investors were skeptical.

While Gosling was trying to figure out just what this programming language and associated runtime environment he had created might be good for, the World Wide Web was taking off. In July of 1994, a Sun programmer named Patrick Naughton did something that would later give Bill Gates nightmares: he wrote a fairly bare-bones Web browser in Java, more for the challenge than anything else. A couple of months later there came the eureka moment: Naughton and another programmer named Jonathan Payne made it possible to run other Java programs, or “applets” as they would soon be known, right inside their browser. They stuck one of the team’s old graphical demos on a server and clicked the appropriate link, whereupon they were greeted with a screen full of dancing Coca-Cola cans. Payne found it “breathtaking”: “It wasn’t just playing an animation. It was physics calculations going on inside a webpage!”

In order to appreciate his awe, we need to understand what a static place the early Web was. HTML, the “language” in which pages were constructed, was an abbreviation for “Hypertext Markup Language.” In form and function, it was more akin to a typesetting specification than a Turing-complete programming language like C or Pascal or Java; the only form of interactivity it allowed for was the links that took the reader from static page to static page, while its only visual pizazz came in the form of static in-line images (themselves a relatively recent addition to the HTML specification, thanks to NCSA Mosaic). Java stood to change all that at a stroke. If you could embed programs running actual code into your page layouts, you could in theory turn your pages into anything you wanted them to be: games, word processors, spreadsheets, animated cartoons, stock-market tickers, you name it. The Web could almost literally come alive.

The potential was so clearly extraordinary that Java went overnight from a moribund project on the verge of the chopping block to Sun’s top priority. Even Bill Joy, now living in blissful semi-retirement in Colorado, came back to Silicon Valley for a while to lend his prodigious intellect to the process of turning Java into a polished tool for general-purpose programming. There was still enough of the old-school hacker ethic left at Sun that management bowed to the developers’ demand that the language be made available for free to individual programmers and small businesses; Sun would make its money on licensing deals with bigger partners, who would pay for the Java logo on their products and the right to distribute the virtual machine. The potential of Java certainly wasn’t lost on Netscape’s Marc Andreessen, who had long been leading the charge to make the Web more visually exciting. He quickly agreed to pay Sun $750,000 for the opportunity to build Java into the Netscape Navigator browser. In fact, it was Andreessen who served as master of ceremonies at Java’s official coming-out party at a SunWorld conference on May 23, 1995 — i.e., three days before Bill Gates wrote his urgent Internet memo.

What was it that so spooked him about Java? On the one hand, it represented a possible if as-yet unrealized challenge to Microsoft’s own business model of selling boxed software on floppy disks or CDs. If people could gain access to a good word processor just by pointing their browsers to a given site, they would presumably have little motivation to invest in Microsoft Office, the company’s biggest cash cow after Windows. But the danger Java posed to Microsoft might be even more extreme. The most maximalist predictions, which were being trumpeted all over the techie press in the weeks after the big debut, had it that even Windows could soon become irrelevant courtesy of Java. This is what Microsoft’s own Ben Slivka meant when he said that “the Web is the next platform.” The browser itself would become the operating system from the perspective of the user, being supported behind the scenes only by the minimal amount of firmware needed to make it go. Once that happened, a new generation of cheap Internet devices would be poised to replace personal computers as the world now knew them. With all software and all of each person’s data being stored in the cloud, as we would put it today, even local hard drives might become passé. And then, with Netscape Navigator and Java having taken over the role of Windows, Microsoft might very well join IBM, the very company it had so recently displaced from the heights of power, in the crowded field of computing’s has-beens.

In retrospect, such predictions seem massively overblown. Officially labeled beta software, Java was in reality more like an alpha release at best at the time it was being celebrated as the Paris to Microsoft’s Achilles, being painfully crash-prone and slow. And even when it did reach a reasonably mature form, the reality of it would prove considerably less than the hype. One crippling weakness that would continue to plague it was the inability of a Java applet to communicate with the webpage that spawned it; applets ran in Web browsers, but weren’t really of them, being self-contained programs siloed off in a sandbox from the environment that spawned them. Meanwhile the prospects of applications like online word processing, or even online gaming in Java, were sharply limited by the fact that at least 95 percent of Web users were accessing the Internet on dial-up connections, over which even the likes of a single high-resolution photograph could take minutes to load. A word processor like the one included with Microsoft Office would require hours of downloading every time you wanted to use it, assuming it was even possible to create such a complex piece of software in the fragile young language. Java never would manage to entirely overcome these issues, and would in the end enjoy its greatest success in other incarnations than that of the browser-embedded applet.

Still, cooler-headed reasoning like this was not overly commonplace in the months after the SunWorld presentation. By the end of 1995, Sun’s stock price had more than doubled on the strength of Java alone, a product yet to see a 1.0 release. The excitement over Java probably contributed as well to Netscape’s record-breaking initial public offering in August. A cavalcade of companies rushed to follow in the footsteps of Netscape and sign Java distribution deals, most of them on markedly more expensive terms. Even Microsoft bowed to the prevailing winds on December 7 and announced a Java deal of its own. (BusinessWeek magazine described it as a “capitulation.”) That all of this was happening alongside the even more intense hype surrounding the release of Windows 95, an operating system far more expansive than any that had come out of Microsoft to date but one that was nevertheless of a very traditionalist stripe at bottom, speaks to the confusion of these go-go times when digital technology seemed to be going anywhere and everywhere at once.

