When Microsoft Ruled Tech: An Elegy

Almost 20 years ago, when Microsoft was king, I became a full time tech writer after many years of writing about economics and politics and working as an editor. As I watch Microsft struggling to get its mojo back, especially in consumer markets, I realize that I really miss the swashbuckling Microsoft of the mid–1990s.

There’s never been anything quite like it, and may never be again. This was a Microsoft that its competitors industry feared and that many regarded as downright evil. It was at the start of a run of domination that would lead to it being found guilty of civil violations of antitrust laws in the U.S. and Europe. And it was an exciting and dynamic company. (Probably the closest thing to it today is Google. But despite Microsoft’s many sins, it lacked two of Google’s most significant traits, a lack of focus and an annoying streak of self-righteousness.)

What was this Microsoft really like? By 1994, Microsoft was on its way to ruling the PC world with Windows and it was developing a never-realized vision in which Windows code would run on everything, from PCs to copiers to coffeemakers. But Windows 3.1, despite its success, was a thin, kludgy layer of code on top of the rickety foundation of MS-DOS. Within Microsoft, two groups were racing to replace it, the Windows 95 team headed by Brad Silverberg and the Windows NT group skippered by Jim Allchin. In the best Microsoft tradittion, these groups competed hotly with each other. Windows NT was the more ambitious effort, built on a solid operating system kernel architected by Dave Cutler, who had created VMS for Digital Equipment. Windows 95 was a huge user interface improvement, but still a kludge dependent on a DOS core. Windows 95 was an instant hit, while NT provided Microsoft with its OS of the future: the NT kernel powers all current Windows versions.

Microsoft was a fierce competitor. But until recently, it has had phenomenal luck in the incompetence of its competitors. Apple slowly crumbled through the 90s, turning out lousy Mac hardware running outdated software, and steadily lost market share. The Newton, years ahead of its time, sapped scarce resources. IBM’s attempt to challenge Windows, OS/2, was just the consumer product you would expect from a mainframe maker. The dominant DOS applications software makers, WordPerfect and Lotus, both missed the rise of Windows, leaving the field open. Microsoft Office was born more or less by accident. Microsoft had developed Excel for the Mac, which lacked a good spreadsheet, but was having a hard time getting customers to trade MacWrite for Word. The company created Office by throwing in a copy of Word with Excel, a product that former Offcie marketing chief Laura Jennings once described to me as “crap in a box.”[pullquote]Microsoft was a fierce competitor. But until recently, it has had phenomenal luck in the incompetance of its competitors.[/pullquote]

That the internet and Internet Explorer would be central to the government’s antitrust case is the great irony of Microsoft history. Bill Gates and other executives of Microsoft were late to recognize the importance of the internet. Windows 95 originally shipped without a browser or any real internet support. This mistake, probably the biggest in the company’s history, helps explain why it came to regard Netscape as an existential threat that had to be destroyed. During the development of Windows 98, there was a fierce battle between Silverberg, who wanted a more net-centric approach for the future, and Allchin. Allchin won, and Silverberg and much of his team left the company. It’s impossible to say whether Microsoft would have done better had the fight gone the other way, but it definitely would have been much different.

Microsoft in the mid–90s was a fun company to cover. It believed in Bill Gates’ mission of putting a PC in every home and on devery desktop. Its executives were open and frank and it dreamed big dreams. It’s aggressiveness made it interesting. I used to look forward to my regular trips to Redmond. The antitrust case, a disaster from which Microsoft has never really recovered, sucked most of the fun and a lot of the life out of the company.

Microsoft was going to change anyway: It had become a big company and many of the executives who had led the phenomenal growth period and had grown rich beyond imagination in the process, were starting to move on. In nearly every case, their replacements were more managerial and less adventurous. The prosecution added to the growing sense of caution, and Gates, much of whose time was absorbed by the case, seemed to lose his fire and, gradually, his interest.

The dominant companies of today, Apple and Google, are nowhere near as much fun to write about as Microsoft in its prime. Both are secretive, Apple obssessively so, and neither makes its senior executives available except in very tightly controlled situations. For a writer fresh to the tech business, the Microsoft of 1994 was a dream. In an industry that has grown up a lot in the last 20 years, I doubt we will se its like again.