The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality

Few people understand Microsoft better than Tandy Trower, who worked at the company from 1981-2009. Trower was the product manager who ultimately shipped Windows 1.0, an endeavor that some advised him was a path toward a ruined career. Four product managers had already tried and failed to ship Windows before him, and he initially thought that he was being assigned an impossible task. In this follow-up to yesterday’s story on the future of Windows , Trower recounts the inside story of his experience in transforming Windows from vaporware into a product that has left an unmistakable imprint on the world, 25 years after it was first released.

Thanks to GUIdebook for letting us borrow many of the Windows images in this story.

–David Worthington

The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality
Microsoft staffers talk MS-DOS 2.0 with the editors of PC World in late 1982 or early 1983. Windows 1.0 wouldn’t ship for almost another two years. From left: Microsoft’s Chris Larson, PC World’s Steve Cook, Bill Gates, Tandy Trower, and founding PC World editor Andrew Fluegelman.

In the late fall of 1984, I was just past three years in my employment with Microsoft. Considering the revolving doors in Silicon Valley at that time, I already had met or exceeded the typical time of employment with a high-tech company. Over that time I already had established a good track record, having started with product management of Microsoft’s flagship product, BASIC, and successfully introduced many versions including the so-called GW-BASIC which was licensed to PC clone vendors, various BASIC compilers, and a BASIC interpreter and compiler for the Apple Macintosh. As a result I had been given the overall responsibility for managingMicrosoft’s programming languages, which included FORTRAN, Pascal, COBOL, 8086 Macro Assembler, and its first C compiler for MS-DOS. It was at this point that things took a significant turn.

I had just gone through one of those infamous grueling project reviews with Bill Gates, who was known for his ability to cover all details related to product strategy, not only those on the technical side. Borland’s Turbo Pascal had just come out, seemed to be taking the market by storm, and looked like a possible competitor to Microsoft BASIC as the language that was shipped with every PC. While Microsoft had its own version of Pascal, it had been groomed as a professional developer’s tool, and in fact was the core language Microsoft wrote many of its own software products in before it was displaced by C.

At $50 for the Borland product vs. the Microsoft $400 compiler, it was a bit like comparing a VW to a Porsche. But while Turbo Pascal was lighter weight for serious development, it was almost as quick for programming and debugging as Microsoft’s BASIC interpreters. And Pascal was the programming language that most computer science students most typically studied. The new Borland product would require serious strategy revisions to the existing plans to port Microsoft Pascal to a new compiler architecture. But it also required thinking about how to address this with our BASIC products. Could a Turbo BASIC be on the horizon? In any case, Gates made it quite clear that he was not happy .

Returning to my office I was somewhat devastated. In the days that followed, as I tried to come up with a revised strategy, I was uncertain about whether I should even continue in this role. I had come to Microsoft from a consumer computer company where I had primarily managed a variety of entertainment and education software. Even in my early career at Microsoft I had managed its early PC games like Flight Simulator, Decathlon, and Typing Tutor. And I had loved managing BASIC, not just because it was the product the company was best known for, but because BASIC helped me get my own start in the PC business, and I believed it allowed a wide audience to tap into the power of PCs. Now my job had evolved to where I was managing a family of products mostly for a highly technical audience. So, I spoke with Steve Ballmer, then my direct manager and head of Microsoft’s product marketing group, and suggested that perhaps I was the wrong person for this job.

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