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November 18, 2005
Two Decades Later, We Still Do Windows

It can't be possible. Has it really been 20 years since I took those 5.25-inch floppy disks and loaded a new operating system called Windows, of all things, on my PC/XT clone with the amber monitor, and remarked to myself, "Now What?"

The answer to that question was not immediately forthcoming. In fact, it took a few years to figure out why Windows would ever be important, and perhaps a decade before we all went, "A-ha." Windows in the mid-80s was essentially DOS with a graphical overlay. It came with a few utilities, a precurser to Word called Windows Write, and Windows Paint, which didn't work near as well as the Macintosh drawing and painting programs.

In those days, while DOS still ruled the business desktop and the Mac was this cool thing you could play games on and do "art stuff" with, Windows was just another PC operating system in search of applications. All the business applications ran on proprietary mainframes and minicomputers or one of the Unix derivatives. Businesses ran "personal productivity" applications like word processors, spreadsheets, and "personal" databases on DOS. That's what a PC was back then; a personal productivity tool.

There wasn't much reason to believe Windows would amount to much. It wasn't even the first graphical user interface (GUI) for the PC. That honor went to VisiCorp.'s Visi On, which was first demonstrated during Comdex 1982. There was little interest in Visi On beyond a proof of concept and VisiCorp sold the technology to Control Data during the two year stretch between when Windows was first announced and when it was actually delivered.

It wasn't until Microsoft convinced enough independent software vendors to write for this new OS, one that looked suspiciously similar to the Mac OS, that Windows became a true PC-based platform. Both Microsoft and Apple lifted liberally from the work of Alan Kay at Xerox PARC—the true originator of the graphical user interface. And by the late 80s, owing to another Xerox PARC invention, Robert Metcalfe's Ethernet, PCs running Windows became more than "personal" productivity tools.

But it was the early 90s with, by then, release 3x when Windows finally ruled the desktop and DOS became little more than an administrative session called from the Windows interface. It was also then that the notion of PC-based workgroup computing took off. Via Ethernet, PCs could be connected to network servers, which could in turn be connected to external networks, and with the Windows interface that masked the underlying complexity of such a monumental development; we could all take advantage of it.

How much do we owe to Windows our current capabilities to quickly and easily communicate thoughts and share documents and multimedia files anywhere in the world? That's hard to say. Some consider Bill Gates a visionary techno-god who laid the groundwork for an entire industry. Others would call him a villain who stifled innovation and merely capitalized on existing technology faster than anyone else and kept the plates spinning long enough for most competitors to give up.

Nevertheless, there are few bits and bytes getting passed around today that don't pass through a Windows-based system somewhere along the way. And I suspect that might not change over the next 20 years. In 2025, when we're waxing nostalgic about Windows XP from the turn of the century and remembering the transition from 32-bit to 64-bit Windows, we could come across the 20 Years Of Windows package of thought provoking historical and future analysis articles. You don't have to wait 20 years, check it out now.

Posted by Mitch Irsfeld at 05:07 PM | Permalink

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