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Business in Vancouver

Canadian Freelance Union- CEP

Microsoft Windows at 25: Still dominant after all these years

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2010 First published in Business in Vancouver November 30 - December 6, 2010 issue #1101 High Tech Office column

Most of you are running Windows, some the current Windows 7, but more Windows XP, originally released in 2002. But Microsoft Windows goes back farther than that. The first version was released 25 years ago this November.

Setting a pattern that would repeat over and over, Windows 1.0 was late – late enough that at its launch, Microsoft’s already bald Steve Ballmer (now the company’s CEO) joked that when the project started he had hair.

Even back in 1985, most personal computers ran a Microsoft operating system, but instead of Windows, it was the bare bones (and cryptic to most users) MS-DOS. Sold in bulk to computer hardware manufacturers, revenue from MS-DOS wasn’t enough to make Microsoft a software giant. Companies like Lotus, maker of the 1-2-3 spreadsheet, were bigger. Microsoft’s word processor and spreadsheet were not the bestsellers in their product categories.

Similarly, the early version of Microsoft Windows failed to become a software bestseller. Windows 1.0 or 2.0 simply didn’t offer much that a typical business or home personal computer user of the era cared about. You could use Windows to start up the business applications of the time – Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, WordStar or WordPerfect word processor – but why bother? It took several years for Microsoft to release Windows versions of Excel and Word, and several more years before they outsold their competitors.

To be pedantic, those early Windows versions weren’t operating systems. You needed to install the operating system, MS-DOS, then run Windows as a program on top of that, running applications designed especially for Windows on top of that. You paid a performance penalty for all those extra levels of software.

From the first, though, Windows did one thing right. If hardware – a printer, a monitor or more, or resources like fonts – was supported by Windows, it was available to any Windows program. That was a big deal at the time. Previously each application had to provide that sort of support. You set up your spreadsheet to work with your printer and then did it all over again to work with your word processor. Hard for users and even harder for software developers.

One reason why WordPerfect dominated the word processor market was because the company supported the widest range of printers. With Windows applications, that was no longer an issue.

Graphics and design software, like the PageMaker desktop publisher, benefited from Windows’ mouse support and its attempt to display on screen how a document’s printed output would look. All of this – system-wide resource support, use of a mouse, a graphical display and even software like PageMaker, Excel and Word – were available on the Mac before being adopted by PC users, but Windows brought them to business-standard, relatively inexpensive PCs.

While from the first, Mac hardware and software showed an attention to design and detail, those early versions of Windows were ugly. They were also awkward and slowed computers to a crawl. Microsoft persisted, however. By the early 1990s, Windows 3.0 and 3.1 were much better, helped in part by improvements in computer hardware that provided enough speed and power for those versions of Windows.

By 1995’s Windows 95 release, Microsoft’s product was almost as good (and almost as attractive) as a Mac, but could run on hardware that cost much less. By the end of the decade, MS-DOS was history and Apple was edging back from the brink of failure. Windows was firmly established as the business and home computing standard.

(For the record: Microsoft accompanied persistence and dedication in improving its software with pressure tactics with its hardware partners and other questionable business practices to establish and maintain its near-monopoly market share.)

Even now, while mobile platforms on phones and tablets are becoming increasingly important, Windows – much evolved from its 25-year-old beginnings – remains the standard for desktop and laptop personal computers.

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