A Brief History of Personal Computers

 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Once upon a time, the land of Silicon was ruled by a mighty blue giant. Many valiant knights had challenged Big Blue in the early years, among them Honeywell, Control Data, Univac, NCR, Burroughs, General Electric and RCA. Most of the challengers paid dearly for their folly. Historians talk about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but this was no fairy tale - for most of the dwarves it was a bloody battle for survival.

In the early seventies, younger challengers, such as Digital and Hewlett-Packard, began to flex their muscles. Big Blue paid no attention to them because they made minicomputers, and the giant despised any machines that weren’t gigantic. IBM owned the big corporations and government agencies, and those titans always wanted bigger computers, not smaller ones.

1960's mainframe

On the other hand, the people of Silicon loathed Big Blue. His computers were so expensive that most businesses couldn’t afford them. They were so large that they occupied large glass houses on raised floors, and they needed experts in white coats or suits to feed them magnetic tapes and care for them in other elaborate ways.    

The people of Silicon dreamt of small computers that they could use in shops and restaurants and factories and workshops, and some day even at home. In the 1970s, mini-computers brought that dream a lot closer. Users could run programs on them from small TV screens and keyboards on their desks. They could even enter problems via the keyboard and get answers back in minutes, on their own screen or on a nearby printer.  

The young people of Silicon won’t understand what a breakthrough that was, but, in the early days, feeding data into a computer was a lot like feeding a baby solids for the first time. With IBM computers, users had to go to the corporate data centre and submit their problems to a supervisor who stood guard like the matron on a hospital ward. She would collect user data at a scheduled time each day (the visiting hours) and take them to a large pool of typists.

They’d enter the data into IBM key punch machines that made batches of cards with little holes in them, and these would be sorted into batches by other women and then handed over to the computer operators. They would take the punch cards into the glasshouse and feed them into the IBM computer, which would eventually print out the answer the user wanted. He often had to wait a day or two before he got it back. By then the problem had often gone away and more urgent ones were begging for resolution.

 

The Revolution

The invention of the floppy disk was a major breakthrough. It made getting data into a computer as easy as popping candies into the mouths of kids. Big Blue invented the 45rpm-record-sized diskette to make it easier for his engineers to load microcode into disk controllers. The project leader, Alan Shugart, left IBM and started a company that made disk drives.

Another breakthrough was the microchip. These miniaturised circuits would find their way into many new devices, from machines in factories to cars and dishwashers. Progress and fierce competition ensured that components became smaller and cheaper.

Soon it was possible for hobbyists to build their own computers from components bought at the local Radio Shack. Diskettes (or Floppy Disks, as they were called then) were the perfect medium for loading programs and storing data, but as yet there weren’t a lot of programs that ran on microcomputers and, in those days, the 8-inch "floppies" couldn’t store much more than a few programs or documents.

Two smart college students, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, built a machine in their parents’ garage, called it Apple and went into business in a modest way.

Entrepreneurs began to take an interest in the emerging market and invested in tentative stakes. Before long, PC makers were popping up across the land of Silicon like desert flowers after rain : Altair, Atari, Commodore, Kaypro, Osborne , Texas Instruments and more.

 

Big Blue Strikes Back

By 1980, over a million people in Silicon had bought a microcomputer of some kind and Big Blue was alarmed - if a large number of citizens bought their own computers, they might stop buying his gigantic machines. The giant wasted no time and ordered his architects to build a microcomputer that would wipe out all the others with one decisive blow.

IBM’s architects built the machine in record time, then went shopping for an operating system and a programming language. They paid a visit to an eccentric physician in California who later became known as Dr DOS. The doctor had designed an operating system called CP/M, but he had no time for Big Blue. He told his emissaries that he was late for a game of golf and left them standing by his front gate with their mouths open.

Big Blue’s men didn’t dare return empty-handed. After making further inquiries, they tracked down a young student named Bill Gates in New Mexico , who was rumoured to have a clone of CP/M.

Bill offered to licence the CP/M clone to Big Blue’s men for a fee per PC sold, which they agreed to pay. He also offered them a licence for the Basic compiler he’d worked on at the university, which had earned him the nickname Basic Bill.

