A Look Back as Microsoft Hits 25

With an antitrust case still pending appeal and numerous other unresolved legal issues, the state of Microsoft isn't great. Despite taking in almost $23 billion dollars for the fiscal year ending last June, Microsoft seemingly has little to celebrate at the moment, although it did just that last week on its 25th anniversary. But it's amazing to look back at the past 2 1/2 decades and ponder Microsoft's effects on us. In 1975, when the company was founded, the PC revolution was just about to begin. And whether or not you like Microsoft, its name has been synonymous with this revolution from the beginning.

In the past, we've discussed Microsoft's innovations, and the antitrust trial has sparked numerous debates about the company's business practices. I believe that Microsoft simply acts the way the company has always acted: as a scrappy, come-from-behind upstart that wants to win at all costs. This behavior is appropriate when you're in a crowded field of contenders. But in the company's current position of dominance, that paranoid personality has begun to bite back. And, although its list of accomplishments reads like a history of the PC industry, most of what I remember about Microsoft's first 25 years falls outside of the mainstream history of computing.

The beginning of Microsoft's dominance, of course, was the combination of MS-DOS and the first IBM PC. But Microsoft was pretty well established at that point, with various versions of its BASIC program running on everything from the Commodore 64 to the pre-PC Tandy machines. In Microsoft's early days, the company supported every machine available in an attempt to be there when one standard took hold. When Apple began work on its GUI-based Macintosh, Microsoft was there, making lots of uncredited changes to the Mac UI (Microsoft, for example, came up with the idea of highlighting the default choice in a dialog box in bold). Microsoft even supplied the BASIC interpreter for the Amiga, although Amiga fans will tell you that the feature was more frustrating than useful.

After the IBM PC took off and Microsoft had a lock on the PC market, the company attempted to hand off its control to Apple, even lining up a slew of hardware vendors willing to make Mac-compatible clones. In its darkest moment, however, Apple walked away from this chance so that the company could maintain its high-margin hardware business, a short-term boon that led to John Sculley's fall and Apple Computer's near irrelevance. When Microsoft created Windows NT, the company deliberately designed the system to run on a variety of processors, and the MIPS version of the OS was completed first, as a proof of concept. An NT version for the Digital Alpha came within months of the release of the Intel and MIPS versions, and a PowerPC version followed. Microsoft's decisions to eventually cancel these non-Intel versions of NT were based on market realities, but it's easy to forget that Microsoft actually made a go of it.

We all know the story about the Windows 95 launch and the browser wars, but I'd argue that Microsoft did more for the industry with the skunkworks project that became DirectX, the product of three individuals working outside the system from within the software behemoth. DirectX has rallied developers around a single, powerful standard for game creation and multimedia, freeing them from the shackles of DOS and from writing individual drivers for display and sound devices and gaming controllers.

Years ago, I debated with an Apple fan who tried to convince me that the Cupertino company had better engineers than Microsoft had. Ridiculous, I said: Apple owns the hardware platform and knows the intimate details of the decidedly finite set of possible systems that can exist out there. The PC, however, is a black hole of possible hardware combinations. It's a miracle that Windows even boots, let alone runs and works day after day.

And ultimately, this might be Microsoft's biggest accomplishment: Every day, hundreds of millions of people switch on PCs and run their favorite applications on an OS, Windows, that Microsoft was willing to kill for Apple, an OS that has been derisively referred to as an excellent boot-sector virus. We rely on this platform every day, and—no—it's not perfect. But it's certainly something to be proud of, something to celebrate. And I think the company deserves at least that.

TAGS: Windows 8
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