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Revisiting Windows 1.0: how Microsoft’s first desktop gracefully failed

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Editor’s note: Bill Gates unveiled Windows 1.0 to the world 30 years ago, before finalizing it and shipping it two years later. Now’s a good time to revisit our look at an operating system that helped shape personal computing over the years.

Two years ago today, when Windows 1.0 celebrated its 25th birthday, we didn’t yet know what the future of Windows would hold. Now that Windows 8 is on the market, the original is more relevant than ever before. Today, Windows 1.0 turns 27, and despite the many ways computing has changed since its debut, the two operating systems have some surprising similarities. Let’s take a look at just how far we’ve come since Windows 1.0… and where Microsoft is retracing its own footsteps with the latest version of Windows.

On November 10th, 1983, Microsoft announced Windows. For $99, it came with a notepad, calendar, clock, cardfile, terminal application, file manager, a game of Reversi, Windows Write, and Windows Paint. The original press materials, prepared using Windows Write, had this quote from Bill Gates:

“Windows provides unprecedented power to users today and a foundation for hardware and software advancements of the next few years. It is unique software designed for the serious PC user, who places high value on the productivity that a personal computer can bring.”

Windows 1.0 looked like this:

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John C. Dvorak famously joked that when Microsoft announced Windows, Steve Ballmer still had hair

As chronicled in the December 1983 issue of BYTE Magazine, Windows was an attempt to make the desktop operating system relatively affordable. When most computers were still primarily text-based, the hardware requirements for a desktop operating system were expensive: the Apple Lisa started at nearly $10,000, and a competing Visi On system required an expensive hard disk with a whopping 2.2MB of free space, as well as 512KB of RAM. Windows promised the same features with a pair of cheaper double-sided floppy disk drives instead, and half the memory.

It took two more years for Windows to be released – long enough for the industry to write it off as “vaporware,” a term ironically coined a year earlier by a Microsoft engineer. (Tandy Trower, the product manager who finally shipped the OS, recounts his story here.) Microsoft knew how to laugh at itself, though. On November 20th, 1985, the company shipped the operating system, and the very next evening, Microsoft held a roast for itself at the Comdex expo in Las Vegas. InfoWorld editor Stewart Alsop presented Bill Gates with a Golden Vaporware award, lampooning the missed release dates. John C. Dvorak famously joked that when Microsoft announced Windows, Steve Ballmer still had hair. Microsoft tossed dry ice into buckets of water in a failed attempt (given the dry Las Vegas air) to provide some genuine vapor.

However, shipping Windows wasn’t enough. You see, Windows 1.0 was trying to sell businesses and customers on a radical new paradigm – the graphical user interface (GUI) – at a time when arguably only one company, Apple, had made headway with that environment.* Sound familiar? It should. Now Microsoft is attempting to enter the touchscreen tablet space with Windows 8 and the Surface RT, at a time when arguably only Apple’s iPad has made more than a dent in the marketplace.

And it’s hardly the only parallel. Like Windows 8, the original Windows attempted to simplify computing without jettisoning legacy applications. Where Windows 8 has the familiar desktop waiting beneath its Metro UI, Windows 1.0 ran on top of the popular MS-DOS. In fact, you needed to install Windows 1.0 atop an existing installation of MS-DOS 2.0. Microsoft planned to call the operating system “Interface Manager” until shortly before the 1983 announcement.

Also like Windows 8, the original version of Microsoft’s operating system had a potential problem getting software developers to build for the new paradigm. In November 1983, shortly after the Windows reveal, InfoWorld’s John Markoff rooted out an issue right away: a significant number of programs would “misbehave” in the windowed mode, and take up the entire screen. The New York Times questioned the value of windowed environments, period, in a 1984 editorial. When InfoWorld asked IT managers at a number of companies about whether they would adopt Windows in February 1986, these were the replies they received.

Then as now, companies seemed happy enough with what they had, and worried about how Windows might have a fragmented user experience if software manufacturers don’t follow standards. Then as now, critics suggested that users would really want extra hardware (then, a mouse; now, a touchscreen) in order to get the most out of the operating system. 27 years later, Windows 8 has the challenge of selling Live Tiles and touchscreens to people who don’t necessarily need them to stay competitive. Then, Microsoft promised that Windows sales would be a “slow burn.” We may be there again.

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LIKE WINDOWS 8, THE ORIGINAL WINDOWS ATTEMPTED TO SIMPLIFY COMPUTING WITHOUT JETTISONING LEGACY APPLICATIONS
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"Running Windows on a PC with 512K of memory is akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic."

And amusingly enough, part of that new UI is a tiled interface that directly hearkens back to its ancestor. You’re probably familiar with how you can drag windowed programs on top of one another so that they overlap, yes? That functionality was removed from Windows 1.0 by the time it shipped. Instead, applications would appear tiled, each one automatically resizing itself to fit the available space. Stories differ as to whether that was a conscious decision by Microsoft or whether a secret agreement with Apple caused them to remove overlapping windows, but the overlap returned in Windows 2.0 and sparked an Apple lawsuit along the way. And yet, Windows 8 brings back the tiled interface with Windows Snap, and not all apps are functional when resized to smaller proportions. No wonder the Windows logo is back to square one.

Windows 1.0 launched to optimistic but middling reviews, and didn’t end up fulfilling its promise to be an affordable, powerful OS. Popular Science liked the idea, but called it relatively slow, noting that “it takes up to 15 seconds to switch from one program to another.” Multitasking was a memory hog, too: “my 640-kilobyte computer couldn’t hold more than two medium-sized programs in memory at once,” complained the publication. Creative Computing worried about the dearth of compatible graphics cards, and was uncertain whether Windows was a valuable upgrade over DOS. InfoWorld led with the headline “Windows Requires Too Much Power” and gave it a 4.5 (out of 10) score. “It makes such intense demands on the computer’s processing power that it’s just not appropriate for an ordinary 8088-based IBM PC or compatible,” wrote the publication. And The New York Times said that “running Windows on a PC with 512K of memory is akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic.” It turned out that you really did need that extra memory and that expensive hard disk drive to run Windows at a reasonable pace, and some even suggested a RAM disk like Intel’s Above Board.

It took two more versions of Windows for the operating system to catch on.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves, though: in the 80s, the PC industry was a wild west, and those days are long gone. The issues that stymied Windows 1.0 when Microsoft was young won’t necessarily block today’s operating system from success, not when every major computer company is churning out compatible Windows 8 machines and the appeal of touchscreens has already been proven. In 1985, Windows 1.0 launched into a market about to boom, one that was just waiting for the right operating system to unify a host of different computer hardware. There were several competing platforms, and one of them could have stood up. But if Windows 8 fails, there will still be a huge number of computers waiting for the next version of the now-familiar operating system. Unless you believe that the PC itself will make way for mobile devices, of course.

*The Xerox Star, VisiCorp’s Visi On, IBM’s TopView and Digital Research’s GEM were also-rans. Allegedly, Bill Gates saw a demo of Visi On at Comdex 1982, and was originally inspired to develop Windows for fear of losing IBM's business to Visi On instead.

The Verge
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