Whatever fear and loathing he may have felt toward Java, Bill Gates had clearly made his peace with the fact that the Web was computing’s necessary present and future. The Microsoft Network duly debuted as an icon on the default Windows 95 desktop, but it was now pitched primarily as a gateway to the open Web, with just a handful of proprietary features; MSN was, in other words, little more than yet another Internet service provider, of the sort that were popping up all over the country like dandelions after a summer shower. Instead of the 20 million subscribers that some had predicted (and that Steve Case had so feared), it attracted only about 500,000 customers by the end of the year. This left it no more than one-eighth as large as AOL, which had by now completed its own deft pivot from proprietary online service of the 1980s type to the very face of the World Wide Web in the eyes of countless computing neophytes.

Yet if Microsoft’s first tentative steps onto the Web had proved underwhelming, people should have known from the history of the company — and not least from the long, checkered history of Windows itself — that Bill Gates’s standard response to failure and rejection was simply to try again, harder and better. The real war for online supremacy was just getting started.

(Sources: the books Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace by James Wallace, The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan, Architects of the Web by Robert H. Reid, Competing on Internet Time: Lessons from Netscape and Its Battle with Microsoft by Michael Cusumano and David B. Yoffie, dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold by John Cassidy, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner by Alec Klein, Fools Rush In: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Unmaking of AOL Time Warner by Nina Munk, and There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle by Kara Swisher.)

 
 

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Doing Windows, Part 10: Chicago

(As the name would indicate, this article marks a belated continuation of my series about the life and times of Microsoft Windows. But, because any ambitious dive into history such as this site has become is doomed to be a tapestry of stories rather than a single linear one, this article and the next couple of them will also pull on some of the other threads I’ve left dangling — most obviously, my series on the origins of the Internet and the World Wide Web, on the commercial online networks of the early personal-computing era, and on the shareware model for selling software online and the changes it wrought in the culture of gaming in particular. You might find some or all of the aforementioned worthwhile to read before what follows. Or just dive in and see how you go; it’s all good.)

For the vast majority of us in the PC software business, it’s important to realize that systems such as Windows 95 will be important and that systems such as Windows NT won’t be. Evolutionary changes are much easier for the market to accept. For a revolutionary upset to be accepted, it must be an order of magnitude better than what it seeks to replace. Not 25 percent or 33 percent better, but at least ten times better. Otherwise, change had better be gradual, like Windows 95. Products such as NT speak to too small a niche to be interesting. And even the NT sales that do occur don’t lead anywhere: right now I’m running on a network with an NT server, but no software is ever likely to be bought for that server. It sits in a closet that no one touches for weeks at a time. This is not the sort of platform on which to base your fortune.

If you’re choosing platforms for which to develop software, remember that what ultimately matters is not technical excellence but market penetration. The two rarely go hand-in-hand. This is not simply a matter of bowing to the foolish whims of the market, however: market penetration leads to standardization, and standards have tangible benefits that are more important than the coolest technical feature. Yes, Windows 95 still uses MS-DOS; no, it’s not a pure Win32 system; no, it’s not particularly integrated; no, it hasn’t been rewritten from the ground up; and yes, it is lacking some nice features found in Windows NT or OS/2. But none of these compromises will hurt Windows 95’s chances for success, and some will actually help make Windows 95 a success. Windows 95 will be the standard desktop-computing platform for the next five years, and that by itself is worth far more than the coolest technology.

— Andrew Schulman, 1994

In July of 1992, Microsoft hosted the first Windows NT Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco. The nearly 5000 hand-picked attendees were each given a coveted pre-release “developer’s version” of Windows NT (“New Technology”), the company’s next-generation operating system. “The major operating systems of today, DOS and Windows, were designed eight to twelve years ago, so they lie way behind our current hardware capabilities,” said one starry-eyed Microsoft partner. “We’ve now got bigger disks, displays, and memory, and faster CPUs than ever before. As a true 32-bit operating system, Windows NT exploits the power of the 32-bit chip.” Unlike Microsoft’s current 3.1 version of Windows and its predecessors, which were balanced precariously on the narrow foundation of MS-DOS like an elephant atop a lamp pole, Windows NT owed nothing to the past, and performed all the better for it.

But what follows is not the story of Windows NT.

It is rather the story of another operating system that was publicly mentioned for the very first time in passing at that same conference, an operating system whose user base over the course of the 1990s would eclipse that of Windows NT by a margin of about 50 to 1. Microsoft was calling it “Chicago” in 1992. The name derived from “Cairo,” a code name for a projected future version of Windows NT. “We wanted something between Seattle” — Microsoft’s home metropolitan area, which presumably stood for the current status quo — “and Cairo in terms of functionality,” said a Microsoft executive later. “The less ambitious picked names closer to Seattle — like Spokane for a minor upgrade, all the way to London for something closer to Cairo.” Chicago seemed like a suitable compromise — a daunting distance to travel, but not too daunting. The world would come to know the erstwhile Chicago three years later as Windows 95. It would become the most ballyhooed new operating system in the entire history of computing, even as it remained a far more compromised, less technically impressive piece of software architecture than Windows NT.

