The Secret Origin of Windows

Also during this time, Microsoft had acquired a small startup called Dynamical Research, who had built a product competitive to TopView called Mondrian, that enabled Microsoft to commit to IBM’s requirement to support TopView compatibility in the OS/2 development plan. The greatest value of the acquisition was in the people that came into the company including Nathan Myhrvold, who eventually became Microsoft’s chief software architect and started Microsoft’s research organization. But there were many other great contributors including a guy by the name of David Weise who figured out a clever trick to use extended memory on PCs.

Back then, Intel’s processors only provided 640KB of contiguous address space for applications, but clever programming could break through this limitation. Lotus and Intel were already collaborating on a way to do this (which would give Lotus 1-2-3 the ability to build larger spreadsheet models). David participated in the emerging definition while also adding the feature to Windows. Meanwhile the MS-DOS product manager, Adrian King, and his MS-DOS development team, took the same code we were producing for Windows 2.0 and built a new memory management kernel that would support the new Intel 386 processor that would become a sister product called Windows/386.

From Steve Ballmer’s perspective, these were intended to be the last versions of Windows, with OS/2 replacing them.

For Microsoft it has been a busy year on the OS side. Major development was in process with IBM on OS/2, while smaller teams worked to complete Windows 2.0 and Windows/386, which both shipped in the fall of 1987. From Steve Ballmer’s perspective, these were intended to be the last versions of Windows, with OS/2 (and its Presentation Manager) replacing them. So it was clear that I either would need to find a way to transfer into a role on the already staffed OS/2 team or find a new job. Since I had become increasingly aware of the need for improving our overall design of Windows and Windows applications, I opted for defining a new group that would be devoted to four things: 1) employing real graphics designers (not developers) to create those interfaces, 2) establishing usability testing facilities and services, 3) defining guidelines for good UI design and consistency for Windows applications, and 4) developing UI beyond the current product development cycles to further evolution of Microsoft’s user interfaces.

I went to Gates with that proposal. As Gates also felt that we needed to do a better job on our products’ user interfaces, he agreed and I transferred over to report to Microsoft’s new VP of Applications, Mike Maples, a recent transplant from IBM. Mike’s move from IBM worried a lot of us Softees at the time–we feared that he would make us all comply with the IBM style, but while Mike brought a tremendous amount of maturity and good organizational sense to the company, he was able to integrate it with the existing Microsoft culture.

Breaking with IBM, At Odds With Apple

However, the IBM-Microsoft joint development effort on OS/2 was breaking down. To be honest, from the very beginning it had been a grinding of the gears. Ballmer used to refer to the IBM relationship as “wrestling with the bear” but was insistent that Microsoft’s long term success depended on that relationship. However, after many months of attempting to make the joint development process work, the process-driven IBM style that measured success on the number of lines of code rather than the quality or performance of that code and Microsoft’s more developer driven “cowboy” style just wasn’t working. At all levels, even the executive level, there were continual debates on the development process and progress, so the relationship was officially ended.

IBM continued with OS/2 and Microsoft continued with developing Windows, working on what many regard as the truly successful version, Windows 3.0. I was no longer in charge of the product, but continued to work with the team on helping to evolve and improve its interface. A key area I pushed for was for a better interface for launching applications that moved beyond the MS-DOS Executive file manager and more toward an application-oriented user interface.

I had never intended to copy the Macintosh interface, was never given any directive to do that, and never directed my team to do that.

In 1988, Apple decided to sue Microsoft over Windows 2.0’s “look and feel”, claiming it infringed on Apple’s visual copyrights. Having been a principal manager in charge during development of Windows 2.0, I was now caught up in the maelstrom and over the next year I got a thorough education on the US legal process as I briefed the Microsoft legal team, created exhibits for them, and was grilled by deposition by the other side. To me the allegation clearly had no merit as I had never intended to copy the Macintosh interface, was never given any directive to do that, and never directed my team to do that.

The similarities between the products were largely due to the fact that both Windows and Macintosh has common ancestors, that being many of the earlier windowing systems such as those like Alto and Star (the latter shown at left) that were created at Xerox PARC. History shows that Jobs in fact visited PARC and hired people from there to join Apple. But Apple’s first graphical-interface computer, the Lisa, failed, and there was a time even in the first year of its launch that it was unclear whether the Macintosh would make it. From my perspective, Microsoft’s support of the Macintosh helped it survive through its most critical time and continues to be a platform the company continues to support. To me, the allegation was almost insulting. If I wanted to copy the Macintosh, I could have done a much better job.

The trial dragged on for months, but eventually settled not so much because of Apple’s claim of visual copyrights, but in part because the companies actually had signed an agreement long before where Apple had previously granted a license to Microsoft to use any part the interface included in its applications for the Mac. Even so, I had never used this to consider copying the Mac user interface. However, I can recall that within my first year at Microsoft, Gates had acquired a Xerox Star, and encouraged employees to try it out because he thought it exemplified the future of where the PC would be headed and this was long before Microsoft even saw a Mac or even a Lisa from Apple. Gates believed in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get–i.e. fidelity between the screen and document output) and the value of a graphical user interface as far back as I can remember. And prototypes of Windows existed long before the first appearance of the Macintosh.

