On this day in (engineering) history…
by Stephen Phillips
It is the evening of November 10, 1983, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. A young man of 28, although he speaks and dresses considerably older, is addressing a product launch event that, eventually, will profoundly change the way people work and interact with computers.
The Plaza was playing host to the unveiling of Microsoft’s Windows 1.0.
Like so many stories, this one doesn’t have its roots in that wintery New York night. It goes back to the comfortable warmth of Nevada in November, when Gates visited COMDEX, a major trade show held in Las Vegas.
Whilst there, he saw Visi On, a software produced by VisiCorp. What caught Gates’ eye was the something we don’t even think about now; a ‘windowed’ user interface. It was a Graphical User Interface designed and built for IBM-compatible Personal Computers, clones of IBM PCs.
Visi On was unusual because it used an environment within which a user could use multiple programs at the same time. Everything would appear on the screen in different ‘windows’, often overlapping each other. It was mouse driven, ideal for multi-tasking and its programs shared data with each other. There was ‘help’ and a built-in installer, too
Ok, it was monochrome, without scrollbars and had limited graphics capability, but compared to the DOS based machines people had used up to this time, it was revolutionary.
Gates returned from COMDEX with a very different idea of the future than he had when he arrived in Las Vegas. Producing a graphic user interface become an urgent priority. .Microsoft was attempting to build a shared text-mode but had different teams working on separate GUI -type products. have efforts to create a shared text-mode UI framework (Interface Manager)Separate teams already working on user interface framework (Interface Manager) and a shared graphics UI framework (GDI) were merged to work on Microsoft’s Window Manager
William Henry Gates III’s (less catchy than ‘Bill’) ‘start button’ was clicked in Seattle, Washington, in 1955. 28 years later, Gates came to prominence (at least in the niche world of computer technology) writing code for computer programs. He had dropped out of Harvard University and, alongside his friend Paul Allen, co-founded Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Perhaps, by now, he had already stopped writing lines of code because running the company took up so much of his time.
During that speech at the Plaza, a nervous Bill Gates promised a user-friendly graphical interface, drop down menus, device-independent graphics and mouse support. It would, he said, be on the shelves and available to users in April of 1984. In fact, 90% of IBM-compatible machines would be using it by the end of 1984. This didn’t quite go according to plan. Windows 1.0 would not be released to the public until slightly over two years later, 20 November 1985.
Work on the memorably named ‘Interface Manager’ had begun in September 1981. It featured Word-style menus at the bottom of the screen. Those migrated to the top of the screen and became drop-down menus and dialogue boxes in 1982, this time inspired by the Xerox Star.
Interface Manager (or ‘Windows’ as company marketing man, Rownland Hanson, had suggested) was not a guaranteed success. Microsoft faced stiff competition from the just released Visi On and Apple’s Lisa, and IBM’s about-to-be-released TopView. Still to come were Tandy’s DeskMate, Quarterdeck's DESQ, and the Amiga Workbench, to name just three.
Microsoft’s secret weapon was how it differentiated itself from the competition by adding in applications such as MS-DOS Executive, Windows Paint, Clock, Notepad, Calendar and Cardfile into the Windows 1.0 bundle.
It may not dominate quite as much as it did, but while competitors have fallen by the wayside, Windows is on its eleventh iteration. It is relatively easy to use and (these days at least) stable. It’s very ubiquity proves to be an advantage for Microsoft because most users will have learned how to use a computer with a Windows machine, making everyone familiar with that system, but not with its rivals. Perhaps being ‘good enough’ is better than being the very best.
Why have the alternatives to Windows such as Linux (and the Linux based Ubuntu) not taken off to the same degree?
Perhaps Windows’ very popularity has stifled innovation in Operating Systems, by making it more difficult to get alternatives to market?
What do you think of Microsoft’s behemoth operating system?
Stephen Phillips is an IET Content Producer, with passions for history, engineering, tech and the sciences.