Why did Microsoft split their efforts along these two divergent paths? One answer lay in the wildly divergent hardware that was used to run their operating systems. Windows NT was aimed at the latest and the greatest, while Chicago was aimed at the everyday computers that everyday people tended to have in their offices and homes. But another reason was just as important. Microsoft had gotten to where they were by the beginning of the 1990s — to the position of the undisputed dominant force in personal computing — not by always or even usually having the best or most innovative products, but rather by being always the safe choice. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” ran an old maxim among corporate purchasing managers; in this new era, the same might be said about Microsoft. Part of being safe was placing a heavy emphasis on backward compatibility, thus ensuring that the existing software an individual or organization had gotten to know and love would continue to run on their shiny new Microsoft operating system. In the context of the early 1990s, this meant, for better or for worse, continuing to build at least one incarnation of Windows on top of MS-DOS, so that it could continue to run even a program written for the original IBM PC from 1981. Windows NT broke that compatibility in the name of power and performance — but, if getting that 1985-vintage version of WordPerfect up and running was more important to you than such distractions, Microsoft still had you covered.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that Microsoft wouldn’t have preferred for you to give up your hoary old favorites and enter fully into the brave new Windows world of mice and widgets. They had struggled for most of the 1980s to make Windows into a place where people wanted to live and work, and had finally broken through at the dawn of the new decade, with the release of Windows 3.0 in 1990 and 3.1 in 1992. The old stars of MS-DOS productivity software — names like the aforementioned WordPerfect, as well as Lotus, Borland, and others — were scrambling to adapt their products to a Windows-driven marketplace, even as Microsoft, whose ambitions for domination knew few bounds, was driving aggressively into the gaps with their own Microsoft Office lineup, which was tightly integrated with the operating system in ways that their competitors found difficult to duplicate. (This was due not least to Microsoft’s ability to take advantage of so-called “undocumented APIs,” hidden features and shortcuts provided by Windows which the company neglected to tell its competitors about — an underhanded trick that was an open secret in the software industry.) By  the summer of 1993, when Windows NT officially debuted with very little fanfare in the consumer press, Windows 3.x had sold 30 million copies in three years, and was continuing to sell at the healthy clip of 1.5 million copies per month. Windows had become the face of computing as the majority of people knew it, the MS-DOS command line a dusty relic of a less pleasant past.

With, that is, one glaring exception that is of special interest to us: Windows 3 had never caught on for hardcore gaming, and never would. Games were played on Windows 3, mind you. In fact, they were played extensively. Microsoft Solitaire, which was included with every copy of Windows, is almost certainly the single most-played computer game in history, having served as a distraction for hundreds of millions of bored office workers and students all over the world from 1990 until the present day. Some other games, generally of the sort that weren’t hugely demanding in hardware terms and that boasted a fair measure of casual appeal, did almost equally well. Myst, for example, sold an astonishing 5 million or more copies for Windows 3, while Microsoft’s own “Entertainment Packs,” consisting mostly of more simple time fillers much like Solitaire, also did very well for themselves.

But then there were the hardcore gamers, the folks who considered gaming an active hobby rather than a passive distraction, who waited eagerly for each new issue of Computer Gaming World to arrive in their mailbox and spent hundreds or thousands of dollars every year keeping the “rigs” in their bedrooms up to date, in much the same way that a previous generation of mostly young men had tinkered endlessly with the hot rods in their garages. The people who made games for this group told Microsoft, accurately enough, that Windows as it was currently constituted just wouldn’t do for their purposes. It was too inflexible in its assumptions about the user interface and much else, and above all just too slow. They loved the idea of a runtime environment that would let them forget about the idiosyncrasies of 1000 different graphics and sound cards, thanks to the magic of integrated device drivers. But it had to be flexible, and it had to be fast — and Windows 3 was neither of those things. Microsoft admitted in one of their own handbooks that “game graphics under Windows make slug racing look exciting.”

One big issue that game developers had with Windows 3 for a long time was that it was a 16-bit operating system in a world where even the most ordinary off-the-shelf computer hardware had long since gone 32 bit. The largest number that can be represented in 16 bits is 65,535, or 64 kilobytes. A 16-bit program can therefore only allocate memory in discrete segments of no more than 64 K. This became more and more of a problem as games grew more complex in terms of logic and especially graphics and sound. MS-DOS was also 16-bit, but, being far simpler, it was much easier to hack. The tools known as “32-bit DOS extenders” did just that, giving game developers a way of using 32-bit processors to their maximum potential more or less transparently, with a theoretical upper limit of fully 4 GB per memory segment. (This was, needless to say, much, much more memory than anyone actually had in their computers in the early 1990s.) Ironically, Windows 3 itself depended on a 32-bit DOS extender to be able to run on top of MS-DOS, but it didn’t extend all of its benefits to the applications it hosted. That did finally change, however, in July of 1993, when Microsoft released an add-on called “Win32S” that did make it possible to run 32-bit applications in Windows 3 (including many applications written for Windows NT).

