Langa Letter: It's Curtains For Windows 95 - InformationWeek

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12/11/2002
07:52 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
Commentary
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Langa Letter: It's Curtains For Windows 95

Fred Langa bids farewell to Win95 and Win 3x, two operating systems that literally changed the world but will no longer be supported by Microsoft.

PC Users' Secret Envy
Posturing aside, there were some things about the Mac that many PC users held in secret envy: For example, the Mac offered a simple, easy way to see on-screen how your documents would look when they were printed: It was called WYSIWYG computing--pronounced whizzy-wig, and meaning What You See Is What You Get.

For some users, especially those involved in graphic arts, WYSIWYG operation alone was worth every penny of the Mac's extra costs. For others, the ease of use of the Mac made the high prices worthwhile--instead of typing in a textual command to the operating system, all you had to do was point and click on whatever you wanted to work on.

Were it not for the Mac's high price, many more users would have left the DOS world without a backward glance.

But then three things happened. First, PC clone prices went into freefall when a number of Asian industries--notably in Taiwan--began churning out PC components en masse: Computer parts that had been rare and expensive suddenly became cheap commodities.

Second, Apple decided to actively prohibit any other hardware vendor from producing inexpensive clones of the Mac: If you wanted a Mac, you had to buy it from Apple, at the inflated prices Apple dictated. (This was referred to as Apple's "boutique pricing," and was in sharp contrast to the increasingly commodity pricing of PCs.) But Apple felt safe in pursuing this path because it had the only commercially successful GUI: It had a lock on the GUI market.

But then, in 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0. It wasn't as good as a Mac, not by a long shot. But it brought many of the best elements of the Mac's point-and-click, WYSIWYG interface and operation to a much less expensive, ubiquitous hardware platform. In short, it brought Mac-like capabilities out of the boutique and into the mainstream.

Windows 3.0's Feedback Loop
I was the editor in chief of BYTE magazine in 1990, and when Microsoft released Windows 3.0, I wrote an editorial stating that the new operating system was likely to change the face of computing: Users could take a generic PC that cost anywhere from 33% to 50% less than a Mac, install Windows 3.0 on it, and get most of what made a Mac special while still being able to run their older, pure-DOS software. (Windows 3.0 ran on top of DOS, without replacing it.) In short, Windows 3.0 was a way users could get the best of two worlds--a Mac-like GUI on cheap DOS PCs.

At the time, I got some strong criticism because only a single-digit percentage of PCs in the world were running any version of Windows, and Windows 1 and 2 had been like bad jokes. But the combination of a passable GUI on inexpensive PCs proved irresistible to millions, and sales of the new operating system took off. In fact, in 1990, Microsoft became the first software company in history to rack up a billion dollars in annual sales, with Windows 3.0 fueling a huge chunk of those sales.

A positive feedback loop began: Windows 3.0 helped drive PC sales. High sales volumes drove PC component prices down even further, letting vendors either offer more bang for the buck, or offer the same bang for fewer bucks. Thus, PCs became even more affordable, which helped drive further sales of new PCs equipped with Windows 3.0--and on and on and on. The result was plummeting prices for PC hardware, and rapid domination of the operating system market by Windows.

As PC prices dropped, the price/performance gap between PCs and Macs grew even wider. But Apple still did nothing, apparently feeling secure because Windows 3.0 was, at best, still only a rough approximation of the Mac.

While Apple idled, Microsoft began improving Windows. For example, Windows 3.0 gained what were then called multimedia extensions in 1991, bringing support for sound, video, and CD ROMs to the operating system. A year later, Windows 3.1 was released, addressing many of the worst shortcomings in Windows 3.0: It sold something like three million copies in its first eight weeks of availability. Six months later, in the fall of 1992, Windows For Workgroups 3.11 was released, bringing basic network support into the operating system and making Windows PCs natively network-aware.

Over the next two years, Microsoft patched and polished Win3x, and also refined and extended its GUI. (The Win3x GUI ended up grafted onto NT 3.1, for example.) But behind the scenes, Microsoft had an enormous programming effort under way to produce what we would come to know as Windows 95.

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