Big Blue’s men returned to the giant’s headquarters, happy to have secured everything they needed. Big Blue didn't have CP/M but they had a workable alternative, MS-DOS. And Basic Bill had just the start he needed for a little enterprise called Microsoft.

When IBM released its Personal Computer in 1981, the other micro makers were stunned.

They’d thought that they, in micro-land, were safe from the giant’s reach, but now they saw that he meant to lock up the market for PCs as he’d done long ago with gigantic computers. At that time, Big Blue still had his marketing muscle and an army of crack sales troops that drove fear and trepidation into the hearts of his rivals.

As it turned out, it didn’t take long for the crafty artisans of Silicon to see that Big Blue’s PC was made from components they could buy from the usual sources.

Only the motherboard was special, but it wasn’t hard to copy its design. Smart copycats began to build machines like Big Blue’s PC in their basements, and added DOS and Basic from Microsoft. Before long, many cheaper clones of Big Blue’s PC appeared in the marketplaces of Silicon and sold like fresh fruit. Among these were Compaq and Dell.

 

Elementary

Basic Bill was thrilled to bits because he soon became a millionaire from licence sales of Basic and DOS. Dr DOS wasn’t thrilled at all and took Bill to court, claiming he’d acquired DOS by nefarious means. The doctor won the court battle but somehow Bill managed to hang onto DOS, and thrive. This scenario would be re-enacted in many future courtroom dramas, and always with the same result.

Some people said Bill was cunning; others called him a thief. Others again said he was just lucky. Whatever the truth, luck must’ve played a big part in Bill’s life – how else could the worst PC operating system on earth end up conquering the desktop, the office and every cash register in the land of Silicon ?

Basic Bill didn’t believe in luck and hated his nickname, but he knew his time would come. First, h e moved Microsoft to new headquarters at Redmond in Washington on the shores of a scenic lake. Then he set about proving how smart he was. He did that by hiring the smartest people money could buy and offering them stock options that would be worth small fortunes once Microsoft was floated.

 

Playing Games

The early eighties were a turbulent time in the land of Silicon . While Big Blue and Basic Bill were focused on the business market, Commodore and Atari sold their PCs into the booming consumer market for video games.

At the peak of the video game boom, Commodore had almost 40% of the PC market with its C64. Apples were still small fruit and the two Steves struggled to make ends meet. In 1982, they approached Commodore, and offered their new Apple II along with their little company. Their overtures fell on deaf ears, which made them very lucky as well.

The market for video games soon turned into a bloody price war. Texas Instruments was the first casualty, Atari the next. Commodore prevailed for some years, but struggled when it switched to making IBM-compatible PCs.

Basic Bill knew that serious citizens were buying new PCs to count on and to write on. VisiCalc was selling like hotcakes, and WordStar was selling faster than the best fruit in the marketplace. Wordperfect and Lotus 1-2-3 were latecomers, but they couldn’t keep up with the demand for their products either, despite asking hundreds of dollars for a licence.

When Basic Bill saw how much money these upstarts were making, he hired a bunch of smart authors to write Multiplan and Word. Bill was also smart enough to see that Apples would soon become very popular fruit in the land of Silicon, and made sure that his programs were fresh enough to go into the same boxes.

Bill didn’t much care for DOS, the crudest operating system in the land of Silicon , so he developed XENIX, a version of the UNIX operating system that could run on micro-processors. It was far superior to DOS, but wasn’t the success Bill had hoped for, so he sold it to some smart operators from Santa Cruz . Then he went to work on a new idea: build a Graphical User Interface that would hide the crude face of DOS. He shared his vision with his architects and told them to get to work on the project right away.

 

Apples and Raincoats

Just as Basic Bill expected, the fruit grown by the two Steves flourished beyond their wildest dreams. Steve Jobs had a bold vision for a personal computer that would do real work; one that any and every citizen could use without doing degree courses on the mysteries of DOS and command line programming.