That was one problem more or less solved. But another one was the painfully slow Windows graphics libraries that served as the intermediary between applications software and the bare metal of the machine. These were impossible to bypass by design; one of the major points of Windows was to provide a buffer between applications and the hardware, to enable features such as multitasking, virtual memory, and a consistent look and feel from program to program. But game developers saw only how slow the end result was. The only way they could consider coding for Windows was if Microsoft could provide libraries that were as fast — or at least 90 percent as fast — as banging the bare metal in MS-DOS.

In the meantime, game developers would continue to write for vanilla MS-DOS and to sweat the details of all those different graphics and sound cards for themselves, and the hardcore gamers would have to continue to spend hours tweaking memory settings and IRQ addresses in order to get each new game they bought up and running just exactly perfectly. Admittedly, some gamers did consider this almost half the fun, a talent for it as much a badge of honor as a high score in Warcraft; boys do love their technological toys, after all. Still, it was obvious to any sensible observer that the games industry as a whole would be better served by a universal alternative to the current bespoke status quo. Hardcore gamers made up a relatively small proportion of the people using computers, but they were a profitable niche, what with their voracious buying habits, and they were also trail blazers and influencers in their fashion. It would seem that Microsoft had a vested interest in keeping them happy.

Windows NT might sound like the logical place for such early adopters to migrate, but this was not Microsoft’s view. “Serious” users of computers in corporate and institutional environments — the kind at which Windows NT was primarily targeted — had a long tradition of looking down on computers that happened to be good at playing games, and this attitude had by no means disappeared entirely by the early 1990s. In short, Microsoft had no wish to muddy the waters surrounding their most powerful operating system with a bunch of scruffy gamers. Games of all stripes were to be left to the consumer-grade operating systems, meaning the current Windows 3 and the forthcoming Chicago. And even there, they seemed to be a dismayingly low priority for Microsoft in the eyes of the people who made them and played them.

This doesn’t mean that there was no progress whatsoever. By very early in 1994, a young Microsoft programmer named Chris Hecker, working virtually alone, had put together a promising system called WinG, which let Windows games and other software render graphics surprisingly quickly to a screen buffer, with a minimum of interference from the heretofore over-officious operating system.

Hecker knew exactly what game to target as a proof of concept for WinG: DOOM, id Software’s first-person shooter, which had recently risen up from the shareware underground to complete the remaking of a broad swath of gamer culture in the image of id’s fast-paced, ultra-violent aesthetic. If DOOM could be made to run well under WinG, that would lend the system an instant street cred that no other demonstration could possibly have equaled. So, Hecker called up John Carmack, the man behind the DOOM engine. A skeptical Carmack said he didn’t have time to learn the vagaries of WinG and do the port, even assuming it was possible, whereupon Hecker said that he would do it himself if Carmack would just give him the DOOM source — under the terms of a strict confidentiality agreement, of course. Carmack agreed, and Hecker did the job in a single frenzied weekend. (It doubtless helped that Carmack’s DOOM code, which has long since been released to the entire world, is famously clean and readable, and thus eminently portable.)

Hecker brought WinDOOM, as he called it, to the Computer Game Developers Conference in April of 1994, the place where the leading lights of the industry gathered to talk shop among themselves. When he showed them DOOM running at full speed on Windows, just four months after it had become a sensation on MS-DOS, they were blown away. “WinG could usher in a whole new era for computer-based entertainment,” wrote Computer Gaming World breathlessly in their report from the conference. “As a result of this effort, we should expect to see universal installation routines, hardware independence, and an end to the memory-configuration haze that places a minimum technical-expertise barrier over our hobby and keeps out the novice user.”

Microsoft officially released WinG as a Windows 3 add-on in September of 1994, but it never quite lived up to its glowing advance billing. Hecker was a lone-wolf coder, and by some reports at least a decidedly difficult one to work with. Microsoft insiders from the time characterize WinG more as a “hack” than a polished piece of software engineering. Hecker “was able to take a piece of shit called Windows and make games work on it,” says Rick Segal, a Microsoft executive who was then in charge of “multimedia evangelism.” “He strapped a jet engine on a Beechcraft and got the thing in the air.” But when developers started trying to work with it in the real world, “the wings came off first, followed by the rest of the plane.” That’s perhaps overstating the case: WinG combined with Win32S was used to bring a few dozen games to Windows more or less satisfactorily between 1994 and 1997, from strategy games like Colonization to adventure games like Titanic: Adventure Out of Time. WinG was not so much a defective tool as a sharply limited one. While it gave developers a way of getting graphics onto the screen reasonably quickly, it gave them no help with the other pressing problems of sound, joysticks and other controllers, and networking in a game context.

Many of Microsoft’s initiatives during this period were organized by and around their team of “evangelists,” charismatic bright sparks who were given a great deal of freedom and a substantial discretionary budget in the cause of advancing the company’s interests and “fucking the competition,” as it was put by the evangelist for WinG, an unforgettable character named Alex St. John. St. John was a 350-pound grizzly bear of a man who had spent much of his childhood in the wilds of Alaska, and still sported a lumberjack’s beard and a backwoods sartorial sense; in the words of one horrified Microsoft marketing manager, he “looked like a bomb going off.” Shambling onto the stage, the living antithesis of the buttoned-down Microsoft rep that everybody expected, he told his audiences of gamers and game developers that he knew just what they thought of Windows. Then he showed them a clip of a Windows logo being blown away by a shotgun. “The gamers loved it,” says Rick Segal. “They thought they had someone who had their interests at heart.”