After this I went back to focus on managing the new user interfaces services group I had started, who began to have a significant impact on the usability of an increasing number of products. My team also created several prototypes of possible new versions of Windows’ interface, many of which influenced later versions of Windows, most notably the user interface overhaul in Windows 95. In that case, we worked closely with Joe Belfiore, who at the time was one of the key Windows team members defining that release. (Joe is now the VP of the new Windows Phone division at Microsoft). I also ended [up] negotiating, compiling, and writing the style guidelines that Microsoft published for designing Windows applications. In addition, we conducted regular user interface design audits on applications Microsoft was developing.

Quite quickly product teams began to recognize the value and benefits of design and usability and eventually those functions became integrated more directly into the Microsoft product teams and development process. I continued to operate in an advisory and review role for Gates, evaluating and auditing product interfaces, promoting good design and usability practice across the product family up to the Vista and Office 2007 releases, after which I then shifted my attention to starting up Microsoft’s robotic initiative, facing a new but almost familiar pattern to the evolution I had witnessed for personal computers.

Tandy Trower and Bill Gates during a robotics demonstration at Microsoft’s TechEd 2008 conference. Photo from Intel Software Network blog.

2010 and Beyond

It’s incredible now to look back and consider that Windows will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. I still have strong memories of when I first joined the team. It’s satisfying to see its improvement and impact over the years, not only for Microsoft’s benefit, but in what Windows contributed to making PCs easier to use and accessible to a wider audience. And despite that success, it has not dampened the continued creativity of companies like Apple, Google, or others as pc technology continues to evolve.

What is interesting now to ponder is where Windows goes from here. Already it is obvious that interfaces are becoming increasing more natural, incorporating and integrating a richer array of inputs, including touch, speech, and gesture. As well the form factor of PC based technology is also evolving beyond the traditional forms, blurring the line between the conventional desktop, the mobile phone, and the family entertainment center. The Internet and its related technologies have become increasingly the way people access information. But all this hasn’t eliminated the importance of Windows’ role in getting people there.

For my part, I am probably not the best prognosticator of what Microsoft needs to do next. Microsoft has plenty of smart, talented people to do that. My own interests lie in using technology in new forms to serve and enhance people’s lives. Windows has made tremendous progress over the last 25 years, but there are still new frontiers to be explored.

For twenty-eight perspectives on where Windows should go in 2010 and beyond–including some from other veteran Microsoft employees–check out The Future of Windows. Correction: In its original form, this story said that Stewart Alsop rather than John C. Dvorak hosted the 1985 Windows roast.


6 comments

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  1. dholyer November 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    I remember back in 1986 when Apple was against Atari and Apple like stole the GEM operating system (They claim modeled after) and Atari bought legal rights tio use. I traded my Atari 800XL system in for a NEC V-30286 like) laptop. Friends used Windows 2.0 & 3.0, finally bought Windows 3.1. But that was after giving up on authoring my own Click and drop software in Turbo Pascal. GEM was nice but never got close to Windows 3.1 but it was a nice GUI.

    By the way did anyone ever see the movie of Bill Gates -vs- the Apple founders made by one of the cable Superstitions just before Windows 3.1 came out in 1995. Do not recall the movie title, but have a DVD copy of it. It may only be 70% factual truth but gives a good idea of the Windows wars in the 80's and 90's.

    And if you do not know or are a denying MAChead, Windows and Bill Gates one the battle.

    • Mark Klein November 24, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

      I think that was "Pirates of Silicon Valley", but it was released closer to 2000, if I remember correctly. I remember watching that as a high school student.

  2. iip November 22, 2010 at 12:47 am #

    I was born in 1981, and just wondering how windows has been change my way in using a computer. thanks microsoft!

  3. Richard December 31, 2010 at 5:15 pm #

    Windows '95 (not Windows 3.1, which was essentially a DOS shell) was a complete rip-off of the Mac operating system. Not a good rip off, but a rip off. Scully, after getting rid of the company founder, brokered a deal that allowed MS to do this, and then sued when he discovered his pants were unzipped and lost. Sans that suit, no Windows. As for who won what, Gates versus Jobs, that's like comparing Louie B. Mayer and Walt Disney. You may or may not like Walt Disney (the man could not draw a lick), he was a brilliant visionary while LB Mayer ran a studio. If you are having trouble deciding who was who, Gates versus Jobs, well, Gates rans a studio.

    • Godi Gutierrez August 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

      And now Steve Jobs is the biggest stockholder of Walt Disney – and Apple is bigger than Microsoft, Intel, and Google, combined…

  4. Microsoft CRM January 31, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    I love Mac operating system. Not a good rip off, but a rip off. Scully, after getting rid of the company founder, brokered a deal that allowed MS to do this, and then sued when he discovered his pants were unzipped and lost. Sans that suit, no Windows. As for who won what, Gates versus Jobs, that's like comparing Louie B. Mayer and Walt Disney. You may or may not like Walt Disney (the man could not draw a lick), he was a brilliant visionary while LB Mayer ran a studio. If you are having trouble deciding who was who, Gates versus Jobs, well, Gates rans a studio.