(Originally posted to the internet December 23, 1999)
The anti-trust lawsuit underway by the Department of Justice against Microsoft has brought the bickering between pro-Microsoft and anti-Microsoft camps into the spotlight. As always, the anti's say MS is an evil empire that has the intention of crushing all the other companies, who happen to be the innovators that MS stole all their ideas from. On the other side, the pro's claim MS is an innovator of their own, and that without Microsoft, the computing world would be too complicated for the average user. I heard the latter argument myself recently, which is what finally triggered me to vent my frustration into this column.
Well, not every company besides Microsoft innovates. Other companies steal ideas from each other every day. And there are (rare) occasions when Microsoft itself actually does innovate.
But what I am going to present here is why the computing world would be no different -- or, rather, no worse, because it could certainly have turned out better -- if Microsoft had never existed. In fact, the only achievement I think Bill Gates deserves praise for was developing BASIC on the Altair 8800.
Which, nicely enough, was his first achievement. Together with Paul Allen, Bill Gates designed the first programming environment for the first major PC. Of course, it required more memory than the Altair shipped with, which required MITS to invent a memory expansion kit just to run it. (Yes, the forefather of modern bloatware, from none other than the company who has made bloatware a household word these days.) Anyway, before their BASIC environment came along, the Altair was not for just anyone - programming was done in machine code using switches and LEDs on the front panel, and there wasn't even an operating system. Afterwards, it was vastly easier to program and use the Altair, which meant more people could use it... and the home computer revolution was born.
Bill Gates did some other similar projects over the years, but by then, other people had taken his example. Most new home computers started shipping with BASIC standard (occasionally, they contracted Gates/Microsoft to write it, too). With the ease-of-use question out of the way, the market was proliferating with cheaper, faster, more colorful computers. Computer giants like Atari, TI, Sinclair, Apple, and Commodore all had machines on the market that were fairly close in specs. Some were cheaper, some had better expansion capabilities, some were smaller and lighter, etc. But there wasn't a real clear edge.
Somewhere along the line, IBM decided to get into the thick of things, and rolled out the IBM Personal Computer. They too needed an OS for their machine, and Digital Research was behind in their schedule for releasing CPM/86. But Microsoft had the answer: 86-DOS. formerly known as QDOS - QD stood for "Quick and Dirty." Microsoft hadn't even created QDOS, the had bought it from Seattle Computer Products. The IBM PC became a hit among businesses, simply because of the brand name.
Then, Xerox finished some research on a new-fangled graphical user iterface, and had assembled a system called the Star to show it off. Xerox cancelled the commercialization of the Star,though, so it wasn't until Steve Jobs of Apple visited one day that it actually affected the computer market. He became bent on making a computer with a next-generation operating system that was vastly easier to use than the command-line BASIC systems before it. After a failed start on the overprised Lisa series, it finally came to market with the Macintosh.
The computer for the masses. No combersome command-line interface. It, like the Star, used the window-icon-pointer system, with a simple one-button mouse. And the other companies had a hard time taking it seriously.
Microsoft, for example, laughed it down. By now, Bill Gates was living by the guiding principle that one day every computer in the world would run software from Microsoft. And he was developing the "evil empire" characteristics he is so famous for now, even back then.
It was now the mid-80's. The Macintosh wasn't the only GUI in town anymore. The Amiga and the Atari ST were unvieled, both with features that put them above any other computer around. And a few PC/Clone companies were getting some ideas about making a graphical front-end interface on top of Microsoft's DOS. It wasn't until Gates saw one of these interfaces being demoed at a trade show that he finally took the GUI seriously. And then, he set out to do what he does best.
Scrambling to outdo the competition, Microsoft threw together Windows 1.0, the second windowing interface released for MS-DOS. And, of course, since Microsoft owned DOS, it was fairly easy to outmanuever the competition. Just change a couple commands here, a few API calls there... Eventually, Windows 3 rolled around, with an overhauled GIU based on VGA graphics (remember, all PCs had when Windows 1 came out was 4-color CGA), which was much closer to the Star and the other GUIs of the time. So far, it was just playing catch-up.
Now it was time to actually make something better. So what does Microsoft do? It joins with IBM in developing OS/2. However, IBM and Microsoft just couldn't live with each other, and they broke the cooperation effort. A court ruled that both companies could take the current joint code and use it as their own, but only IBM could use the OS/2 trademark. Shortly afterwards, Microsoft released their version: Windows NT.
