When Microsoft Ruled Tech: An Elegy

Steve Wildstrom / July 17th, 2013

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 Apple slowly crumbled through the 90s, turning out lousy Mac hardware running outdated software, and steadily lost market share.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.”

Microsoft was a fierce competitor. But until recently, it has had phenomenal luck in the incompetance of its competitors.

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.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • ken

    microsofts problem today is it has to compete, befor recent times, they made crap and forced it on everyone. they didnt have real competition. Its a beautiful world today thank you Google and Apple !

    • steve_wildstrom

      The fact is that Microsoft always had competition, especially at the beginning. IBM could have gone with Gary Kildall instead of Bill Gates; exactly what happened is still in dispute, but it seems the first of a long streak of Microsoft luck. If Microsoft fought dirty, one reason is the competition was in fact tough. Microsoft only achieved dominance in both operating systems and applications from the mid-90s on because its competitors made remarkable mistakes.

      • Defendor

        In the Mid-90’s Microsoft didn’t need to fight dirty because of tough competition. What competition? They had already achieved de facto monopoly status by 1989, when they had about 80% of the OS market. Yet they continued to use ruthless/illegal tactics till they were hauled into court by the DoJ. I have no nostalgia for this period, when they were the 800 pound gorilla and acting like they were a law unto themselves.

        You also differentiate Google on lack of focus, but Microsoft during the 1990’s attempted to cover everything with a CPU, nearly every computing standard and nearly every application space. There was no focus unless you think “everything” is a focus.

        • steve_wildstrom

          Microsoft’s success in the 1990s was by no means inevitable. Yes, they had 80% market share in 1990, but the great expansion of the consumer market was yet to happen. A smarter Apple could have grabbed much more significant share. IBM could have unleashed its personal systems group instead of hobbling it. OS/2 was actually a very solid product that never had a chance because of some horrible corporate decisions, Things were a lot more fluid at the time than they seem in retrospect.

          By the mid-90s, Microsoft had a very clear focus, captured by the slogan of “Windows Everywhere.” It wasn’t a very good idea. Microsoft never came up with the sort of lightweight embedded version of Windows that would have made realizing the idea a possibility. It was also ahead of its time; in a sense, Microsoft was way too early to the Internet of Things. But while badly flawed, it was a focused vision.

          • Defendor

            When you have “everywhere” as part of your slogan, that doesn’t look like focus.

            I still don’t see the threats to Microsoft once they had 80% of the OS market. Once that happens you get all the best software written for the dominant OS and it becomes self reinforcing. I was an OS/2 user in the early 1990’s, it was much better than Windows 3.x, but there was practically no native software for it. This is the problem all fledgling OS’s have compared to a big established players. As good as any OS is, it is the software that runs on it that really counts, and usually a big early lead becomes an insurmountable one.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I agree totally about the importance of the app ecosystem. One huge mistake IBM made with OS/2 was the failure to support Windows apps through APIs. The code to do this was actually written but never released.

            For an insider take on some other reasons why OS/2 failed, see this video interview I did with former IBM Vice President John Patrick.

            The reason I don’t see Microsoft’s 80% market share as dispositive is that the market at the time was relatively small and very dynamic. By 1998 or 2000, that same share was indeed a lock.

          • Brian M. Monroe

            One of the other problems with OS/2 back then was the lack of CD-ROM drives as standard hardware so it was a real pain to install a 32 bit OS on the hardware of the day. I do remember having a massive stack of disks that was needed to install the base OS and then even applications also had the same thing. In many ways it was ahead of its time but the hardware was not ready.

  • Cappy

    At least I know how to spell especially. It’s not “especailly.” After 20 years or more, I would have thought you would know how to run a spell checker. At least run it on the first paragraph.


    • steve_wildstrom

      Thanks. Fixed.

  • Mayson

    A few more spelling nits:

    interfsace s.b. interface

    incompetance s.b. incompetence

    crerated s.b. created

    • steve_wildstrom

      Thanks. They’re fixed. It’s a poor excuse, but I wrote this offline on a plane and for some reason the WordPress spell checker does not work properly on text imported from Byword. And proofreading while in a fog from a 15-hour flight is never a good idea.

  • fred

    Interesting that Microsoft’s DoJ trial from over a decade ago keeps getting mentioned but Apple’s very recent DoJ trial has not.

  • GJPinks

    You forget other major products that failed to reach their proper level of market share. Alpha Micro had a far more powerful set of solutions for the small and medium office You could have a complete WP/SS and business accounting system on your 1982 AlphaMicro multiuser Computer system for 10 users for about the cost of three IBM PCs with no hard drives.
    Innovative Software- later Informix offered SmartWare With WP/Spreadsheet/Communications plus an ungodly powerful database and programming language that (other than lack of graphic WYSIWUG) that even today can beat SAP or Oracle for less than $600 a seat. (and it was Y2K compliant in 1990)
    And lets not forget that little game machine The Amiga that couple make a TV legal commercial video, run WordPerfect, Lotus, DBase and control your home all at the same time using 256 K of RAM. (Yes lotus and Dbase were never released, but I saw them running in native AmigaOS) The space effects of Babylon 5 were created on a sub $1,000 Amiga attached to a couple of thousands dollar NewTek video toaster.
    Build a better mousetrap and the world will not beat a path to your door, it requires advertising, marketing, promotion and sometimes a little luck.

    • Brian M. Monroe

      Yep. The Amiga and N=WT=K Video Toaster where doing some amazing things back then. N=WT=K and Amiga where way ahead of the game back in the 1980’s. N=WT=K is still ahead now. The TriCaster is an amazing device.

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