The Ones That Didn’t Make It: Windows’ Failed Rivals

A quarter century ago, a new package called Windows faced some pretty daunting competition.

By  |  Monday, November 22, 2010 at 5:37 am

Microsoft shipped Windows 1.0 on November 20th, 1985. Twenty-five years and two days later, it’s not just hard to remember an era in which Windows wasn’t everywhere–it’s also easy to forget that it wasn’t a given that it would catch on, period.

The company had announced the software in November of 1983, before most PC users had ever seen a graphical user interface or touched the input device known as a mouse. But by the time Windows finally shipped two years later, after a series of embarrassing delays, it had seemingly blown whatever first-mover advantage it might have had. At least four other major DOS add-ons that let users run multiple programs in “windows” had already arrived.

In a pattern that Microsoft would repeat with later products, though, it managed to make being late to the party work in its advantage. For one thing, Windows’ super-premature announcement left those four earlier packages competing with it even though it didn’t actually exist yet; many people sensibly postponed buying any “windowing” environment until it was clear how things would pan out.

For another, most of the developers of the earliest Windows rivals shot themselves in the foot, usually more than once: They released products that required cutting-edge machines which few people owned, or got ensnared in lawsuits, or failed to get third-party developers on board. Just as several of them were running out of steam, Windows arrived on the scene. And even though it didn’t gain traction for nearly another half a decade, that was okay; nothing else became a hit in the interim.

“Our approach is that there is only going to be one winner,” InfoWorld quoted Microsoft marketing honcho Steve “Bulmer” as saying in November of 1983, shortly after Windows was announced. The publication got his name wrong, but he couldn’t have been more right about the market.

For the purposes of this roundup of Windows rivals, I considered only environments which were designed to run on IBM-compatible PCs, and which (like pre-1995 versions of Windows) ran on top of DOS rather than replaced it. (That’s why the Mac OS and OS/2, for instance, aren’t here.) I also cover only products released in 1990 or before; once Windows 3.0 was released, Microsoft’s package became a juggernaut and attempts to compete with it largely ended.

That still leaves half-a-dozen significant Windows rivals. They may have failed to compete with Microsoft, but they were all interesting failures. And on Windows’ 25th anniversary, they deserve to be remembered.

Visi On

Publisher: VisiCorp

Debuted: December 1983, a year and eleven months before Windows

Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: If pure prescience and ambition could ensure a product’s success, Visi On would have been a blockbuster. The follow-up to VisiCalc–the first spreadsheet and the young industry’s biggest hit to date–Visi On was the first full-blown windowing environment for PCs. It had a mouse-driven (although text-based rather than graphical) interface. And VisiCorp supplied a full suite of integrated apps–required, since it didn’t run DOS apps–that included Visi On Word, Visi On Calc, and Visi On Graph. People who saw early demos were reportedly so blown away that some of them thought it was running on an artfully-concealed minicomputer rather than a PC.

What the critics said: “In summary, the VisiOn system is a milestone in personal computing software. Like many other milestones, it both points the way towards the future and falls far short of it.”–Thomas Bonoma, Softalk

The publisher called it: “a ‘boss’ who instructs the computer on how to deal with the specific applications you want to work with…Since all these applications work for the same boss, they all work the same way. Learn to use one, and you’ve essentially learned to use them all.”

What happened: What didn‘t happen? VisiCorp thought it would be able to get Visi On running on floppy-based PCs, but by the time it shipped it required 2.2MB of hard-disk space, in an era when a PC with two floppy drives was considered luxurious. Buying all the software and the mouse cost a stiff $1765. And at the same time the company was trying to get Visi On off the ground, it was beset with legal and financial woes–VisiCalc creator Software Arts was suing it, and Lotus 1-2-3 was rendering VisiCalc obsolete. Reviews of Visi On were mixed at best: InfoWorld was respectful, but pointed out that the spreadsheet was harder to use than VisiCalc and forty times slower at recalculating a large spreadsheet. In August of 1984, VisiCorp sold Visi On development rights to Control Data; three months later, it sold itself to a company called Paladin; by early 1986, weeks after Windows was released, Visi On was already effectively dead.

