Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Windows 95

I got an invitation to the live-via-satellite launch of Windows 95 which was held 15 years ago today.

Prior to that most people used a variation of Windows 3.1. Gaming was a nightmare. Most games ran from DOS and needed a custom boot disk in order to get the right configuration.

I was using IBM's OS2 which was a big improvement. It could run Windows programs from within OS2. You could also set what configuration DOS programs were to have so you could run most games without having to reboot with a special disk. In many ways, Windows 95 was a step back from OS2. Regardless, it overcame so many problems that OS2 became irrelevant overnight.

Windows 95 had four main advances. One was the new GUI featuring a Start Bar which Microsoft still uses. Another was that it allowed long file names. Prior to Windows 95, you were limited to eight characters plus a three character extension. It had a new memory manager which solved the problems with boot disks for games. Finally, it supported networking, out of the box.

It is hard to believe but prior to Windows 95 most PCs were stand-alone. If you wanted to connect to another local PC then you had to install a network card and special drivers. If you wanted to connect with the Internet then you normally needed a modem (which was usually built-in by then) and different drivers. Windows 95 came with network drivers. It also came with drivers for most CD-ROMS and some other common hardware.

Technically, Windows 95 was two products - Windows and DOS. Microsoft decided to package the two of them together to sink OS2 and DR-DOS - a strategy which worked perfectly.

The launch event didn't go perfectly. At one Bill Gates picked a couple of people from the crowd at Microsoft and sent them off to install Windows 95. This was supposed to show how easy it was. When they checked on the installers a while later they said that everything went perfectly but you could see that one of them had gotten the Blue Screen of Death.

With Windows 95, Microsoft squelched its competitors. I already mentioned DR-DOS and OS2. It also took over the office suit world. Prior to Windows 95, most people used Word Perfect and Lotus 1-2-3 for their word processor and spreadsheet. The Windows launch was delayed for more than a year. During that time, corporate purchases dropped. Businesses did not want to buy new software that would be obsolete as soon as the next operating system came out. Microsoft had deeper pockets than it competitors and could handle the lag in sales better.

When Windows 95 finally did come out, a new Office 95 suite was released at the same time. There was a long list of programs written for Windows 3.1 that did not run perfectly on Windows 95. Rather than waiting for new versions of the programs, many businesses switched to Microsoft. Consultants recommended that this was the only safe approach.

In 1994 Microsoft was the dominant desktop operating system vendor but was, at best, second place in office suites. By 1998 it was a near-monopoly in operating system and office software, all because of Windows 95.

Late in 1995 it became obvious that Microsoft had missed something important - the World Wide Web. Windows 95 came with a buggy web browser. Most people used Netscape instead. Somehow Bill Gates had become so focused on upcoming technology that he missed the importance of the existing Internet. In his book, The Road Ahead, he only mentioned the Internet a couple of times.

Back then, Microsoft was nimble. By 1998 they released a new version of Windows. This one had a perfectly good web browser pre-installed. In fact, Microsoft swore under oath that it was so deeply embedded in the operating system that it could not be removed. Netscape quickly lost market share after that and eventually ended up providing the basis for the free Firefox browser.

Te last few years have not been kind to Microsoft. It has lost desktop market share to Apple and Linux. Firefox is challenging its browser share. The "cloud" has made the operating system irrelevant. It's smart phone operating system, which was originally based on Windows 98, is dated and the replacement is not due out for weeks or months. It had a couple of operating system flops with Windows ME and Vista.

Still, on this anniversary, we can look back fifteen years to when it seemed like Microsoft was unstoppable.

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