Windows 8 is Windows 3.0, and Windows 7 is…DOS

By  |  Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 12:37 am

Analyst John Pescatore: “Other thank cloud computing, what’s the riskiest bet you’re currently making?”

Steve Ballmer: “The next release of Windows.”

–exchange at Gartner conference, October 2010

Looks like Ballmer wasn’t just blustering. “Windows 8,” or whatever it ends up being called, has a radically new interface–a sleek, touch-centric look that draws more on Windows Phone 7 and general trends in phone and tablet design than it does on a quarter-century of Windows history. Anyone writing about the operating system at this point needs to insert a disclaimer that we’ve only seen bits and pieces of it in action for a few minutes; that’s way too little to come to any firm conclusions pro or con. But we do know that Microsoft is going to attempt something big here.

In my post yesterday evening, I said that Windows 8 looks like the most radical change in Windows’ interface since Windows 3.0. It’s possible that that’s understating matters. By providing both the new interface and apps to go with it, plus the old interface and apps, Microsoft is asking  users to live in two worlds in a way it’s never done before.

Except it has. This situation sounds a lot like the computing lifestyle that PC users lived with from 1990-1995 or thereabouts, when the commonplace state of affairs was to run Windows 3.x on top of DOS.

Back then, DOS was tried-and-true, and Windows 3.x was a reaction–albeit a rather delayed one–to the trends Apple put into place with the original Mac. Every Windows user ran it on top of DOS, since Windows was at that point an environment rather than a self-contained operating system. And the vast majority of users split their time between new-wave Windows apps and old-school DOS ones.

The two interfaces couldn’t have been much more different: DOS with its profusion of text, minimum of graphics, and command-line interface, and Windows with its graphical look and introduction of a still largely-unfamiliar input device called a mouse. Yet people learned to live with both of them. They’d run DOS apps within a Windows window. They’d exit out to a command line. They’d just not launch Windows at all if they didn’t need it at the moment.

They also had to continue dealing with the limitations of DOS, some of which creeped into Windows–such as memory-management hassles and short file names. Even so, people preferred it to IBM’s OS/2, a theoretically superior product that demanded that people take a great leap forward rather than allowing them to make baby steps away from DOS.

People also managed to deal with the fact that the typical PC of the early 1990s wasn’t built for Windows–small monochrome monitors were still common, RAM and hard-disk space were tight, mice were usually an optional accessory, and there was really no good way to run Windows on a laptop. But even Windows on a machine that ran Windows poorly was broadly appealing.

At first, even Windows enthusiasts spent an awful lot of their time in DOS apps, since the biggies of the day–WordPerfect, 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics, and other blockbusters–weren’t available in Windows versions. Over time, that changed. (Although it changed in such a slow, bumpy fashion that Microsoft managed to supplant most of the big names of the DOS era with its own Office apps.) Eventually, most people were left with only one or two DOS apps in their toolbox. The last two I remember running were ones I still miss: the DOS versions of InfoSelect and Norton Utilities. And by oh, 1997 or so, anyone who was running any DOS apps at all was a flaming luddite.

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber makes a point that seems self-evidently true to me: the iPad approach–a total replacement of the Mac user interface with a modern one built purely for touch–is conceptually superior to bolting a new touch interface on top of an old PC platform. It’s elegant. It’s decisive. It doesn’t burden a platform of the future with all the baggage of the past. It’s also parallel in some respects to what Apple did with the original Macintosh, when it chose not to maintain any Apple II compatibility whatsoever. By contrast, Gruber says, Windows 8 is “fundamentally flawed.”

(Apple did try to build a Mac-like experience on top of Apple II technology eventually: it was called the Apple II GS, and the world rightly identified it as a misguided idea and ignored it.)

Adding a new touch interface to old Windows isn’t elegant or decisive, and it does burden a platform of the future with all the baggage of the past. But if Microsoft manages to pull off a transition this time around that bears any resemblance to the DOS-to-Windows transition, its strategy could be “fundamentally flawed” and wildly successful. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. But it’s a best-case scenario for Microsoft that doesn’t feel completely wacky.


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37 Comments For This Post

  1. Clifton Griffin Says:

    I think it’s risky…even foolhearty.

    Gruber is exactly right. Those interfaces and gestures are fantastic…for a touch driven tablet interface. The fact that they expect anyone to welcome pointing and clicking their way through that interface is pretty out of touch.

    And isn’t the reason all of their past tablet endeavors have failed is the expectation that users want a full laptop AND a tablet in one?

    The desktop just seems too big to reinvent. And do they really think business users will embrace an OS that is so consumption based?