TopView

Publisher: IBM

Debuted: February 1985, ten months before Windows 1.0

Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: TopView began as an IBM research product around 1980–before the IBM PC had reached the market. It was announced in August of 1984 at the same time as IBM’s powerful PC AT, and was intended to leverage that machine’s potent technical capabilities. (It required 512KB of RAM and two floppy drives, fairly imposing specs at the time.)  Rather than requiring all-new graphical applications, TopView was designed to run DOS programs, but third-party developers could also write “TopView-aware” apps that took advantage of its advanced capabilities. Pundits wondered whether it was designed to eventually supplant DOS, making it harder for third-party PC manufacturers to compete with IBM.

What the critics said: “I was impressed by the concept and IBM’s demonstrations, but, after using the recently released product, I’m less enthusiastic.”–Larry Magid, Los Angeles Times

The publisher called it: “[a] new kind of software program that lets you run and ‘window’ several other programs at once.”

What happened: Like Windows, TopView was announced and hyped well before it was ready. Two months after it finally hit the market, InfoWorld’s John C. Dvorak was already comparing it to the PC Jr.; few developers bothered to write TopView-aware software, configuring stock DOS apps to run with the package was notoriously tricky, and IBM reportedly sold only a few hundred copies a month. In August of 1985, Big Blue signed a deal with Microsoft to develop operating systems together, and the tech press immediately began speculating that the agreement marked the end of the road for TopView. (The IBM-Microsoft arrangement eventually led to the creation of OS/2, which shipped in December of 1987.) TopView wasn’t officially discontinued until mid-1990, but by that point just about everyone who found the idea intriguing had switched to Quarterdeck’s DESQview.

GEM

Publisher: Digital Research

Debuted: February 1985, ten months before Windows 1.0

Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: By the mid-1980s, Digital Research was famous mostly as the company whose CP/M operating system was displaced in the market by Microsoft’s CP/M knockoff MS-DOS. But it got a chance to start fresh with GEM (Graphical Environment Manager). The package beat Windows to the market and looked far more like Apple’s groundbreaking Macintosh. The company also released an array of productivity apps for its environment, such as GEM WordChart; one very popular third-party app, Ventura Publisher, ran on top of a run-time edition of GEM. A modified version of GEM also served as the interface for Atari’s ST line of computers.

What the critics said: “…offers IBM PC users a Macintosh interface.”–Keith Thompson, InfoWorld

The publisher called it: “…not just software. It’s a movement.”

What happened: GEM ran into trouble almost immediately; shortly after its release, Apple sued over its Mac-like look, forcing Digital Research to release a new, less elegant edition. It never managed to give Windows serious competition, but it did muddle along into the 1990s, along with Digital Research’s MS-DOS workalike DR-DOS. Novell, which bought Digital Research in 1991, thought DR-DOS had potential but didn’t do much of anything with GEM. Still, the software was open-sourced in 1999 and continues to exist, at least sort of, as FreeGEM and OpenGEM.

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38 Comments For This Post

  1. IronHelixx Says:

    No Mention of IBM's OS/2 either

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    I do briefly explain why I don't cover OS/2–it was, as the name suggests, an OS. This particular story is about environments that sat on top of DOS rather than replacing it.

    But one of these days, I really ought to give the OS/2 saga a story of its own…

    –Harry

  3. boethius Says:

    Good points. The ST line definitely found something of a niche in the music / MIDI industry in particular. My brother-in-law developed Atari software with some buddies and I went to a few Atari conventions with him. It was clear even back in the 80s and early 90s though the ST/TT line was decidedly a fringe system. The conventions, even those where Atari itself had a presence, had the feel of a gun or comic show. The ST was certainly way ahead of its time – the games were vastly superior to the PC games of the era – and its multimedia capabilities were amazing, but there was no oomph in the Atari organization. The ST/TT and Jaguar – I recall my brother-in-law pinning his hopes on the Jag as the Tramiel-era Atari's last gasp – really were just subsumed by inferior products. Whatever business acumen Jack Tramiel had used to build Commodore into a computing giant he seemed to have largely misplaced it with Atari. That or it simply turned out to be impossible to compete with the PC juggernaut. It probably took the PC at least 10 years to catch up graphically to where the Atari and Amiga line had been.