St. John soon decided that his constituency deserved something much, much better than WinG. His motivations were at least partly personal. He had come to loathe Chris Hecker, who was intense in a quieter, more penetrating way that didn’t mix well with St. John’s wild-man persona; St. John was therefore looking for a way to freeze Hecker out. But he was also sincere in his belief that WinG just didn’t go far enough toward making Windows a viable platform for hardcore gaming. With Chicago on the horizon, now was the perfect time to change that. He thundered at his bosses that games were a $5 billion market already, and they were just getting started. Windows’s current ineptitude at running them threatened Microsoft’s share in not only that market but the many other consumer-computing spaces that surrounded it. At some point, game developers would say farewell to antiquated MS-DOS. If Microsoft didn’t provide them with a viable alternative, somebody else would.

He rallied two programmers by the names of Craig Eisler and Eric Engstrom to his cause. In attitude and affect, the trio seemed a better fit for the unruly halls of id Software than those of Microsoft. They ran around terrorizing their colleagues with plastic battle axes, and gave their initiative the rather tasteless name of The Manhattan Project — a name their managers found especially inappropriate in light of Japan’s importance in gaming. But they remained unapologetic: “The Manhattan Project changed the world, for good or bad,” shrugged Eisler. “And we really like nuclear explosions.”

As I just noted, St. John’s title of evangelist afforded him a considerable degree of latitude and an equally considerable financial war chest. Taking advantage of the lack of any definitive rejection of their schemes more so than any affirmation of them among the higher-ups, the trio wrote the first lines of code for their new, fresh-from-the-ground-up tools for Windows gaming on December 24, 1994. (The date was characteristic of these driven young men, who barely noticed a family holiday such as Christmas.) St. John was determined to have something to show the industry at the next Computers Game Developers Conference in less than four months.

Alex St. John, Craig Eisler, and Eric Engstrom prepare to run amok.

WinG was also still alive at this point, under the stewardship of the hated Chris Hecker — but not for long. Disney had released a CD-ROM tie-in to The Lion King, the year’s biggest movie, just in time for that Christmas of 1994. It proved a debacle; hundreds of thousands of children unwrapped the box on Christmas morning, pushed the shiny disc eagerly into the family computer… and found out that it just wouldn’t work, no matter how long Mom and Dad fiddled with it. The Internet lit up with desperate parents of sobbing children, and news of the crisis soon reached USA Today and Billboard, who declared Disney’s “Animated Storybook” to be 1994’s Grinch: the game that had ruined Christmas.

Although the software used WinG, that was neither the only nor the worst source of its problems. (That honor goes to its support for 16-bit sound cards only, as stipulated in tiny print on the box, at a time when many or most people still had 8-bit sound cards and the large majority of computers owners had no idea whether they had the one or the other.) Nevertheless, the disaster was laid at the feet of WinG inside the games industry, creating an overwhelming consensus that a far more comprehensive solution was needed if games were ever to move en masse from MS-DOS to Windows. Alex St. John shed no tears: “I was happy to be proven right about WinG’s inadequacy.” The WinG name was hopelessly tainted now, he argued. Chris Hecker was moved to another project, an event which marked the end of active development on WinG. When it came to Windows gaming in the long term, it was now the Manhattan Project or bust.

By the spring of 1995, St. John had managed to assemble a team of about a dozen programmers, mostly contractors with something to prove rather than full-time Microsoft employees. They settled on the label of “Direct” for their suite of libraries, a reference to the way that they would let game programmers get right down to making cool things happen quickly, without having to mess around with all of the usual Windows cruft. DirectDraw would do what WinG had done only better, letting programmers draw on the screen where, how, and when they would; DirectSound would give the same level of flexible control over the sound hardware; DirectInput would provide support for joysticks and the like; and DirectPlay would be in some ways the most forward-looking piece of all, providing a complete set of tools for online multiplayer gaming. The collection as a whole would come to be known as DirectX. St. John, a man not prone to understatement, told Computer Gaming World that “the PC game market has been suppressed for two major reasons: difficulty with installation and configuration, and lack of significant new hardware innovation for games, because developers have had to code so intimately to the metal that it has become a nightmare to introduce new hardware and get it widely adopted. We’re going to bring all the benefits of device independence to games, and none of the penalties that have discouraged them from using APIs.”

It’s understandable if many developers greeted such broad claims with suspicion. But plenty of them became believers in April of 1995, when Alex St. John crashed into the Computer Game Developers Conference like a force of nature. Founded back in 1988 by Chris Crawford, one of gaming’s most prominent philosophers, the CGDC had heretofore been a fairly staid affair, a domain of gray lecture halls and earnest intellectual debates over the pressing issues of the day. “My job was to see DirectX launched successfully,” says St. John. “I concluded that if we set up a session or a suite at the conference itself, no one would come. Microsoft would have to do something so spectacular that it couldn’t be ignored.” So, he rented out the entirety of the nearby Great America amusement park and invited everyone to come out on the day after the conference ended for rides and fun — and, oh, yes, also a presentation of this new thing called DirectX. When he took the stage, the well-lubricated crowd started mocking him with a chant of “DOS! DOS! DOS!” But the chanting ceased when St. John pulled up a Windows port of a console hit called Bubsy, running at 83 frames per second. It became clear then and there that the days of MS-DOS as the primary hardcore-gaming platform were as numbered as those of the old, hype-immune, comfortably collegial CGDC — both thanks to Alex St. John.

