Business-like, isn't he?



Business in Vancouver logo

    Microsoft's Windows of opportunities 20 years on

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver November 1-7, 2005; issue 836

    High Tech Office column

    If you're among the millions of people who started using a computer in the last decade, you can be forgiven for having a hard time imagining a time when computers didn't seem to all have a start button in the bottom-left corner.

    Microsoft Windows 1.0 was released in November 1985 so we're marking its 20th anniversary.

    That original Windows was not a sales sensation. It required a hefty 512 kilobytes of memory (about 1/1000th of what many users have installed today), and with that, it was slow. And ugly. And there wasn't much software available for it.

    Instead, most business users with personal computers ran programs like Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 running on Microsoft's minimalist MS-DOS operating system. Each required an idiosyncratic set of commands and each installed its own printer drivers. But they ran fast on the hardware of that era and skilled users could be highly productive. And the companies that made them were larger and richer than then-tiny Microsoft.

    But Microsoft is nothing if not persistent.

    In 1987/88 Windows 2.0 was optimized for the various high-end 286 and 386 computers of the era. On a fast enough computer, performance was almost tolerable.

    And Windows programs still used today such as CorelDraw and Microsoft's Word and Excel débuted. Most business users, however, continued to run their familiar DOS standbys: Word Perfect, 1-2-3.

    Windows adoption picked up in the early-1990s as Windows 3.0 and (much more so) 3.1 became widely used both by business and home users. Because all Windows programs used similar commands, it was easier to learn to use multiple Windows programs.

    The graphical interface made it easier for users to mix text and graphics and use a variety of fonts and text effects. Because Windows handled an application's interaction with the computer's hardware, programmers could develop software without having to worry about working with hundreds of printers, graphics and sound cards.

    (Yes, all of these factors were equally true of the Macintosh systems of the era, but Windows could run on many of the DOS-powered computers that businesses already owned and Apple charged a premium for their admittedly superior products.

    In 1992, BIV ran a column where I suggested that although the Mac was better, Windows was good enough for most users. And cheaper).

    The makers of the business-standard programs of the 1980s were slow to respond to this new Windows trend.

    Both Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 came out with versions that neither impressed their existing user base nor won over the new Windows users. Instead, Microsoft bundled Word and Excel as Microsoft Office (and licensed it cheaply on Windows-ready hardware), creating the new standard.

    Within a few years, the 1995 and 1998 versions of Windows and Office were seemingly everywhere, though many businesses of that era preferred to run Microsoft's more secure and stable Windows NT and its successor Windows 2000. (The adjectives "secure" and "stable" seem to be relative terms when applied to any Windows version.) Besides appearing on most home and business desktop computers, there are now versions of Windows for network servers, PDAs and smartphones, and home media centres.

    In recent years, Microsoft has overcome U.S. Justice Department charges of monopolistic behaviour, but the company continues to look over its shoulders.

    Among its challenges: freely available operating systems like Linux and office suites like, on-the-Web applications and services from the likes of Google and more, an ongoing wave of security attacks aimed at Windows systems, a comeback from near-death by Apple, and perhaps most of all, an increased reluctance by the company's own customers to upgrade Windows and Office according to Microsoft's schedules. The ancient Chinese I Ching states that "persistence in a righteous course brings success." Despite an inauspicious start, Microsoft's persistence has resulted in a decade of Windows everywhere.

Search WWW Search

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