  4. Carson Says:

    Breadbox Ensemble would be weird enough in 2010 even as a free download–but they want $100 for it!

  5. mike Says:

    I guess OS/2 isn't completely dead but i agree that its odd to not mention it as its at the very least dead as a windows competitor. I always preferred the windows environment, but that desqview and os/2 could do actual multitasking made them way more useful no matter how ugly they were. try running multinode bbs's on windows 3.xx. Anything other than the active window just went to sleep and wouldnt answer incoming calls. fail.

    also its worth pointing out that deskmate in all its blue and yellow ugliness was the first GUI that i can remember that had "live" icons for minimized windows. seeing useful information in an app when its minimized is all the rage these days but deskmate had it 20 years ago.

  6. bananasfk Says:

    Qemm was good and cheap even in europe despite the 'then' pricing issues, and regional features issues. – i had a license for that, Desqview on the other hand was expensive which i remember i had to buy in the us as well as nobody i knew sold it. It seemed a luxury.

    Running one program at time back then did not seem that bad on 386 without a coprocessor

  7. G. E. Sutton Says:

    I used Geos on my C64 and it was great. I still think that if it had a HDD and I didn't have to constantly swap 5.25" disks, I would have been on my C64 for more years than I was. As it happened I eventually bought a 386 with DeskMate. Tandy was developing relationships with top software developers to create DeskMate branded versions of their software and I bought into the idea (DeskMate had home automation and other features that fed into the hardware hacker mentality that once represented their core customer base). When Tandy dropped DeskMate, I demanded and received a Tandy branded version of Windows 3.0; I still have the diskettes as a curiosity.

  8. aTmosh Says:

    This kind of article is bound to famously miss AmigaOS. Introduced 5 months before Windows (July 1985), it was technologically a decade or so ahead of all of the above as its windowing system wasn't a bolted on afterthought but fully graphical and hardware accelerated from the ground up (running on cheaper and faster hardware than IBM or clones of the time, 4096 colours, 4 channel audio vs. PC beep etc.). It had a messaging based microkernel sporting fully preemptive multitasking (with a GUI that always had priority so didn't freeze when you formatted a floppy in the background, for example), running all that in 256 KB of memory. It had many other technical advantages one could discuss at length, and both Apple and Microsoft were utterly scared of it until it turned out Commodore management would always manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, so why is it routinely omitted from history?

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    I did a whole epic story on the Amiga to celebrate its 25th a few months ago:
    http://technologizer.com/2010/07/23/amiga/

  10. Johan Says:

    You're absolutely right. AmigaOS was way ahead of Windows. It was only in 1995 with Windows 95 that Windows had something that could compete with AmigaOS. It was only then that I was willing to invest in a PC. Before my Amiga 512 I had a Commodore 64.
    Windows was good for employability, but it took the fun out of computing. Mac OS X and linux brought it back.

  11. Nige Says:

    But that's an OS. This article is about windowing systems that run on top of DOS. It doesn't mention MacOS, RISCOS etc for the same reason.

  12. Todd Says:

    What's with this repeated comment about "two floppy drives" being something special? All but the cheapest PC-type computers had dual floppy drives (usually one used for software, the other for data). The only exception were PCs with a hard drive instead, which was a perfectly suitable substitute for that second floppy if you wanted to use any of the software being described here. It was the fact that most of these (effectively) required a hard drive (not a second floppy) to be useful that kept them out of reach of some users… but then, so did Windows 1.0.

  13. Pedro Portugal Says:

    Damn, I love these reports about the past. Weird how fast computers evolved. We are not even talking about 15 years since Win 95 came out – the first usable multitasking operating system.
    I used to have DESQview also and it was great on my Unisys 386

  14. Doug V Says:

    What about BeOS?

  15. K-fan Says:

    The section on VisiOn missed its major problem. VisiOn was designed to only run on a genuine IBM XT with CGA. Can you guess what happened a few months later when the IBM AT was released? That's right, VisiOn didn't run. VisiOn's demise was inevitable.

