By Harry McCracken | 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.
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.
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.
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.