Steve Jobs had very big ideas for Apple, some so big that people began calling him Big Jobs. He wanted to fill the world with Apples and knew he’d need a mighty marketer to help him. Savvy John Sculley, who’d led the people of Pepsi to victory against the Coke empire, seemed just the man.

Savvy John agreed to join the two Steves after a long courtship. Sadly, he knew nothing about Silicon and tried to turn the Apple colony into a fruit juice co-operative. It wasn’t long before Big Jobs realized he’d made a very Big mistake.

In 1984 Big Blue launched the PC-AT, the first (IBM) PC to use the new Intel 80286 16-bit processor, which had inbuilt support for multitasking. As yet there was no software which used that feature, and this was a sign of things to come in the land of Silicon : flashy new hardware leading the way, and poor old software trying to catch up.  

The Apple growers responded by announcing a brand new variety: The Mac. Like previous Apples, it used Motorola’s 68,000 chipset. Unlike previous PCs, the Mac came with a Graphical User Interface and a mouse that allowed people to point at files and open them or drag them and drop them from here to there.  

It was Big Jobs’ Biggest idea yet and he predicted that Apple would sell 2 million Macs in 1985.

Only 250,000 Macs found a home that year because businesses had little use for machines with no hard drive or high quality printer, and ordinary folks couldn’t pay the Mac’s high price. Apple II sales were slow as well, yet the rest of the PC market was booming. The Apple growers’ council wasn’t happy with Big Jobs.

Jobs was already working on BigMac, his next Big idea. When the council asked him why there were so many Apples left in the store house, Big Jobs said that hiring Savvy John had been a big mistake. It so happened that the council had come to resent Big Jobs and his Big Ego and his Big Ideas that never panned out, and they said it would be better for him to grow some other kind of fruit somewhere else. So it came to pass that Big Jobs cashed in his section of the orchard and went to plant a new one in the NeXT valley.

 

Windows

The Mac showed Basic Bill how far behind his architects were with his Windows, which were crude and tended to fall off their hinges when people opened them. Like Big Jobs, Basic Bill believed the Mac GUI would take the land of Silicon by storm. He didn’t want to be left out, so he wrote to Savvy John suggesting that Apple licence the Mac GUI to all the other PC makers.  

Savvy John saw that doing this would make the Apple growers very rich, so he talked to some PC makers and a number were ready to pay him a handsome licence fee. One look at Bill’s first set of Windows shows why.

What Bill didn’t appreciate for some time was that Apple’s rejection of his idea was the greatest stroke of luck to hit him in his whole life.

The man in charge of Apple production was Gaudy Gassée. He’d earned his nickname by dressing in flamboyant leather jackets and pants, and now he convinced the growers that Mac sales would crash if other PC makers got their hands on the Mac’s secret ingredient. The growers believed him and told Savvy John to drop the idea. They didn’t have the slightest inkling that their decision paved the way for Bill to be crowned king one day.  

They also instructed Savvy John to send Microsoft a letter threatening court action, since they suspected that Bill had stolen some of their ideas. This was one courtroom drama Bill was keen to avoid since he was preparing to float Microsoft on the stock market and didn’t want to make potential investors nervous. Bill was also making a lot of money from packaging Multiplan and Word with Apples, so the last thing he wanted was a war with the growers whose colony was many times bigger than Bill’s little software company.

And so it came to pass that Bill went to see Savvy John in Cupertino , to remind him that MS Word and Multiplan had helped sell truckloads of Apples. He also told John about Excel, the new replacement for Multiplan, and the two ended up making a deal: Savvy John agreed to license pieces of the Mac GUI to Microsoft and Bill agreed to continue making programs for the Mac. He even agreed to Savvy John’s demand to not release an IBM PC version of Excel until two years after the MAC version became available.  

 

Battle Scenes

The mid-eighties were a watershed in the land of Silicon . The battle for the desktop saw frenzied activity, with several makers producing interfaces that rivaled the MAC GUI for look and feel: Digital Research developed a front-end for CP/M called GEM, and Commodore designed a lovely new face for the Amiga.  