St. John and company had never intended to make a version of DirectX for Windows 3; it was earmarked for Chicago, or rather Windows 95, the now-finalized name for Microsoft’s latest consumer operating system. And indeed, most of us old-timer gamers still remember the switch to Windows 95 as the time when we began to give up our MS-DOS installations and have our fun as well as get our work done under Windows. But for all that DirectX couldn’t exist outside of Windows 95, it wasn’t quite of Windows 95. It wasn’t included with the initial version of the operating system that finally shipped, a year behind schedule, in August of 1995; the first official release of DirectX didn’t appear until a month later. “DirectX was built to be parasitic,” says St. John. “It was carried around in games, not the operating system.” What he means is that he arranged to make it possible for game publishers to distribute the libraries free of charge on their installation CDs. When a game was installed, it checked to see whether DirectX was already on the computer, and if so whether the version there was as new as or newer than the one on the CD; if the answer to either of these questions was no, the latest version of DirectX was installed alongside the game it enabled. In an era when Internet connectivity was still spotty and online operating-system updates still a new frontier, this approach doubtless saved game makers many, many thousands of tech-support calls.

Now, though, we should have a look at some of the new features that were an integral part of Windows 95 from the start. Previous versions of Windows were more properly described as operating environments than full-fledged operating systems; one first installed MS-DOS, then installed Windows on top of that, starting it up via the MS-DOS command line. Windows 95, on the other hand, presented itself to the world as a self-contained entity; one could install it to an entirely blank hard drive, and could boot into it without ever seeing a command line. Yet the change really wasn’t as dramatic as it appeared. Unlike Windows NT, Windows 95 still owed much to the past, and was still underpinned by MS-DOS; the elephant balanced on a light pole had become a blue whale perched nimbly up there on one fin. Microsoft had merely become much more thorough in their efforts to hide this fact.

And we really shouldn’t scoff at said efforts. Whatever its underpinnings, Windows 95 did a very credible job of seeming like a seamless experience. Certainly it was by far the most approachable version of Windows ever. It had a new interface that was a vast improvement over the old one, and it offered countless other little quality-of-life enhancements to boot. In fact, it stands out today as nothing less than the most dramatic single evolutionary leap in the entire history of Windows, setting in place a new usage paradigm that has been shifted only incrementally in all the years since. A youngster of today who has been raised on Windows 10 or 11 would doubtless find Windows 95 a bit crude and clunky in appearance, but would be able to get along more or less fine in it without any coaching. This is much less true in relation to Windows 3 and its predecessors. Tellingly, whenever Microsoft has tried to change the Windows 95 interface paradigm too markedly in the decades since, users have complained so loudly that they’ve been forced to reverse course.

Windows 95 may still have been built on MS-DOS, but 32-bit applications were now the standard, the ability to run 16-bit software relegated to a legacy feature in the name of Microsoft’s all-important backward compatibility. (Microsoft went to truly heroic lengths in the service of the latter, to the extent of special-casing a raft of popular programs: “If you’re running this specific program, do this.” An awful kludge, but needs must…) Another key technical feature, from which tens of millions of people would benefit without ever realizing they were doing so, was “Plug and Play,” which made installing new hardware a mere matter of plugging it in, turning on the computer, and letting the operating system do the rest; no more fiddling about with an alphabet soup of IRQ, DMA, and port settings, trying to hit upon the magic combination that actually worked. Equally importantly, Windows 95 introduced preemptive multitasking in place of the old cooperative model, meaning the operating system would no longer have to depend upon the willingness of individual programs to yield time to others, but could and would hold them to its own standards. At a stroke, all kinds of scenarios — like, say, rendering 3D graphics in the background while doing other work (or play) in the foreground — became much more practical.

A Quick Tour of Windows 95


One of the simplest but most effective ways that Microsoft concealed the still-extant MS-DOS underpinnings of Windows 95 and made it seem like its own, self-contained thing was giving it a graphical boot screen.

It seems almost silly to exhaustively explicate Windows 95’s interface, given that it’s largely the one we still see in Windows today. Nevertheless, I started a tradition in the earlier articles in this series that I might as well continue. So, note that the old “Program Manager” master window has been replaced by a Mac-like full-screen desktop, with a “Start” Menu of all installed applications at the bottom left, a task bar at the bottom center for switching among running applications, and quick-access icons and the clock at the bottom right. Window-manipulation controls too have taken on the form we still know today, with minimize, maximize, and close buttons all clustered at the top right of each window.

Plug And Play was one of the most welcome additions to Windows 95. Instead of manually fiddling with esoteric settings, you just plugged in your hardware and let Windows do it all for you.

Microsoft bent over backward to make Windows 95 friendly and approachable for the novice. What experienced users found annoying and condescending, new users genuinely appreciated. That said, the hand-holding would only get more belabored in the future, trying the patience of even many non-technical users. (Does anyone remember Clippy?)