WinNT is nothing like OS/2 now, of course, because it's been through years of changes. The new NT5.0 has a new kernel, too -- naturally, it isn't a kernel Microsoft wrote either, it's one they licensed from DEC. They made WinNT 32-bit (again, playing catch-up to the other 'modern' OSes) and slowly incorporated some of it's features back into the old Windows for Windows 4.0, what we know now as Windows95. And now, after years of promising, Microsoft is finally replacing the DOS/Windows series with OS/2,..er, Windows NT.
So far, I fail to see any real innovation on Microsoft's part. I also fail to see why computing would be any worse now than if Microsoft weren't around. Even if a better OS than QDOS hadn't been chosen, graphical front-ends were being created for it before Microsoft ever started. OS/2 would have been there as the next age, with or without Microsoft. And even if that hadn't happened, much better OSes were already around on the Amiga, Atari, and Macintosh. There was enough competition there that they would have continued to bring about new features and advancements, had Commodore and Atari not been driven out of business.
Yes, Commodore and Atari had some real innovators in their crew. Well, more appropriately, Atari had them, and then they left and went to Amiga, which was bought by Commodore. Jay Miner is one in particular, for without him computer graphics might be generations behind where they are today. Without the minds behind the Amiga OS, like Carl Sassenrath, the PC world would not have had the example of excellence to look up to for the decade that they took to equal it. That, my friends, is innovation and worthy of honor.
Let's take a look somewhere else. Say... Browsers and Java. It starts at the NCSA, where Mosaic was born as the first graphical WWW browser. It was free, being developed by college students by grants. Some of the people graduated and got capitalistic, and started their own companies to continue development of their own browsers.
One of these was Netscape. Netscape took the HTML language and made some enhancements to it, most of which were integrated into HTML 2 and HTML 3.2. The main problem with what they did was that there was already a HTML standard, and new standards were being released through the W3C. Netscape's additions set the precident for incompatibilities among the vendors - which is the problem below.
Meanwhile, Microsoft bought another company's browser and renamed it Internet Explorer. They did some development to it, but it was buggy and feature-less even at version 2.0. But Gates didn't care, because he didn't realize the Web was anything important.
In fact, it wasn't until Netscape reached version 3.0, which included Sun's brand-new platform-independant Java, that Microsoft took notice. All the sudden, Java was a buzzword. Now you could write a program with Java, and you could run it on almost any computer platform there was. And you could even use it across the web to create new interactive media. This made Microsoft nervous. Over the last many years, Microsoft had thrived on the self-perpetuating cycle of dominance: since Windows owns most the PC market share, most programs are written for Windows. Since most programs are written for Windows, most people want to run Windows on their computers. Platform-independance was a threat to that. If programs were made to run on any platform, Microsoft would have to actually make Windows a competitive offering to other OSes, or people would just buy the OS that ran Java the best. And considering Java was made by Sun, the possibility that Sun's Solaris OS would be that platform was a guarantee.
Microsoft created new classes for Java that made many things about creating large applications easier. But there was just one problem (or feature) with it. Namely, it tied the application to Windows, or at the least, a platform with one of Microsoft's interpreters, like inside IE3/4 on the Macintosh. And Microsoft made sure to limit how widely they ported IE. Despite claims that they would be more cross-platform supportive than Netscape, IE continues to only have one Unix port, and a poor 16-bit Windows port, while Netscape has a very complete 16-bit Windows version as well as a dozen ports for various Unix platforms.
Again, I really fail to see where they have innovated. It's more desperation here than innovation. Now, sure, Netscape was based entirely upon Mosiac, and they've done some stupid things of their own, but my focus here is on Microsoft. Without Microsoft, we'd still have a great web experience.
I can go on about other markets. Like word processors. I don't see much about Word that makes it any more innovative than WordPerfect. And WordPerfect has been around for as long as Word has. Even on the tiny market of the Amiga, there are some word processors that could stand up to Word, and they don't even directly compete. Where would we be without Word? Probably exactly where we are today.
So, now you see why I don't think too highly of claims that Microsoft is an innovator in the industry. And I also don't understand how Microsoft has done anything good for us that wouldn't have come from someone else anyway.
Computer user since 1985