Sadly, CP/M had been left out in the cold after DOS became standard fare on IBM-compatible PCs, despite being a superior OS and despite DR re-branding the product DR DOS in a last ditch effort to stay in the game. Commodore didn’t fare much better, despite producing slick Amiga PCs with superior sound and video capabilities. Commodore’s transition to the business market failed to attract software developers and therefore customers. In 1987, the company began making IBM-style PCs but never gained serious market share.  

Xenix was also sidelined, along with more obscure desktop alternatives. MS-DOS dominated the market for the same reason IBM-compatible PCs did: the software authors in the land of Silicon needed a standard and went with the most common denominator.  

Big Blue, despite setting the standard, was losing market share to the copycats. He sent his men to pay Lucky Bill another visit. They told him that Big Blue wanted a new operating system that was superior to DOS and would only run on IBM’s next generation of PCs. Bill wasted no time signing a deal to help Big Blue develop OS/2.  

In 1987, Big Blue struck out against the copycats with the PS/2. The machine was based on Intel’s new 386 processor, came with MCA – IBM’s Micro Channel Architecture - and ran OS/2. In a single strike, IBM had banished the three biggest flaws in the original PC design: the slow CPU, the slower internal bus speed and the crudest operating system ever made.

Big Blue’s plan to regain control of the booming PC market was to licence MCA to the copycats, figuring they’d need it to remain competitive.

 

 

Stravaganza

Meanwhile, Apple sold its one-millionth Mac. Now the growers produced Mac II, which sported a full screen along with other enhancements.

Savvy John had come to realize that he hadn’t joined a fruit growing co-operative but an opera company where prima donnas hogged the limelight and big egos strutted the stage.

The story goes that some stars refused to talk to others while factions plotted against each other behind the scenes. Savvy John tried hard to turn the opera company into a business. He put Delbert Yocam, a Methodist with a reputation for harsh discipline, in charge of operations. He shocked the artists in the Apple Opera Company when he asked them to account for poor performances and held them to their extravagant promises. 

 

Serious Performance

At the lofty end of the market, workstations had become popular with engineers and scientists for CAD and scientific modelling. In 1987, Sun Microsystems introduced a new workstation based on the SPARC (Scalable P rocessor ARChitecture) chipset, which employed a RISC design. Clever types who played with processor designs in university labs had found that Reduced Instructions Sets made for faster Computing than the CISC designs of the time, which had grown too Complex for their own good.

Most workstations were personal versions of mini-computers (with graphics monitors) that ran UNIX, the operating system that had come to dominate this segment. While most PCs used Intel cpus, UNIX-based systems were more at home with Motorola’s 68,000 chipset. Since there was little difference between the computers of different vendors, some saw RISC designs as a way to gain an edge on their competitors.

SUN, IBM, Pyramid and MIPS were early adopters of the RISC concept, with chipsets made to their designs by specialist makers like Motorola and Toshiba.

Some vendors managed to offset the high cost of these designer chips by selling their designs into high volume markets. For example, MIPS chips found a place in Sony Play Stations and Nintendo game consoles. The toys were cheap but the workstations came at a stellar price. As always in the land of Silicon , that was to change soon. 

 

New Windows

Microsoft released Windows 2.0 at the end of 1987. They looked a little better, and opened and closed more easily. Word for Windows and Excel for Windows kept the GUI company while Lucky Bill worked hard to persuade software authors to port their programs to his new Windows.

The Apple growers were outraged because Windows 2.0 looked a lot like the Mac’s GUI. This time Savvy John didn’t bother writing letters but called Apple’s lawyers and told them to take Microsoft to court for copying Apple’s foremost production.

With his war chest bulging from DOS licence fees, Bill told his lawyers to sue Apple back and to drag the battle out as long as possible. Bill had learnt that court actions tended to drain the resources of his enemies more than his own.

The battle would last almost two years and end with Apple the loser. Suddenly people began to refer to Bill Gates as Brainy Bill, and Microsoft shares became as precious as the family jewels people kept locked in their wall safes. Big Blue’s marketing muscle and his army of clones had achieved what Brainy Bill had only dreamt of: done away with all the independents who had the lion’s share of the market not that long ago. All he needed to do now was to make Windows as ubiquitous as DOS had become.