In keeping with its role in the zeitgeist, the Windows 95 CD-ROM included a grab bag of random pop-culture non sequiturs, such as a trailer for the movie Rob Roy and a Weezer music video.

While Windows 95 made a big point of connectivity and did include a built-in TCP/IP stack for getting onto the Internet, it initially sported no Web browser. But that would soon change, with consequences that would reverberate from Redmond, Washington, to Washington, D.C., from Silicon Valley to Brussels.

The most obvious drawback to Windows’s hybrid architecture was its notorious instability; the “Blue Screen of Death” became an all too familiar sight for users. System crashes tended to stem from those places where the new rubbed up against the old — from the point of contact, if you will, between the blue whale’s flipper and the light pole.



Windows 95 stretched the very definition of what should constitute an operating system; it was the first version of Windows on which you could do useful things without installing a single additional application, thanks to built-in tools like WordPad (a word processor more full-featured than many of the commercially available ones of half a decade earlier) and Paint (as the name would imply, a paint program, and a surprisingly good one at that). Some third-party software publishers, suddenly faced with the prospect of their business models going up in smoke, complained voraciously to the press and to the government about this bundling. Nonetheless, the lines between operating systems and applications had been blurred forever.

Indeed, this was in its way the most revolutionary of all aspects of Windows 95, an operating system that otherwise still had one foot rooted firmly in the past. That didn’t much matter to most people because it was a new piece of software engineering second, a flashy new consumer product first. Well before the launch, a respected tech journalist named Andrew Schulman told how “the very name Windows 95 suggests this product will play a leading role” in “the movement from a technology-based into a consumer-product-based industry.”

If a Windows program queries the GetVersion function in Windows 95, it will get back 4.0 as the answer; a DOS program will get back the answer 7.0. But in its marketing, Microsoft has decided to trade in the nerdy major.minor version-numbering scheme (version x.0 had always given the company trouble anyway) for a new product-naming scheme based on that used by automobile manufacturers and vineyards. Windows 95 isn’t foremost a technology or an operating system; it’s a product. It is targeted not at developers or end users but at consumers.

In that spirit, Microsoft hired Brian Eno, a famed composer and producer of artsy rock and ambient music, to provide the now-iconic Windows 95 startup theme. Eno:

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said, “And it must be 3.25 seconds long.”

I thought this was funny, and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time…

Ironically, Eno created this, his most-heard single composition, on an Apple Macintosh. “I’ve never used a PC in my life,” he said in 2009. “I don’t like them.”


On a more populist musical note, Microsoft elected to make the Rolling Stones tune “Start Me Up” the centerpiece of their unprecedented Windows 95 advertising blitz. By one report, they paid as much as $12 million to license the song, so enamored were they by its synergy with the new Windows 95 “Start” menu, apparently failing to notice in their excitement that the song is actually a feverish plea for sex. “[Mick] Jagger was half kidding” when he named that price, claimed the anonymous source. “But Microsoft was in a big hurry, so they took the deal, unlike anything else in the software industry, where they negotiate to death.” Of course, Microsoft was careful not to include in their commercials the main chorus of “You make a grown man cry.” (Much less the fade-out chorus of “You make a dead man come.”)


Microsoft spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in all on the Windows 95 launch, making it by a veritable order of magnitude the most lavish to that point in the history of the computer industry. One newspaper said the campaign was “how the Ten Commandments would have been launched, if only God had had Bill Gates’s money.” The goal was to make Windows, as journalist James Wallace put, “the most talked-about consumer product since New Coke” — albeit one that would hopefully enjoy a better final fate. Both goals were achieved. If you had told an ordinary American on the street even five years earlier that a new computer operating system, of all things, would shortly capture the pop-culture zeitgeist so thoroughly, she would doubtless have looked at you like you had three heads. But now it was 1995, and here it was. The Cold War was over, the War on Terror not yet begun, the economy booming, and the wonders of digital technology at the top of just about everyone’s mind; the launch of a new operating system really did seem like just about the most important thing going on in the world at the time.

The big day was to be August 24, 1995. Bill Gates made 29 separate television appearances in the week leading up it. A 500-foot banner was unfurled from the top floor of a Toronto skyscraper, while hundreds of spotlights served to temporarily repaint the Empire State Building in the livery of Windows 95. Even the beloved Doonesbury comic strip was co-opted, turning into a thinly veiled Windows 95 advertisement for a week. Retail stores all over the continent stayed open late on the evening of August 23, so that they could sell the first copies of Windows 95 to eager customers on the stroke of midnight. (“Won’t it be available tomorrow?” asked one baffled journalist to the people standing in line.) There were reports that some impressionable souls got so caught up in the hype that they turned up and bought a copy even though they didn’t own a computer on which to run it.

But the excitement’s locus was Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, campus, which had been turned into a carnival grounds for the occasion, with fifteen tents full of games and displays and even a Ferris wheel to complete the picture. From here the proceedings were telecast live to millions of viewers all over the world. Gates took the stage at 11:00 AM with a surprise sparring partner: comedian Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, the country’s most popular late-night talk show. He worked the crowd with his broad everyman humor; this presentation was most definitely not aimed at the nerdy set. His jokes are as fine a time capsule of the mid-1990s as you’ll find. “To give you an idea of how powerful Windows 95 is, it is able to keep track of all O.J.’s alibis at once,” said Leno. Gates wasn’t really so much smarter than the rest of us; Leno had visited his house and found his VCR’s clock still blinking 12:00. As for Windows 95, it was like a good date: “smart, user-friendly, and under $100.” The show ended with Microsoft’s entire senior management team displaying their dubious dance moves up there onstage to the strains of “Start Me Up.” “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” gushed Gates afterward.

