Windows NT: Nother Time for many?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1994. First published in Our Computer Player, May 20, 1994

While delivery time was being postponed again and again, scoffers
suggested that the 'NT' in Windows NT stood for "Not There". Well, NT
has now been out for a while... let's take a look at where it stands; is
it the operating system we'll all be running sooner or later?

First, a little history. Once upon a time, Microsoft and IBM were... well,
not really friends, but they did sort of cooperate on operating system
development for PCs. But around 1990, this uneasy relationship, dating
back ten years to the original release of the IBM-PC with DOS 1.0 really
got strained.

IBM/Microsoft had been promoting OS/2 as "the next big thing" since
1987... the computer press at one time had been claiming that we'd all
be running it by 1989. (Remember that the next time you read some self-
appointed pundit's predictions-- even mine!) But OS/2 version 1 proved
disappointing. It was designed for a 286 at a time when the 32-bit 386
computers were taking off. And it demanded 4 megs or so of ram (gasp!)
at a time when most computers were being sold with 1 meg, and ram
was selling for $200 a meg or more.

While OS/2 sales were disappointing, Microsoft released Windows 3.0...
the third version of its 'operating environment' that had been around
since 1985, generating its own share of jokes. Windows 3.0, due to a
combination of clever marketing and being good enough to meet many
people's needs, was a runaway success... the success that IBM felt
should have gone to OS/2.

In a widely publicized 'divorce settlement' that followed, Microsoft
turned over to IBM all responsibility for the next generation of OS/
2... OS/2 version 2, in order to focus on Windows. But they received
all responsibility for the generation after that... OS/2 version 3,
soon re-named Windows NT-- the NT supposed to stand for 'New

NT was going to have something for everyone... a real 32-bit operating
system, designed from the ground up, without Windows 3.x's reliance on
antiquated DOS, and without OS/2's history as 16-bit 286 code. It
would run on non-Intel CPUs, and support machines with multiple CPUs.
It would provide premptory multitasking, like 'real' operating systems
like UNIX,  and unlike Windows 3's cooperative multitasking, with its
dangers of crashing due to one program's instability. Multithreading.
Long file names. Networking
support, and the ability to meet US government's security requirements.

When Microsoft recruited Dave Cutler, operating system heavy from
Digital Equipment, it seemed like they had made a real commitment to
creating an operating system that would get respect from the work
station and mainframe guys, who still tended to sneer at the desktop
machines as glorified toys. As it came close to release, some wondered
if it would replace Unix.

But trying to have something for everyone often produces a product
that seems to satisfy no one. Lets see what happened to NT:

-- It was late. Microsoft tends to announce shipping dates, and then
push them back again and again. NT was a big, technically
sophisticated project, and Microsoft was justifiably unwilling to
release a buggy version onto the world. Release date after release
date were missed.

-- It was big. Like Unix, it'll easily gobble up 40 megs or so of hard
drive space. It claims to run on machines with only 12 megs or so of
ram, but it really wants at least 16 megs. By all accounts, 32 megs or
more gives it room to breathe.

-- It looked and worked just like Windows 3.1... and while this means
a minimal learning curve for users, it also leaves many wondering if
anything's really new.

-- It lacked a 'killer application'. Like OS/2 version 2, most users
are running current, 16-bit Windows applications, even on these next
generation 32-bit operating systems. Test after test, however,
demonstrated that the fastest way to run applications desgined for
Windows 3.1 is (surprise!) under Windows 3.1.

While Microsoft has been promoting Win 32, a 32-bit development
environment, few applications have been written to take advantage of
it... not even the Win 32s subset that allows applications to run
under Win NT and Windows 3.1's enhanced mode (at the cost of NT-only
features such as multi-threading or security).

Many users beware the curse of version 1.0... sometimes generalized as
advice to avoid any software release that has a number ending with
zero. Many of these products have included bugs... new features that
get tested on the customers, and made to work properly in the
following release.

Microsoft tried to avoid that image-- NT was not released as Windows
NT version 1.0, but rather as version 3.1, in order to play up its
ties to the popular, and generally stable Windows 3.1. And for a major
new operating system, this first release has proven pretty stable. And
it does work as claimed--

-- Versions of NT exist for RISC processors such as the DEC Alpha
series, or chips from MIPS. A PowerPC version is expected. It runs on
multi-CPU machines, including computers with multiple 486s or
Pentiums. None of these machines have had very much impact on the
market, however.

-- It does run software from a variety of sources, including DOS and
Windows, but also OS/2 16-bit character mode programs, and POSIX. The
Advanced Server version provides powerfully network server
capabilities, and it works well with Windows for Workgroup stations.
It meets all those US government security requirements (which OS/2,
for example, doesn't). Eddie
Wong, of Vancouver's Axis Database Systems, an early NT adopter found
it ran DOS programs very well, and was very fault tolerant... even
with flakey software.

-- Compared to OS/2, for example, installation is a breeze. A lot of
effort went into the SETUP program, and it shows. According to
Wong, "there's a surpising amount of support-- drivers,  tape drives, backup

Still, it doesn't really have any advantages for most individual and
business users... and Microsoft has been suggesting that it's not
supposed to. Rather than being designed as a desktop operating system,
like DOS or OS/2, it's aiming at large corporate systems. Like Unix,
it's unwieldy and simply too much. Wong suggests that Microsoft may
have used NT as a strategy to keep attention away from OS/2 and Unix,
rather than as a serious operating system alternative, "at least for
this year". In fact, Axis Database has removed NT from its systems,
returning to a mix of Windows for Workgroups and Novell Netware...
with few if any NT-specific applications, it seemed pointless to run
NT just on their server.

The media gave NT lots of attention until its release demonstrated
that it would have a rather limited market, and now has turned to the
next Microsoft smoke and mirrors show... this time for Chicago--
presumably Windows 4.0. While Chicago is being hyped as a product
aimed more at the huge market of dekstop users like you and me,
Microsoft has not abandoned NT.

Two more American city names are being tossed around as NT development
projects. Daytona is the code name for Windows NT 3.5... due later
this year, expected to run faster in less ram. And Cairo (you thought
it was in Egypt, right? Actually it's near Chicago) will bring the
Chicago interface to NT users.

Despite disappointing sales and a lack on NT-specific applications,
Microsoft still counts on NT as an operating system that will play an
increasingly important role in inter-connected world of computers that
they see as the future.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan