Rise To Power
How Microsoft rode the personal computing tsunami to become the undisputed king of the PC market.
Microsoft is one of the best-known brands out there. A multi-billion-dollar technology company, it has helped shape the world of computers since the 1980s, and though it finds itself in a less dominant position than it used to enjoy, today it is still among the most important technology vendors in the field.
Ironically, however, Microsoft’s rocky start to the smartphone era, which began with the release of the iPhone, came about because it had dominated so much of the PC era. Its stated goal of “a computer on every desk in every home” became a reality, and it is to its founders’ credit that the company came to rule so much of personal computing.
Microsoft was founded in the 1970s, and was, at first, born to serve the enterprise market. At work, people relied on typewriters, and if they needed to copy a document, they would likely use a mimeograph or carbon paper.
Few people had heard of microcomputers, but two young computer enthusiasts, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had inkling that PCs could go on to solve enormous problems. In 1975, then, Gates and Allen formed a partnership called Microsoft (a portmanteau of the words microcomputer and software). Like most start-ups, the company began small, but, in a way that has characterised Silicon Valley since, it had a huge vision.
Microsoft saw some early success, winning a contract with Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems, which agreed to ship one of its Altair computers with software developed by Gates and Allen.
It wasn’t until 1980, however, that things really got going. In June, Gates and Allen hired Gates’ former Harvard classmate, Steve Ballmer to help run the company. Ballmer would eventually take over as CEO upon Gates’ resignation in 2000. Back in 1980, however, the young Microsoft was approached by IBM, a well-established technology company, about a project code- named “Chess.”
In response, Microsoft focused its efforts on building a new operating system for IBM. The team named their new operating system MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System). When the IBM PC running MS DOS ships in 1981, it introduces a whole new language to the general public. Typing “C:” and various cryptic commands gradually becomes part of daily work. On IBM’s PCs, the operating system is dubbed IBM PC DOS, however, the deal allowed Microsoft to retain control over the MS-DOS platform.
IBM hadn’t done their homework on Gates, who used the loophole to sell the software to numerous companies that were creating clones of IBM devices. The likes of Columbia Data Products, Eagle Computer and Compaq were all soon selling PCs, and they were all running on Microsoft’s operating system.
The vendor became one of the most mportant players in the software industry. Realising what they had, Gates and co. saw no reason to stop innovating. After all, DOS was functional, but it still led to frustrations, and the industry was moving quickly to overcome them.
To stay ahead, Microsoft began work on ‘Interface Man- ager’, a new operating system that would eventually become Windows. Rather than typing in MS-DOS commands, the new sys- tem allowed users to simply point and click their way through screens, or ‘windows’. The operating system was announced in 1983, but development issues saw the release date getting pushed back. It finally shipped in 1985.
There were drop-down menus, scroll bars, icons, and dialog boxes that make programs easier to learn and use. You were able to switch among several programs without having to quit and restart each one. Windows 1.0 shipped with several pro- grams, including MS DOS file management, Paint, Windows Writer, Notepad, Calculator, and a calendar, card file, and clock to help users manage day-to-day activities. There was even a game—Reversi.
In 1987, Microsoft released Windows 2.0 with desktop icons and expanded memory. With improved graphics support, users could now overlap windows, control the screen layout, and use keyboard shortcuts to speed up their work. Some software developers began writing their first Windows–based programs for this release. Control Panel also made its first appearance in Windows 2.0.
By 1988, Microsoft had become the world’s largest PC software company based on sales. Computers had started to become a part of daily life for some office workers. However, adoption was about to skyrocket through the next decade.
On May 22, 1990, Microsoft announced Windows 3.0, followed shortly by Windows 3.1 in 1992. Taken together, they sold 10 million copies in their first two years, making this the most widely used Windows operating system so far. The scale of this success caused Microsoft to revise earlier plans. Virtual Memory improves visual graphics. In 1990 Windows starts to look like the versions to come.
And 1995 saw the launch of Windows 95, selling a record-setting 7 million copies in the first five weeks. It was the most publicised launch Microsoft had ever taken on. And this was the era of fax/modems, email, the new online world, and dazzling multimedia games and educational software.
Windows 95 catered to this with built-in Internet support, dial-up networking, and new plug-and-play capabilities that made it easy to install hardware and software. Windows 95 formed the basis for all the subsequent releases, featuring the ‘Start’ button, and the desktop view that is now so popular. Windows 98, 2000, XP and Vista, all build on and refine this design language.
All the while, Microsoft remained the dominant PC software maker, and as PC sales continued to skyrocket over the first decade of the new millennium, Micro- soft raked in the cash.
Today, Windows is eclipsed, measured by install base, only by Android, and while Microsoft’s efforts on the mobile side have fallen flat, it has geared itself towards services and other types of software. It may not rule the digital universe anymore, but it’s still an important player.