Microsoft Windows Nearly Didn't Happen

Last Update: April 13, 2019

A (reasonably large) number of people commented on my previous post wanting to know why Windows nearly didn't happen.

I was there and remember it like it was only 34 years ago.

Snow White and the 7 Dwarves

But the story starts much earlier... with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Well, that's what we called them.

It was the mid 1960's. There were 8 major computer companies.

IBM was Snow White.

The 7 Dwarves were

  • Burroughs
  • Honeywell
  • NCR
  • ICL (The UK's answer to IBM, formed by an amalgamation of ICT and Leo Computers and funded by lots of sterling)
  • General Electric
  • Univac
  • Data General

But Snow White was totally dominant.

The microprocessor was released by Intel in 1971 and, although not recognized as such back then, it was a game changer as it made the architecture of the future personal computer possible.

There were a number of languages in which computer programs could be developed. There was Fortran, for scientific and engineering applications, Cobol and RPG for commercial applications. Perhaps the simplest to use was BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code).

Enter Microsoft

A small garage-based company called Microsoft produced the first BASIC interpreter for the emerging micro-computers in 1975. It was moderately successful and was available on most micro-computers as standard. The operating system for all these microcomputers was called CP/M and had been created by a company called Digital Research.

In the late 70s/early 80s, Snow White (IBM) decided that maybe there was something in this microcomputer craze and decided to create their own version. The PC was about to be born.

But like most births, it wasn't going to be easy.

They needed an operating system. They'd heard of Microsoft, so approached Bill Gates, got him to sign iron-clad disclosure agreements (no one was to know about IBM's slightly embarrasing foray into "little" computers) and asked if they could buy CP/M from him.

Bill said "Umm... sorry guys, but CP/M isn't our product, you need to talk to Digital Research."

Now this story may be apocryphal, but some swear it's true.

We Are IBM. We're Really Important

Due to a mix-up over appointments, the IBM guys, complete in their IBM uniforms of blue suits and red ties (and I can swear from personal experience that this is true) showed up at Digital Research only to find that the CEO wasn't there. He was off in the wild blue yonder flying his private plane.

They looked at each other and said "Well this isn't good enough. We are IBM. We are really important people."

So what did they do?

They went back to Bill Gates and said we don't like Digital Research, how would you like to develop an operating system for us?

Well, Bill thought it over for about .0000001 microseconds and said "Sure, why not?"

That was the start of Microsoft's success.

MS-DOS The Start of an ERA

They developed the operating system for the yet to be announced IBM PC and called it PC-DOS. But...

They didn't sell it to IBM. They licensed it and then created a totally owned generic version called MS-DOS.

Bill Gate's big fear at this time was that IBM's bean counters would redline the project as not worthwhile. Pay off Microsoft and get back to building real computers.

Microsoft had a different vision.

You see, IBM had released the PC as open architecture, This meant that any company with the engineering expertise to build an S100 bus and hang a handful of compatible stuff off it could build an "IBM PC Compatible Computer".

Microsoft's (read Bill Gate's) genius was to redefine "IBM compatible" as meaning "Runs MS-DOS".

The PC Compatible

Suddenly,every PC sold was running PC-DOS but more importantly every PC compatible, which were soon far outstripping the original IBM PC. was running MS-DOS. And Microsoft was raking in millions in royalties.

Suddenly, Microsoft was a major player.

Fast forward a few years. Microsoft is established in the PC world. Rank Xerox has created an entirely new concept called Smalltalk. It's a graphical user interface (GUI) destined to become the future of user-friendly operating systems.

With the help of Microsoft, a new upstart computer company called Apple (silly name, can't succeed, right?) develops a GUI operating system with its new Macintosh computer.

Computer geeks freak over it. But fortunately for Microsoft, the Mac hardly runs any decent applications and so remains on the outskirts.

OS/2 The New Operating System

Microsoft and IBM, who are still major business partners, decide to build the next GUI that will dominate the desktop operating systems into the future. They call it OS/2.

But then, for some reasons never entirely made clear, IBM and Microsoft fall out of bed and IBM goes it alone on OS/2.

IBM makes a huge marketing mistake. They release OS/2 at the same time as their new desktop computer, the PS/2 in 1987. Although it's not true, in the public's mind the two are inextricably entwined and when the PS/2 fails in the marketplace, so does OS/2. Many of the PS/2's features become commonplace, including the 3.5" floppy disk and the VGA (later SVGA) video standard.

The Rising Dominance of Windows

In the meantime, Microsoft rushed Windows 1.0 into production. Unlike OS/2, it wasn't a true operating system. It was actually an app running under MS-DOS. It was seriously awful. Then they released Windows 1.1. It was better. Enough to get users onside.

But as Bill Gates said back in 1984 "Our strategies and energies as a company are totally committed to Windows" and this culminated in the release of the first true native Windows operating system Windows 95, in August 1995. Codenamed Chicago, it was released with a marketing fanfare never before seen for computer software.

We are now up to Windows 10, having suffered the seriously awful Windows 8 and its repair, Windows 9.

But it nearly didn't happen at all.

Join the Discussion
Write something…
Recent messages
Suzay Premium
Seems to mean that you should never, never, ever give up.
Great story, of stuff I previously knew not! Even though my roots were in Boulder, Colorado, a IBM stronghold. Workers and time clockers' are plentiful, innovators are rarer than finest Tsavorites.

I'm following you, Mr. Phil 1944. Don't know what I can share with you, but I have been strengthened by what I read from you tonight, and how you welcome the alchemy element of challenge to make change via masterminding.
The path through life IS THE OBSTACLES, and figuring out, working out, overcoming them to come over them.
Thank you so very much.