 

The Former Giant

Big Blue flexed his muscles one last time and sent letters to clone manufacturers demanding licence fees for its new MCA design. Additional demands included retroactive licensing fees for aspects of the original IBM-PC design. This move had disastrous consequences: the copycats stopped clawing into each other and spat in the giant’s face. The ‘Gang of Nine’ - AST Research, Compaq, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Olivetti, Tandy, WYSE, and Zenith Data Systems – designed their own PC bus as an alternative to IBM’s MCA: the Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA).  

Big Blue still had a lot of power over corporations and governments, but it didn’t hold. More and more businesses embraced Microsoft’s Windows as the emerging standard, rather than opting for IBM’s PS/2, OS/2 and MCA, which they saw as a clumsy attempt to lock them in. By the turn of the decade, Big Blue’s forces were in total disarray.

 

The Ring Cycle

For the 1988 season, the Apple Opera Company planned a lot of drama and intrigue. Gaudy Gassée had remained in charge of engineering, apparently untouchable. He had the support of Apple’s engineers, despite his habit of screaming at them until they agreed with him, because he let them work on whatever wild ideas they came up with.

Gassée gave himself the same latitude and became consumed with a project codenamed Aquarius, an enormous Apple with four RISC CPUs at its core. No one in the Apple colony knew much about RISC or multi-processing, but this small detail didn’t seem to trouble Gaudy Gassee.

The rising star of the colony was Mike Spindler. While in charge of Apple’s European colony, he’ managed to sell computers to Japan . The Japanese had been slow to embrace the PC revolution because PCs refused to speak their language. Spindler saw the chance to sell more Apples, put Kanji labels on the fruit and opened up the market.

Spindler was a big man nicknamed Diesel for his locomotive determination. Like many great thinkers before him, he was frequently misunderstood. This caused him few problems in the Apple opera company, whose artists were accustomed to gurus talking in strange metaphors, but it tended to confound outsiders. When PCWeek interviewed Spindler, so the story goes, the journalist couldn’t understand a word he said. A second interview failed to make Spindler’s utterings more intelligible and the story was scrapped.

Spindler didn’t take well to stress and got so worked up on important occasions that his mouth and brain would fall out of synch. Even at internal meetings he’d often become agitated and confused as he spoke. His German accent would become thicker and he’d stop making sense. Many times, his office appeared to be empty until a nosy colleague would discover him cowering under his desk or hiding in his closet. He explained that this behaviour helped him to calm down.

Another star was Alan Loren, the man in charge of Apple’s US market. He distinguished himself by being rude to subordinates or falling asleep during presentations and ripping them apart when he awoke, which often reduced the presenter to tears. His singular talent seemed to be alienating Apple dealers and customers. On a sales call to Motorola, one of Apple’s biggest customers, Loren lectured the IT director on what Motorola should be doing to beat the Japanese semiconductor manufacturers. After the meeting, the IT director told his Apple account rep that he would remove every Macintosh from Motorola if Loren ever showed his face again.

These were some of the stars in the opera company Savvy John was trying to forge into a business with Del Yocam’s help. Naturally, Gassée, Spindler, and Loren resented Del Yocam’s efforts to hold them accountable for their mistakes. Over time, they managed to persuade Savvy John that Yocam was plotting against him. Savvy John made a Very Big mistake when he believed them and banished Yocam to an island in the Pacific.

Despite the costly mistakes behind the scenes, The Apple Opera Company was now turning over $4 billion and had become the biggest opera company in the land of Silicon . Microsoft only turned over $ 800 million in 1988, yet it was growing much faster and its profits were even bigger. Its shares had shot past $100.

Gaudy Gassée, still thinking Big, was hellbent on building ever more powerful Macs. Soon there were nine models to choose from, none costing less than $3,000.

The most expensive was the Macintosh IIfx at $10,000, the one with the biggest screen, but even it wasn’t big enough for Gassée. With project Aquarius going nowhere, he approached Apollo Inc., a company that made technical workstations.  

