November 20, 1985, saw the launch of Microsoft Windows 1.01, the first publicly released version. Of course it was late.
Microsoft boss Bill Gates announced Windows in 1983, promising release by the end of 1984, perhaps to counter VisiCorp's VisiON, an alternative PC graphical application manager that launched in December 1983 to rave reviews.
Windows 1.0 is a funny little thing. I installed it into Oracle Virtual Box, running on DOS 3.3, and counted just 97 files in the Windows directory. There are no sub-directories. Some things are familiar - notepad.exe and calc.exe are there, as is kernel.exe.
Bundling application and system files into the same directory was a mistake, compromising Windows security from the beginning. The Windows folder is even the default location for saved documents. At the time Windows was not intended to be networked - the only nod to connectivity was a simple terminal application - so it seemed unimportant.
It all started here: the Windows 1.0 set-up
You can have multiple windows open in Windows 1, but they may not overlap. Still, you can minimise a window, and there is a clipboard for copying data between applications. Most important, it is a platform for applications with a graphical user interface, and with this release the battle for developer mindshare was on.
Windows 1.0 was not a success. Windows 2.0 in 1987 was better, arriving as it did with the first release of Excel, but it was Windows 3.0, launched in May 1990, that conquered the market for a PC graphical operating system.
Why did Windows win? There was competition, much of it technically superior. Apple had the Lisa, released early 1983, and then the Mac in 1984. On the PC there was not only VisiON, but also Digital Research GEM, first shipped in 1985, and which had considerable success.
As it turned out, both hit problems. VisiON was widely admired, but it was incompatible with DOS and required expensive custom development. Windows by contrast was a manager for DOS applications as well as a graphical platform in its own right. The Windows 1.0 shell was called MS-DOS Executive and ran DOS as well as Windows applications. GEM also ran on DOS but its progress was stymied by Apple, which sued claiming GEM was a copy of the Mac operating system. This caused Digital Research to weaken the GEM user interface.
There was also the strange story of OS/2 and Presentation Manager. OS/2 was announced in 1987 as a joint project between IBM and Microsoft to replace DOS, along with Presentation Manager for the graphical user interface. Windows was the immediate offering, but Presentation Manager was meant to be the long-term destination.
Windows 1.0's MS-DOS Executive shows its closeness to DOS
The OS/2 story played out well for Microsoft. OS/2 enabled Microsoft to remain IBM's partner, despite IBM's insistence on replacing DOS and Windows. Companies such as Lotus, WordPerfect and Ashton-Tate focused their development efforts on OS/2 rather than Windows, putting Microsoft's applications at an advantage.
In the meantime, Windows became increasingly popular. Version 3.0 in May 1990 was the first to exploit x86 protected mode, breaking DOS memory limits by allowing direct access to extended memory. Windows was doing so well that Microsoft's commitment to OS/2 was in question. During 1990 IBM took over most of the responsibility for OS/2 development, and Microsoft became a company dedicated to Windows.
A little DOS goes a long way
Although Windows 3.0 and its successors 3.1 and 3.11 became the dominant PC operating system, it was not particularly robust or reliable, networking was awkwardly bolted-on, and security non-existent. Microsoft knew it had to rebuild Windows from scratch, and had been working on the project since 1988 when Dave Cutler was hired from Digital Equipment Corp. for that purpose.
Flaws in the DOS/Windows family might be forgiven on the grounds that its evolution was partly accidental. Nobody realised when Microsoft acquired QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) in 1980 that it would end up as the foundation of PC computing. Windows NT on the other hand was Microsoft's opportunity to get it right. Did it succeed?
Windows NT catches an infection
Windows NT 3.1 was completed in July 1993. It was 32-bit, included a secure file system called NTFS, and was designed to be portable between processors. The initial release ran on Intel, MIPS and DEC Alpha processors. Although backward compatibility was imperfect, a 16-bit subsystem ran many existing Windows applications successfully.
Heavy hardware requirements meant slow initial sales, and Microsoft continued to develop the less demanding DOS-based line, releasing Windows 95, 98, and Millennium editions. Even so, NT became the foundation of a new and wildly successful family of Windows operating systems. In August 2001 Microsoft released Windows XP, making the NT line standard across the entire range from consumer desktops to servers.
Unfortunately Windows NT became infected with past mistakes. It was not the underlying technology, but more the way Microsoft allowed it to be used. Windows NT has defined locations for operating system files, applications, and user data, but Microsoft failed to enforce them and many developers, used to the lax world of DOS and Windows, went their own way, writing files and data all over the operating system.
Windows XP: paid for sloppy coding practices and policies
Users who did not log on with full local administrator rights had problems running applications, so many of them solved the problem by running as administrator, making it more vulnerable to viruses and undermining system stability. Despite security features such as a built-in firewall, Windows XP was easy prey for malware.
Lack of discipline is also a problem in the way Windows is delivered, particularly in the consumer market. Software bundled with a new machine, much of it of poor quality, damages the user experience.
Windows became rather unpleasant to use, leaving space for Apple with its unified hardware and software, based on Unix and built with great attention to design and usability.
Vista and beyond
Microsoft fumbled its response. At its Professional Developers Conference in 2003, the company presented Longhorn, with an intelligent file system and a new designer-friendly graphical presentation layer. It was over-ambitious, and in 2005 Microsoft had to scrap much of the code. The consequence was Windows Vista, which not released until the end of 2006, more than five years after Windows XP. Many of the early Vista machines were barely powerful enough to run it, and its new security feature called User Account Control (UAC) annoyed and confused users. Microsoft had only itself to blame. If Windows security had not been so lax, UAC would not have been necessary.
Vista's shortcomings were a further gift to Apple and to alternatives such as Linux, but Windows is so deeply embedded into business that most users rather than switch, simply carried on with Windows XP. Windows 7 in 2009 fixed it, tuned for better performance, more reliable, and with a revamped interface that most users actually enjoy. Windows is getting better. Version 7 is decent, while on the server - which shares the same core code - there has been encouraging progress in modularising the operating system and making the graphical user interface less necessary.
That said, Windows has also become less interesting. Internet and mobile development are now the centre of attention, and even on the desktop it is Apple rather than Microsoft that seems to take the lead. When sketches of Windows 8 were leaked earlier this year, they were all about slates and app stores, following Apple's example, but this is Apple iOS and Google Android territory where Microsoft may struggle.
The next 25 years will likely be less Windows-shaped than the 25 just past. ®