  16. f0lix Says:

    Nice to find out that Microsoft wasn't the only one; everyone at the time was building a GUI, busy copying Xerox and Apple. And maybe some of them missed to catch a fortune just by an inch (the one that Ballmer, Gates and Allen claimed).
    Being a prime DOS vendor did help MS with marketing (providing a cash to market Windows) and better ability to reach users, so I still think that a deal with IBM was a factor that put them on top (and they were smart to use the advantage).

  17. perivision Says:

    You know what would be fun… run a few of the DOS top OS's on the iPad. They got DOSPad to work on the ipad and iphone 3gs /4. I'm thinking of GEOs specifically. http://www.perivision.net/wordpress/tag/dos-emula

  18. Johan Says:

    GEOS existed before 1990. I remember using it on my Commodore 64 and that must have been 1987 or 1988.

  19. Chris Says:

    GEOS had a real chance initially – I remember using it and liking it more than Windows 3.0. However, with Windows I could write programs! Microsoft went out of their way to get devs going. GEOS kept promising a dev kit, then … nothing. And when they finally released any addon, it was – a clock?!? In the meantime Windows has software from 3rd parties coming out the wazoo.

    A fixed environment that effectively never changes vs. one with an active and growing ecosystem is never going to win out.

  20. David Given Says:

    I've got the dev kit — I used to code for it. It was a nightmare. Code was written in an enhanced C called GOC that used a slightly preprocessor to add object-oriented features, and was then compiled using Borland C and before being fed to a custom linker. The debugger was hideous and required a serial connection to another PC to work. The APIs themselves had a learning curve like a cliff; aside from the weird object system, the software-based virtual memory system meant that any storage was referred to by handle, which had to be locked/unlocked/dirtied to tell the OS to load and write back the data. It was all layers upon layers upon layers, and I never did get them all sorted out.

    That said, it was incredibly capable. Threads, outline fonts, vector graphics, late bound objects, arbitrary component-based document embedding — the standard GEOS word processor, vector graphics, bitmaps graphics and spreadsheet apps were all just front ends onto the universal document system. You could paint in the word processor, embed spreadsheets into vector drawings, and so on, and the OS would seamlessly handle storing all this data, including undo, in a single document file.

    Alas, it was all intrinsically tied to the x86 architecture; the clever tricks that made it work all relied on 16-bit segmented assembly. The 386 was the GEOS' death knell. Late on, they desperately tried rewriting it for ARM, but by then it was too late.

    If anyone's interested, you can see my apps (including the source code) here: http://www.cowlark.com/geos-software/

  21. @chipotlecoyote Says:

    Ah, DeskMate. What a weird program. It actually existed for the TRS-80 Model 4, too, in a relatively capable form. Although like the C64/128 version of GEOS, that's clearly out of the scope defined for this article, just like Amiga OS, and my favorite dearly departed OS of years gone by, BeOS — the article did start out by saying that it was only considering programs that, like Windows all through its 16-bit days, ran on top of DOS.

    (Speaking of TRS-80s, I'm still curious if the Harry McCracken of Technologizer is the same Harry McCracken of a few TRS-80 text adventures — one of which I still have the source code for, in a barely-holding-together copy of "Captain 80's Book of BASIC Adventures." Seriously.)

  22. Mario Jean Says:

    Enough about failed rival, now we can make them succeed by donation. If you liked BeOS give $5 to it's recreation project (almost finished) at http://www.haiku-inc.org/donations.html

  23. Rev Egg Plant Says:

    I don't even see a mention of WordPerfect's Office Menu companion product to its word processor that was popular back in the late 80s, early 90s. I used that interface at a hand rehab clinic while transcribing notes to pop out of WordPerfect using its macro/merge document language, knock out some entries in a Lotus 123 spreadsheet, export a graphic chart, then pop back into the WordPerfect document and import the graphic. I miss those days of just composing merge docs and macros to complete our patients' progress notes, initial evaluations, functional capacity evaluations, etc., cutting my time for transcribing each of them down by an order of magnitude. Hooray for boilerplate text!

  24. Timothy Says:

    Aston-Tate also had a windowing environment packaged with its office suite. It was called Framework. Its descendant is still around. At the time Framework wasn't particularly open to third party applications, but there were a few plug-ins and such as I recall.