Apollo was feeling the heat of Sun Microsystems’ rise to supremacy, so they received Gassée with open arms. He wanted to sell Apollo workstations as BigMacs to General Motors, to Defence and to NASA. Within months, Apollo had Mac software running on their machines but, inexplicably, Gassée lost interest and cancelled the agreement. Apollo, faced with imminent bankruptcy, fell into the arms of Hewlett-Packard.

Like Alan Loren, Gassée had a big talent for turning allies into enemies. Adobe was one of the Apple growers’ key allies but Gassée ruined the relationship by telling Adobe’s CEO that Apple would grow its own Postscript interpreter if Adobe didn’t drop its prices. When Gassée didn’t get his way, he spent a lot of money trying to make good his threat but Apple’s engineers didn’t have the know-how. In the end, the desperate Gassée made an agreement with Microsoft to license TrueImage, which must’ve made Brainy Bill’s day.

Savvy John wasn’t pleased when he found out that Gassée had lost a key Apple ally, and even less pleased when TrueType (the Apple version) had to be scrapped because it wasn’t good enough. Yet he let Gassée continue in his starring role.

While Gassée was stumbling through his flawed dance routine, Apple missed a big chance to gain more market share. After IBM’s strong-arm tactics with the PS/2 failed, the increased demand for IBM-PC clones drove up the prices of silicon chips. Apple had fat enough margins to absorb the extra cost and could’ve grabbed the chance to grow its market share. Instead, Gassée and Loren saw a chance to make more money and raised the ticket prices for all Apple productions.

Soon there were many empty seats in Apple’s theatres as even loyal fans refused to pay the inflated prices. This time Savvy John punished Gassée, making him work in the wardrobe department. For reasons Savvy John did not explain, he put Mike Spindler in charge of operations. Some said it was because Spindler perfectly reflected the dysfunctional nature of the Apple Opera Company.

 

Brainy Bill

While Apple and IBM were busy doing themselves irreparable harm, Bill filled the vacuum with Windows, Word and Excel. Corporations and government agencies had bought millions of IBM-compatible PCs and Bill’s software was the logical choice for the desktop. PCs were still costing serious money, and ordinary people used them primarily at their workplace, where they learnt to use Microsoft software.

Later on, when they could afford to buy a PC for their homes, they’d buy an IBM-compatible PC with Microsoft software because it saved them from having to learn all over again. As a result, Excel and Word became more popular every day. Bill Gates had been smart enough to back both IBM and Apple. Users of Word and Excel could easily transfer their data from one platform to the other and Brainy Bill won either way.

 

The law of gravity

The stars at Apple were dismayed that their lavish productions weren’t more popular, even with Savvy John launching advertising campaigns that were really savvy. The problem was that they were so savvy they only appealed to savvy people. Soon the talk in the village taverns was that Apple’s shows were designed to amuse the intellectual elite. Indeed, they were much loved by academics and artists and hip people in general.

The council of the opera company pleaded with Savvy John to spend less money on advertising and more on R & D. They also begged him to learn more about computers and he made an effort for a while, but then he became fascinated with the laws of gravity. He was often seen in the orchards, studying the way Apples fell from trees as they ripened. An Apple fell in his lap one day and that gave him the idea for a new kind of fruit: the Newton .

Suddenly, Savvy John was all for spending more money on R&D but channelled most of it into cultivating the Newton , an ambitious design for a handheld Apple with a handwriting pad instead of a keyboard. The colony’s architects told Savvy John that this was a difficult concept to put into production but he wouldn’t listen. He became as blinded by the Newton as Gaudy Gassée was by Aquarius.

When the growers’ council learnt that Gassée had spent $50 million on his pet project, they sank it. Gassée still had his supporters because he’d kept the prices of Macs way above the price of IBM PCs, and argued that people were willing to pay a premium for the Mac’s secret ingredient. Not enough customers paid the premium, but the growers weren’t willing to change the pricing model, despite the dwindling ticket sales.

