Monday, 1 November 2010

Windows: The 25th Anniversary

The first version of Microsoft Windows was released over 25 years ago.

The conventional release date quoted is that of the Microsoft Windows 1.0 retail product for ‘IBM compatible’ PCs launched on 20th November 1985. The truth, as usual, is a little different. In the beginning, as now, Windows was distributed by computer manufacturers (OEMs) and OEM releases were shipping weeks before the Microsoft retail set, possibly as early as September. In the pre-internet era product launches worked differently to nowadays.

Since blogging on My first Home PC – recollections of the RM Nimbus PC-186 I’ve browsed some of my notes surviving from 1985. There was a lot of interest in a pre-Beta of Windows I built for the BETT show in January to accompany the PC-186 launch. Windows was fairly stable by then, I'd been running prototypes during 1984 tracking alpha versions of Microsoft code. The new Intel 80186 CPU in combination with a larger memory space made Windows more fluid on the Nimbus compared with contemporary IBM PC models and their look-alikes. In May I built a Beta release for the PC-186 which had fairly widespread distribution in the UK with the early Nimbus computers sold to the RM education market of schools and colleges. After painstaking work on optimizations of the graphics driver and improvements to the Nimbus-specific DOS application switching system (all written in 16 bit assembly language), I mastered the first release candidate in late August. I don’t recall exactly when the first release version actually shipped; perhaps the answer is hidden in my attic or the RM archives.

Trivia. Windows 1 install could fit on two 3.5”/720K disks. I also created a version to run on a single 720K drive system with Windows Write, Notepad, Paint and a few other lightweight apps. However the majority of PC-186 systems ran off network servers or hard drive. Familiar features of Windows such as GDI graphics, the message pump, EXE/DLL architecture were present right at the beginning. However the original windowing system treated applications as tiles; full overlapping windows did not appear until version 2 (1987).

Windows 1 was not a commercial success for Microsoft. RM grew one of the larger installed bases among OEMs. Most PC manufacturers (including RM beyond the PC-186) embraced the quirky and limiting IBM PC hardware/BIOS compatibility design; application vendors usually worked with these primitive interfaces rather than use a hardware-independent API like Windows. A dismal state of affairs for some years. Fortunately the Apple Mac and to a lesser extent Windows and various non-Intel based machines continued to point to the future for personal computers although in late 1985, I didn’t expect it would take over four years before the best-selling Windows 3.0 (1990) established the long term shape of the Personal Computer.

A few web searches today revealed that many aspects of the evolution of personal computers appear to be well hidden. It was interesting to be involved in the emergence of the PC for a few years so I suppose I ought to return to this period occasionally to fill in some more gaps in the online record.

Postscript. The practical side of history is learning from the past. Windows itself originated at a time when the situation with early personal computers was chaotic with few standards. An array of incompatible machines faced the software developer and the early user of PC technology. Today we have a mix of new and old generation technologies with systems like iOS, Android, WP7, Kindle, Windows, OSX, Desktop Linux, Xbox, PS3, Wii etc. etc. operating in a complex connected world; each with its own different developer stories to tell. A new chaos has emerged and, I suspect, we are once again looking to redefine the meaning of personal computing.

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