Microsoft launched the first version of Windows a quarter of a century ago, since when the platform has become the mainstay of corporate computing. But its success was not guaranteed, and few at the time would have predicted that the clunky front-end for DOS applications would go on to conquer the world.
Windows is now an accepted and standard part of the business IT landscape, the tried and tested mainstream technology on which almost every company in the world relies. Yet it could so easily have been different.
When Windows launched, there were already alternative platforms that were easier to use, notably the Apple Mac, or superior in enterprise-grade features, such as the various flavours of Unix on the market. In fact, Microsoft's success arguably had as much to do with the failure of rivals to capitalise on the shortcomings of Windows as anything else.
Apple had shown the potential of the graphical user interface (GUI) with its Lisa and Mac systems introduced in 1983 and 1984. Microsoft had already started work on a GUI project of its own, and was not simply copying Apple, as many detractors have since claimed.
But that first version of Windows was primitive by today's standards, and in fact the platform saw very little serious take-up before Windows 3.0 launched in 1990, giving rise to the popular cliché about not using any Microsoft product before version 3.0.
Bill Gates shows off the brand new Windows 3.0
This was followed in 1992 by the Windows 3.1 update which added multimedia support and scalable typefaces.
Buoyed by the success of these releases, Microsoft decided to promote Windows over the OS/2 operating system it had jointly developed with IBM for its PS/2 line of computers. The PS/2 was intended as the next-generation of the PC platform, with which IBM hoped to seize back control of the business PC market from the so-called clone makers (other PC vendors) which IBM regarded as upstarts that were eating its lunch.
However, OS/2 proved overly ambitious for its time, according to Ovum principal analyst Richard Edwards.
"IBM was trying to convince companies that OS/2 was the way forward, but my employer at the time ran a test with two identical machines, one with OS/2 and the other Windows 3.1, to perform a common secretarial task," he said.
"The Windows PC had pretty much completed the whole task before OS/2 had even fully booted."
In other words, Windows was adequate for the needs of the average information worker, and ran on the widely available and relatively low cost PC clones of the time.
Cost was thus an important factor in the early success of Windows, and perhaps goes some way to explain why it came to dominate the business arena instead of Apple's Mac platform, despite the latter's obvious advantage in usability.
Arguably, Windows was not able to match the slick user interface of the Mac, nor its multimedia capabilities, until the launch of Windows 95 in 1995. This came a full decade after the introduction of the first Mac systems, which represented a missed opportunity for Apple.
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