    If they had demoed this as their tablet interface, I’d be thrilled. We are too far along for a Windows 3.0 redux.

    Granted, this is an early preview. Just troubled by MS’s density.


  2. fred Says:

    Your analogy breaks when you compare the actual DOS experience to Windows 7. A billion people are already familiar and comfortable with the Windows desktop. DOS was something that only CLI gear heads would like. As far as "baggage from the past", the ARM port of Windows 8 will not be bogged down by any x86 bloat. No one knows for sure, but I'd bet a dual core Nvidia ARM tablet running Win8 would be smooth sailing.

  3. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    You sure about that?

    I know plenty of users that still aren't comnfortable with any desktop-environment. They do however like the iPhone and iPad.

    I think Windows 8 is turning out to be a huge leap of faith for Microsoft, but the chances of repeating the Windows/DOS success are acutually… very real.

    The biggest plus to Windows 8 tablets in contrast to the iPad is that it is a computer by itself: the iPad STILL needs a computer to be activated an sync with. It needs iTunes for updates and file-transfer.
    Maybe iOS5 could change that, although I doubt that, but if tablets are ever going to be users their primary device, Microsoft's approach, making it an independent device capable of doing everything users could want, seems a lot more promising than Apple's approach of making the iPad a sidekick to the iTunes isntallation on your Mac.

  4. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The point you are making is there were hardly any DOS users compared to Windows users today, but there are hardly any Windows users today compared to mobile users today. Most Windows users just use the Web and video, they use their PC for less complicated work than an iPad. The interface should be much easier. Most people do not know Windows 7, anyway, they know XP. And there is no high-end Windows PC market anymore. Windows 8 devices will sell for less than iPads. It needs iPod ease of use.

  5. Muay Thai Says:

    You just need to accept that DOS is a thing of the past…Muay Thai | Muay Thai Kick | Martial Arts for Children.

  6. marinelayer Says:

    Oh the joys of editing an autoexec.bat file. Good points Harry. There's also an additional risk Microsoft is taking. Instead of getting consumers to potentially buy multiple licenses by virtue of multiple device purchases, they're throwing in with a single device which supposedly will work on ARM Cortex A15, Intel, or somesuch. If that hardware isn't extremely price competitive just as Windows tablets aren't now they'll lose again. Apple, Google, and HP aren't exactly sitting still in terms of expanding functionality or capability.

  7. //// Says:

    Ah Info Select, how I miss you so.

  8. Karl Says:

    Please correct: The 'Apple II GS' link is the same one leading to the 'Windows 8 is fundamental' site.

  9. Harry McCracken Says:

    Fixed–thanks for noticing.

  10. Rick Says:

    Great point

  11. James Says:

    For gaming purposes a lot of people (myself included) used boot disks during win95 era so windows 8 would perhaps not b that big a risk especially if u can drop into a traditional environment anytime I needed to

  12. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Windows 8 is STILL just another iteration of NT. It just has more bloat. It will be slower on min spec Win 7 h/w that 7.

  13. Luiz Says:

    MinKernel is 30mb for WinServer2008, where is the bloat? its is in the software stack. if you dont require legacy, NT kernel is fast and clean.

  14. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Um, not talking about WinServer but desktop. Did you REALLY think I was referring to server or, are you just dense?

  15. Daniel Says:

    You do realize that MinWin (which I think is what Luiz ment to say) is what Windows 7 is built on, right?

    If we are all speculating, I think microsoft may take a modular approach with this one. There are too few details to tell at this point what kind of speeds will be possible.

    Wait and see.

  16. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Built on are what is on top are two different things. You didn't know that?

  17. Daniel Says:

    Your words perhaps mean more when confined to the mis-firing of your cerebral synapses.

  18. John Says:

    First, Noone really knows what MS changed under the hood. Something must be different for sub 20 second boots. Also, as a corporation, I would want my Windows 7 software to run on it, or I would wait another 5 years to upgrade.

  19. RDSchaefer Says:

    I'm still running XP SP2 and my PC boots in 15 seconds. — Of course I've removed almost all the crap MS installs by by default.

  20. Andrey Says:

    I like what I have seen. We already have 2 desktop environments in Windows 7 – the normal one and the media center. I think about the tiled UI as a Super Media Center. It has its uses.

    I guess we will see wireless gadgets as mice as keyboards for slates so that people will actually run tiled and classical apps side by side.

    I hoped that an API will be presented, something like truly smart layouts, that would enable to write programs that could switch from tiled to classic, but it looks like that is for Windows 9 or 10.

