The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality

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Shaping Up Windows

My first task was to assess of what was done and what was left to be done as well as come up with a marketing strategy of how to sell an OS add-on to end users, a task that was a significant challenge because no Windows applications existed at that time. How to sell a new application interface without any applications?

I discovered that while the three core functional components of Windows (Kernel–memory management, User–windowing and controls, and GDI–device rendering) were mostly in place there was still a substantial amount of work to be done, and Ballmer had given me only six months to finalize the product and get out the door. This didn’t bother too much since I had currently held the record for getting a product from definition to market in the shortest time.

There wasn’t much time to make changes. Ballmer was emphatic not to redefine what was already done, even though McGregor had changed Windows from its original overlapping windows design to a tiled windows model and every windowing system out there or under development featured overlapping windows. There also was not enough time to change the Windows system font displayed in title bars and control labels from a fixed width typeface to a proportional typeface, which made the overall look a bit clunky, especially in comparison to the newly announced Macintosh interface. Steve’s promise was that in the next release I would get creative freedom to make any significant changes to the product’s interface. I could add some functionality to make it more appealing to end-users, but overall the product needed to be finished, not further tweaked in anyway that jeopardized getting it out that summer without further embarrassment.

Even at Microsoft, getting developers to write Windows software was a challenge. Microsoft’s own applications group was currently mostly focused on the applications they were developing on for the Apple Macintosh, to some extent because Microsoft’s chief competition, Lotus and WordPerfect were largely ignoring the Mac as a platform. I couldn’t even get my former team to build a version of BASIC for Windows (something I continued to press for years after until I was successful in getting Gates’ support for what became known as Visual Basic). BASIC had been an important catalyst for getting early application development started because of the simplicity of the language.

My initial survey revealed that the Windows development team had put together a few sample applications. These were created more as illustrations for the developer’s programming toolkit than as applications intended for end users. There was a simple text editor called Notepad that was basically a multi-line text box that could open and save files; a simple calculator’ a simple game (Revesi), and an application called the MS-DOS Executive that enabled users to view their files and was the primary way they started applications; not much of a far cry from how one did it under the MS-DOS command line, except you didn’t have to type the name of the application. In addition, one of the developers had started work on a simple pixel drawing program we called Windows Paint.

When the Macintosh was announced, I noted that Apple bundled a small set of applications, which included a small word processor called MacWrite and a drawing application called MacPaint. In addition, Lotus and Borland had recently released DOS products called Metro and SideKick that consisted of small suite of character-based applications that could be popped up with a keyboard combination while running other applications. Those packages included a simple text editor, a calculator, a calendar, and business card-like database.

So I went to Gates and Ballmer with the recommendation that we bundle a similar set of applets with Windows which would include refining the ones already in development, as well as a few more to match functions comparable to these other products. I also advocated that we include an experimental mini-word processor based on Microsoft Word which I named Windows Write. This latter got me in some hot water from the Application group, but Gates and Ballmer supported my recommendation.

However, the mini-word processor and painting program required a font strategy and that had not been fully defined yet, so I helped drive the architects to get that done and licensed the design of three typefaces to be included; a sans-serif and a serifed proportional font, and a fixed-width character font, which we had to also map to everything from dot-matrix printers (the most popular type of printer at that time) to daisywheel printers. Laser printers from HP were just coming out and we also worked with Aldus, who were looking to port its increasingly popular PageMaker application to Windows. Windows versions of Excel and Word would not be available for at least another year after Windows shipped.

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