August 30, 2018

The tortoise and the hare (2/7)

The challenge for journalists covering science and industry is to capture the state of a rapidly changing environment without forgetting they are taking pictures of moving objects. Reducing technology to snapshots in time masks all the action going on behind the scenes. Compared to the jack-rabbiting hare, the tortoise doesn't seem to be moving at all.

This was certainly true of software and hardware in the late 1980s. Gordon Moore devised his famous law in 1965. As with a standard exponential growth curve, the rate of change was barely perceptible at first. But by the 1990s, it was taking off like a rocket. The technology was evolving so fast that the real world appeared utterly unreal.

In his 12 June 1990 Inside Track column, John Dvorak reported that a

two million transistor 586 will show up in 1992, and the 4-6 million 686 in 1996. By the year 2000, the expected technology breakthroughs will allow the company 100 million transistor on the 786. It will crank out 2 billion instructions per second [2,000 MIPS] at a clock speed of 250 MHz! Sheesh. The company confirms these assertions.

Such predictions were gobsmacking unbelievable at the time. But the intel Dvorak got from Intel was spot-on. Released in 1999, The Pentium 3 had 9,500,000 transistors on board, a clock speed of 450 MHz, and cranked out 2,054 MIPS. The Pentium 4 topped 100,000,000 transistors in 2004. Multi-core CPUs today contain billions.

(Click image to enlarge.)

Once a slow-moving technology begins to pick up speed, the acceleration can catch bystanders by surprise. Just as when a much heralded technology begins to slow, it can quickly get stuck in the mud.

The most surprising things about the origins of the personal computer is that a lumbering entity like IBM brought the PC to market in so nimble a fashion. So quickly, in fact, that neither IBM nor Microsoft had time to develop its own operating system. Microsoft instead purchased the progenitor of MS-DOS from Seattle Computer Products.

Come the 1990s, a decade on, a new operating system was needed, a 32-bit OS for the 32-bit microprocessors that already dominated the market, that extended the memory address space from 1 MB to 4 GB. And it should come with a graphical user interface (GUI). OS/2 ticked off all the boxes. Obviously history was simply going to repeat itself.

Except that IBM viewed the accidental standard it had created as exactly that: an accident. A mistake, one it was not eager to repeat. Still, everybody expected another turn on a dime, a reboot of the personal computer industry once again engineered by the hit Hope and Crosby duo of Microsoft and IBM.

Everybody but Microsoft, it turned out.

Work on a GUI OS interface began at Microsoft in 1981. Windows had been in formal development since 1983, when Bill Gates recruited Scott McGregor, a key developer behind Xerox PARC's pioneering windowing system, and put him in charge of the project. That was four years prior to the release of OS/2 1.0.

Contrary to the lore that emerged later, the first 16-bit version of Windows was lauded by the press. In his 20 August 1985 pre-release review, PC Magazine editor Bill Machrone predicted that "Windows will become a powerful tool for power users, and it lays a solid groundwork for future generations of PC applications."

PC Magazine later praised Windows 1.0 in its "Best of 1985" issue. Machrone again described it as "a harbinger of the future," especially in the way it integrated device drivers into the operating system. In a featured 25 February 1986 product review, Jeff Duntemann called Windows "the face DOS will wear in the future."

Indeed, DOS would wear that face until the release of Windows XP in 2001.

Holding Windows back from widespread consumer acceptance at the time was the hardware. To run well, Windows 1.0 required a maxed-out PC AT with an EGA card and monitor, which could almost double the price of an already pricey system.

But like the stubborn tortoise, Microsoft plodded along, releasing versions that first took advantage of the hybrid 16/32-bit 286 and then the fully 32-bit 386.

As Steve Ballmer recounted in Triumph of the Nerds, "I was the development manager for Windows 1.0 and we kept slogging and slogging to get things right for [Windows 3.0 in] 1990."

Microsoft was slogging in the right direction. The 15 March 1988 issue of PC Magazine inaugurated the "Pipeline" column that included a bestseller list focusing on business software and operating systems. The first list began as follows:

1. Lotus 1-2-3 (DOS)
2. WordPerfect 4.2 (DOS)
3. Microsoft Windows 2.03

That third entry remains a surprise. Flying well below the radar, Windows had already established a sizable market presence. When Windows 3.0 debuted in May 1990, Microsoft finally had the consumer operating system it'd been looking for and a good idea of how fast that critter could run. It was time to press the pedal to the metal.

Consider a 30 April 1991 column in which Jim Seymour ranted about Microsoft changing the default keyboard shortcuts in Word 5.5 (DOS) to match those of the Windows interface. A change he points to is that ALT-F-O now launched the File Open dialog box. With the benefit of hindsight, ALT-F-O is an amazing example of forward thinking.

A quarter century later, ALT-F-O retains the same function in practically all Windows applications. In 1991, Microsoft committed itself to a future based on the Windows interface. And followed through.

But back in the 27 December 1988 issue, columnist Ray Duncan wasn't

ready to join either the "DOS is Dead" or the "DOS Forever" school of thought. I think it quite likely that OS/2's successors will eventually eclipse MS-DOS, but I suspect this will take a lot longer than anybody now imagines—perhaps ten years or more.

Actually, it'd only take four more years for Windows 3.x to bury OS/2, selling forty times more copies than OS/2 had thus far in its entire existence.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (introduction)
The future that wasn't (1/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)
The future that wasn't (6/7)
The future that wasn't (7/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

Labels: , , , ,