  25. Harry McCracken Says:

    Framework needs to be written about. I believe it was the package a wise boss of mine was referring to when he came up with the rule that you should never be impressed by a product if you've only seen it demoed by its inventor.

    –Harry

  26. Donald Says:

    What the article fails to mention is that PC/GEOS from Berkley Software was the equivalent of
    Windows 95 AND Microsoft Office in one package!!! Not only did you get the graphical interface,
    but a word processor, spreadsheet, drawing program, etc., etc.!

    The only thing it didn't include was a disk operating system, which is now available in several freeware versions which do the functions of MSDOS.

  27. Michael Reed Says:

    Some of the people commenting seem to have forgotten that the writer clearly specified that he was limiting himself to a discussion of environments that ran on top of DOS. That excludes AmigaOS and OS/2.

  28. Collins Says:

    It's also worth mentioning that GEOS was later used as the OS for Nokia 9000 Communicator, a PC and phone hybrid in palmtop form factor sporting a variant of Intel's 80386 CPU. Gotta tell you, that thing is still a real beauty even today.

  29. tired_of_net_BS Says:

    The author is attempting to portray Windows as a winner by comparing it against crappy DOS bolt-ons.
    Happily avoiding all the GUI based alternative around at the time, with far better graphics and certainly better usability than a crummy PC could offer.

    Take off your rose-tinted glasses. Microsoft is crap and always has been, and will be.

  30. SonOfDad Says:

    So a company that survived them all you would define as a…. ? Its an article of winners and loosers. Not about good or bad OS.

  31. Helen Says:

    Great article – lovely reminders to some that "didn't make it"!

  32. funazonki Says:

    This does miss the real story – which is why Windows survived when alternatives like CTOS didn't. CTOS had features in 1980 that Microsoft didn't get even close to till the mid 90's; true multi-tasking, virtualized IO, diskless OS, OS written almost entirely in a high level language (not C gobbledygook either), fully integrated networking, you plugged it in and it found the network and configured itself, and a fully WYSIWYG word processor that never lost so much as a keystroke. I suppose you could consider later versions of NT equivalent, even then the complexity of NT versus the simplicity of CTOS is almost laughable.

  33. Ray Kopczynski Says:

    Prior to its formal public release, I spen many-many hours beta-testing the GOESO "Ensemble" package as it was being ported from the C64. Some folks will remember that immdediately prior to AOL using Windows, it used GEOS… Some companies were actually using GEOS as their O/S of choice. I remember being in awe of my XT actually being able to multitask [albeit slowly] as it wase "time-slicing" the minmal memory it had to do a game, do word processing, drawing a graphic one-line-at-a-time, and be on line with my 1200b modem. I was fortuitous enough to be one of the Georeps in in the online forums on AOL — and have very fond memories of that time. I *still* have/use my AOL email name: [email protected]

    Ray Kopczynski
    Albany, OR

  34. Erick Says:

    Lol… does it say "Multiple apps are –ruinning– at the same time" on the Visi On snapshot??? Maybe that's why it didn't make it to the next level… 😀

  35. Gabriel Says:

    Love these feature articles. I remember DESQview and how difficult it was to try and multitask efficiently on a 14-inch monitor. It's funny how primitive all of these environments look compared to what they were doing on the Amiga at the time.

  36. Tom B Says:

    Windows is the Coelecanth; hopelessly primitive, but still swimming. The fact that they have survived without the enormous advantages UNIX-based OS's (LINUX, OSX) is a testament to the low demands and high inertia inherent in the Enterprise environment.

  37. Christophe de Dinechin Says:

    What impressed me the most with Geos is that it had vector-based fonts throughout. You could scale them to any size, and they were still smooth. At the time, doing the same on Windows or the Mac required third-party plug-ins from Adobe (Adobe Type Manager).

    Also, it allowed long filenames on DOS files, something that wouldn't arrive on Windows until 1995.

    I think it failed mostly because there were no third-party apps.

  38. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Considering that Windows has ~90% market share in PCs, there weren't really ANY competitors that "made it". Think of having one car company and >90% of consumers drive its auto's. Same thing.