Bill Gates and Jay Leno onstage.

Windows 95 sold 1 million copies in its first four days, 30 million copies in its first seven months, 65 million copies in its first sixteen months. (For the record, this last figure was 15 million more copies than the best-selling album of all time, thus cementing the operating system’s place in pop-culture as well as technology history.) By the beginning of 1998, when talk turned to its successor Windows 98, it boasted an active user base three and a half times larger than that of Windows 3.

And by that same point in time, the combination of Windows 95 and DirectX had remade the face of gaming. A watershed moment arrived already just one year after the debut of Windows 95, when Microsoft used DirectX to make the first-ever Windows version of their hugely popular Flight Simulator, for almost a decade and a half now the company’s one really successful hardcore gamer’s game. From that moment on, DirectX was an important, even integral part of Microsoft’s corporate strategy. As such, it was slowly taken out of the hands of Alex St. John, Craig Eisler, and Eric Engstrom, whose bro-dude antics, such as hiring a Playboy Playmate to choose from willing male “slaves” at one industry party and allowing the sadomasochistic shock-metal band GWAR to attend another with an eight-foot tall anthropomorphic vagina and penis in tow, had constantly threatened to erupt into scandal if they should ever escape the ghetto of the gaming press and make it into the mainstream. Whatever else one can say about these three alpha-nerds, they changed gaming forever — and changed it for the better, as all but the most hidebound MS-DOS Luddites must agree. By the time Windows 98 hit the scene, vanilla MS-DOS was quite simply dead as a gaming platform; all new computer games for a Microsoft platform were Windows games, coming complete with quick and easy one-click installers that made gaming safe even for those who didn’t know a hard drive from a RAM chip. The DirectX revolution, in other words, had suffered the inevitable fate of all successful revolutions: that of becoming the status quo.

St. John’s inability to play well with others got him fired in 1997, while Eisler and Engstrom grew up and mellowed out a bit and moved into Web technologies at Microsoft. (The Web-oriented software stack they worked on, which never panned out to the extent they had hoped, was known as Chrome; it seems that everything old truly is new again at some point.)

Speaking of the Internet: what did Windows 95 mean for it, and vice versa? I must confess that I’ve been deliberately avoiding that question until now, because it has such a complicated answer. For if there was one tech story that could compete with the Windows 95 launch in 1995, it was surely that of the burgeoning World Wide Web. Just two weeks before Bill Gates enjoyed the coolest day of his life, Netscape Communications held its initial public offering, ending its first day as a publicly traded company worth a cool $2.2 billion in the eyes of stock buyers. Some people were saying even in the midst of all the hype coming out Redmond that Microsoft and Windows 95 were computing’s past, a new era of simple commodity appliances connecting to operating-system-agnostic networks its future. Microsoft’s efforts to challenge this wisdom and compete on this new frontier were just beginning to take shape at the time, but they would soon become the company’s overriding obsession, with well-nigh earthshaking stakes for everyone involved with computers or the Web.

(Sources: the books Renegades of the Empire: How Three Software Warriors Started a Revolution Behind the Walls of Fortress Microsoft by Michael Drummond, Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic by Brad King and John Borland, Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace by James Wallace, The Silicon Boys by David A. Kaplan, Show-stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary, Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner, Unauthorized Windows 95: A Developer’s Guide to the Foundations of Windows “Chicago” by Andrew Schulman, Undocumented Windows: A Programmer’s Guide to Reserved Microsoft Windows API Functions by Andrew Schulman, David Maxey, and Matt Pietrek, and Windows Internals: The Implementation of the Windows Operating Environment by Matt Pietrek; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, June 1995, and September 1995; Game Developer of August/September 1995; InfoWorld of March 15 1993; Mac Addict of April 2000; Windows Magazine of April 1996; PC Magazine of November 8 2005. Online sources include an Ars Technica piece on Microsoft’s efforts to keep Windows compatible with earlier software, a Usenet thread about the Lion King CD-ROM debacle which dates from Christmas Day 1994, a Music Network article about Brian Eno’s Windows 95 theme, an SFGate interview with Eno, and Chris Hecker’s overview of WinG for Game Developer. I owe a special thanks to Ken Polsson for his personal-computing chronology, which has been invaluable for keeping track of what happened when and pointing me to sources during the writing of this and other articles. Finally, I owe a lot to Nathan Lineback for the histories, insights, comparisons, and images found at his wonderful online “GUI Gallery.”)

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2022 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Microsoft Space Simulator (or, Charles Guy’s Galaxy in a Box)

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.

The dream of constructing a Space Station Freedom in Earth orbit was still alive when Space Simulator was under development. The plan to do so, first mooted by President Ronald Reagan in his State of the Union Address in 1984, was scrapped completely by the end of the 1990s.

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.)

 
 

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The Dream of Flight

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 Transport Pilot, 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…)

 
 

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