  21. codeslingerMalthius Says:

    I just wish the OS wasn't tied to the UI. Then I could have the UI I wanted on the hardware I wanted.

  22. KG2V Says:

    Great – a tablet UI – how about serious desktop users, not web surfing – but those of us with 2-3 monitors, entering text, etc.

    I don't want a touch screen on my desk – why should I have to reach UP and OUT, away from my keyboard?

    My Advise? Sell Microsoft Short

  23. programmer Says:

    "why should I have to reach UP and OUT, away from my keyboard? "

    You shouldn't and you won't have to. The whole point is that you use the classical UI on desktops and laptops with mouse and keyboard and Metro UI on touch devices.

    The thought alone of a Samsung Sliding 7 PC type form factor combined with windows 8 is sexy as hell.

  24. RDSchaefer Says:

    First, let me say that even though I've earned my living by supporting MicroSoft products, I despise both MS and Apple.

    The reason MS tries to maintain backward-compatibility is because of a fundamental difference between it and Apple that has been slowly eroding. Apple has always been the Dictator to it's customers, "This is how it is now – I now what's best for you, you will take it and you will like it" They could do that because, compared to MS, there were relatively few programs to replace.

    MS used to listen to it's customers, they understood at the time that they could not risk alienating millions of customers and, literally, millions of programmers.

  25. ALp Says:

    IMHO the true genius of Microsoft was not in making a GUI OS, neither was it in using mice input devices. Ofcorse these decisions affected the users of their operating system …

    The true genius (again IMHO) was creating an operating system with a programming interface that did not require small-time and beginner developers to even bother what kind of hardware the user PC has. On the other hand, it also broke the "required hardware for software" connection on the user end. People could finally write widely used applications with (relative) ease. And then, on top of that, Microsoft introduced MFC programming with Document/View architecture that would enable almost anyone to create a fully working Windows application in matter of hours …

    The true genius of Microsoft (in my opinion) was not only choosing this way or another way to go with the OS , but filling the world with multiple software products that aren't even created by them 🙂

    Then, in parallel, they broke their success with development and introduction of the Office Suite 🙂
    But as for Windows8 we will all see where it goes soon , won't we ? 🙂

  26. abhijit Says:


  27. James Wilson Says:

    I just got a Windows Phone 7 this week and I don't particularly like the interface. I run two 1600×1200 monitors with 10 or more apps open and visible at the same time so I don't expect this to be a painless transition. However, I have been around long enough to remember the DOS to Windows transition and Intel's attmpt to go from 32 bits to the 64 bit Itanium. AMD beat them into the ground by carrying all the baggage of the past preventing Intel from making a clean start. History is on the side of Windows 8.

  28. programmer Says:

    I really don't get why everyone seems to be worried about "a new UI"… You're all like 'omg omg, I have multiple monitors, omg omg, none of them have touch, omg omg".

    Nobody cares because it's irrelavent. You will continue to use the classical UI when you have a mouse and keyboard, it's that simple.

    No need to worry. Nothing is being changed or removed. Something is being ADDED. Something you won't be using on your pc (but you CAN if you want to). Something that WILL be used on touch devices.

    There are a handfull of windows 7 mobile touch devices out there. None of them are succesfull. Because the win7 GUI is not fit for such work. The Metro UI that will be INCLUDED in win8 will totally change this.

    In radical ways.

  29. John Says:

    There was one other Apole legacy moment: the jump from OS9 to OSX. In the early versions you could boot as OS9 or run “classic mode” on top of OSX.

  30. @jdap Says:

    What Microsoft have to be afraid of is that Windows 7 + Microsoft Office is Lotus 1-2-3, and if they're not careful Windows 8 will be Lotus Symphony

  31. Manish Deo Says:

    Love To Read About Windows 8, Keep Posting

  32. Apple II Says:

    A million Apple IIGSes sold. Also, there's a //e compatibility card for the Mac LC.

    So you're wrong.

  33. getaneditor Says:

    “Other thank cloud computing…”

  34. Dennis Says:

    So, I am not clear, will old DOS programs run under windows 8 or not?

  35. Woodworking Says:

    This is definitely a blog that I’ll come back to again.

  36. Pierre Says:

    And if someone < like ME> isn't gonna buy a Tablet anytime soon?.
    – will I still be able to get a laptop with, say Win 9?.

  37. Video maker Says:

    I guess we will see wireless gadgets as mice as keyboards for slates so that people will actually run tiled and classical apps side by side.

    I hoped that an API will be presented, something like truly smart layouts, that would enable to write programs that could switch from tiled to classic, but it looks like that is for Windows 9 or 10.