The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality

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The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality
The similarities between the products were largely due to the fact that both Windows and Macintosh has common ancestors, that being many of the earlier windowing systems such as those like Alto and Star (the latter shown at left) that were created at Xerox PARC. History shows that Jobs in fact visited PARC and hired people from there to join Apple. But Apple’s first graphical-interface computer, the Lisa, failed, and there was a time even in the first year of its launch that it was unclear whether the Macintosh would make it. From my perspective, Microsoft’s support of the Macintosh helped it survive through its most critical time and continues to be a platform the company continues to support. To me, the allegation was almost insulting. If I wanted to copy the Macintosh, I could have done a much better job.

The trial dragged on for months, but eventually settled not so much because of Apple’s claim of visual copyrights, but in part because the companies actually had signed an agreement long before where Apple had previously granted a license to Microsoft to use any part the interface included in its applications for the Mac. Even so, I had never used this to consider copying the Mac user interface. However, I can recall that within my first year at Microsoft, Gates had acquired a Xerox Star, and encouraged employees to try it out because he thought it exemplified the future of where the PC would be headed and this was long before Microsoft even saw a Mac or even a Lisa from Apple. Gates believed in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get–i.e. fidelity between the screen and document output) and the value of a graphical user interface as far back as I can remember. And prototypes of Windows existed long before the first appearance of the Macintosh.

After this I went back to focus on managing the new user interfaces services group I had started, who began to have a significant impact on the usability of an increasing number of products. My team also created several prototypes of possible new versions of Windows’ interface, many of which influenced later versions of Windows, most notably the user interface overhaul in Windows 95. In that case, we worked closely with Joe Belfiore, who at the time was one of the key Windows team members defining that release. (Joe is now the VP of the new Windows Phone division at Microsoft). I also ended [up] negotiating, compiling, and writing the style guidelines that Microsoft published for designing Windows applications. In addition, we conducted regular user interface design audits on applications Microsoft was developing.

Quite quickly product teams began to recognize the value and benefits of design and usability and eventually those functions became integrated more directly into the Microsoft product teams and development process. I continued to operate in an advisory and review role for Gates, evaluating and auditing product interfaces, promoting good design and usability practice across the product family up to the Vista and Office 2007 releases, after which I then shifted my attention to starting up Microsoft’s robotic initiative, facing a new but almost familiar pattern to the evolution I had witnessed for personal computers.

The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality
Tandy Trower and Bill Gates during a robotics demonstration at Microsoft’s TechEd 2008 conference.
Photo from Intel Software Network blog.

2010 and Beyond

It’s incredible now to look back and consider that Windows will be celebrating its 25th anniversary. I still have strong memories of when I first joined the team. It’s satisfying to see its improvement and impact over the years, not only for Microsoft’s benefit, but in what Windows contributed to making PCs easier to use and accessible to a wider audience. And despite that success, it has not dampened the continued creativity of companies like Apple, Google, or others as pc technology continues to evolve.

What is interesting now to ponder is where Windows goes from here. Already it is obvious that interfaces are becoming increasing more natural, incorporating and integrating a richer array of inputs, including touch, speech, and gesture. As well the form factor of PC based technology is also evolving beyond the traditional forms, blurring the line between the conventional desktop, the mobile phone, and the family entertainment center. The Internet and its related technologies have become increasingly the way people access information. But all this hasn’t eliminated the importance of Windows’ role in getting people there.

For my part, I am probably not the best prognosticator of what Microsoft needs to do next. Microsoft has plenty of smart, talented people to do that. My own interests lie in using technology in new forms to serve and enhance people’s lives. Windows has made tremendous progress over the last 25 years, but there are still new frontiers to be explored.

This story, "The Birth of Windows: From Vaporware to Reality" was originally published by Technologizer.

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