Some of Apple’s architects focused on more practical ideas than did Gassée. Aldus PageMaker was a smart program for desktop publishing but its use was limited because none of the existing printers could cope with complex sets of mixed graphics on a single page. Apple’s architects decided to build a printer that could. To that end, they bought a print engine from Canon and a program called PostScript from Adobe.

Postscript turned out to be a heavy load that squashed the Apples it was meant to run on, so the architects put a dedicated Motorola CPU inside the printer just to run postscript. It solved one problem but created another: a price tag of 7,000 dollars for their clever printer, many times the cost of dot matrix printers.

To get out of that dilemma, the architects devised LocalTalk, simple networking software that allowed workgroups to share the new LaserWriter. That meant the cost could be defrayed over many users - this was the kind of ingenuity that kept the Apple growers from being swamped by the Big Blue/Microsoft assault.

Sadly, many other projects bore no fruit. Macintosh Office should’ve followed the success of the Laserwriter, but there were production problems. The File Server that was to be part of Mac Office never made it past rehearsals. AppleShare was too big for the average Mac to carry and made the stage collapse, and BigMac never made it to the griller.

 

Eggs and Baskets

Brainy Bill wanted to have an egg in every basket, but there were too many new baskets in the marketplaces of Silicon every week. His forces were stretched to the limit while his war chest was overflowing, so he went on a buying spree. First was Forethought, who’d developed slick presentation software, which Bill later sold as PowerPoint. Then followed Dynamical Systems who’d designed software for multitasking, which had given the Windows architects a lot of headaches.

With PCs growing more powerful every year and people storing more and more data on them, Bill thought they’d soon need database software. He made a deal with Ashton-Tate and bought software from Sybase to help his architects build SQL Server. Bill had already seen the potential of Desktop Publishing and bought Bauer Enterprises, the company that had designed a PostScript competitor called TrueImage. That was the piece of software Bill ended up licensing to Apple for a time.

In the barren hills of southern Utah , not far from where the Wordperfect people had their headquarters, the folks from Novell had designed software that allowed PCs to be connected in Local Area Networks managed by a ‘Netware’ Server. Brainy Bill saw the beauty of this idea and paid a visit to the folks at 3Com. They made networking hardware for minicomputers, and Bill made a deal with them to help his architects develop LAN Manager for Windows.

When this news reached the people at Novell, they shook their heads in despair. Was there no place left in the land of Silicon that was safe from Microsoft’s ambition?

 

Windows of Opportunity

As the eighties came to a close, Brainy Bill sat in his office playing with the prototype of Windows 3. He liked the way they worked and kept opening them to take in the full view of the lake.

Once again, Lady Luck had smiled on him: Dave Cutler, the architect of Digital’s brilliant VMS operating system, had left the VAX maker after DEC terminated his next OS project (MICA) and found a ready new home by the lake at Redmond, Washington. Bill told Dave that there was plenty of room for any of his former team mates at Dec, and Dave persuaded many of them to follow him to Microsoft.

DEC suspected that Cutler had taken some of Mica's code to Microsoft and sued Brainy Bill. It cost Microsoft $150 million U.S. and a commitment to support DEC's new Alpha CPU chip in NT, but Bill didn’t think that was too high a price to pay for a bunch of smart architects.

They worked on OS/2 for Big Blue, but Bill had a secret plan to keep the best part of their labours for himself. The best part was NT, the building block of a true multitasking OS that Bill needed to replace the crumbling old DOS platform.

Key parts of NT formed the building blocks for Windows 3. Cutler called it WNT using the same logic in reverse that had created HAL, the computer in 2001 Space Odyssey. HAL was made up of the letters preceding each of the three that made up IBM, and WNT was made up of the letters following VMS, Dave’s last great work.

Brainy Bill was well pleased with what his architects had achieved, and he looked forward to the new decade with unbridled joy. The Apple Opera Company was rife with infighting and lacked leadership, and Big Blue had fallen victim to his arrogance at last. The road ahead looked a lot easier than Brainy Bill had imagined in his wildest dreams.

Briard
April 2008

 

 

Briard may be contacted at briard@techsupportalert.com or leave a comment below.
History of Personal Computers Part 2

 

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