Windows is so ubiquitous that we often take it for granted. It's the operating system used on nearly 95 percent of all the desktops and notebooks sold worldwide, relegating other OSs to niche players. But that wasn't always the case. Indeed, when Windows first shipped, 20 years ago this month, it was considered nothing more than a slow operating environment that had arrived late to the party, well behind the industry leaders, Apple and Xerox PARC. Windows had a lot of growing up to do.
Though it is now the industry standard, Windows is still not everything we—or Microsoft—would like it to be. With its 20th anniversary approaching, I visited Microsoft's headquarters recently to talk with the team behind Windows—to get reflections on the key moments in its evolution, its position in the market today, and what lies in store for its future.
Early Years Microsoft today is a huge company, with thousands of employees in hundreds of buildings all around Redmond, Washington. That was hardly the case in 1983, when I first saw the product that was destined to evolve into Windows. Microsoft's headquarters were merely a small building next to the Burgermaster in Bellevue, another Seattle suburb. Then eight years old, the company had grown to about 400 people. It was primarily known as the maker of BASIC programs for many systems, and of MS-DOS, an operating system it had sold to IBM a few years earlier.
Many different companies during that period made computers that ran MS-DOS, but the problem was that these computers weren't all compatible with one another. IBM's version, called PC-DOS, was one standard, but companies like Digital Equipment Corp., Texas Instruments, and HP all made systems with different graphics devices.
Over the next few years, the industry would move to a world of "IBM compatibility," but many of these systems couldn't run applications designed specifically for the IBM PC.
"We Bet the Entire Company On It"
That was one of the key goals behind the project that was to become Windows. Back then, it was called "Interface Manager," and when I first saw it, I was working for a magazine called Popular Computing. Interface Manager was being developed by a small team that included Rao Remala, who was Interface Manager's first programmer and worked for Microsoft for more than 20 years in various areas of the business.
Microsoft chairman and chief software architect Bill Gates clearly remembers how much was riding on that project.
"We weren't kidding that we bet the entire company on it," Gates recalls. "The strange thing was we were a much smaller company at the time. We were competing to establish this platform with companies larger than ourselves."When Interface Manager was first announced, Microsoft described it as an option that would work on top of all the company's operating systems, including DOS and Xenix, Microsoft's version of Unix.
The idea was that it would provide a single interface to control the bitmapped screen, graphics hardware, and various other I/O devices. The basic foundations of the future Windows were all there—on-screen windows, easy data transfer between programs, graphic icons, and mouse support. One of the key features was a series of menu commands at the bottom of each window, giving a common way of entering commands for all the programs.Part of the reason this was included was that by the fall of 1983, "integrated software" was the big buzzword in the industry, spurred by the success of Lotus 1-2-3. At this point, a number of new "integrated operating environments" were being developed, including Apple's Lisa, which had shipped earlier that year, and a number of systems that were designed for x86 computers—notably VisiCorp's VisiOn, Quarterdeck's DESQ (which eventually morphed into DESQview), and Digital Research's Concurrent CP/M (notable for enabling multitasking).
Eyeing the Competition
Of course, graphics were a large part of the discussion as well. Apple was working on its Macintosh project at this point, and Digital Research was soon to announce its Graphical Environment Manager (GEM). But everyone was taking cues from work that had been done earlier at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California.
"Certainly the work done at Palo Alto Research Center, among others, influenced the bet we made to say the company would put all of its energy behind the graphical interface," Gates remembers.
Gates adds that Windows wasn't merely a graphical user interface. "It was actually two things," he says. "It was multiple applications running at a time, sharing the screen and exchanging data, and it was the graphical interface."
Charles Simonyi, who had worked at PARC and was a key architect of Microsoft's applications business in the early days, says that everyone at Microsoft was aware of Windows' potential. "We knew the graphical user interface would be the future," he says, adding that the company expected both Xerox and Apple to be in that arena.
Jeff Raikes, now president of Microsoft's business division, joined the company in 1981 and recalls studying the competition closely.
"Three or four offices down the hall from me, we had a Xerox Star so we could go and understand and play with the graphical user interface," says Raikes, who had worked at Apple and was very familiar with Lisa.
Unleashing Windows 1.0In November 1983, Microsoft announced Windows to the world, saying it would be available "late in the first quarter of 1984" and that it was designed for systems with two floppy drives, 192KB of RAM, and a mouse. This certainly wouldn't be the last time Microsoft would miss a Windows deadline or underestimate the amount of hardware needed. The actual boxed software for Windows 1.0 launched during the time of the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas in November 1985. By that point, Microsoft was recommending a minimum of 256KB of RAM, or 512KB of RAM and a hard drive for running multiple applications or when running it on top of DOS 3.0 or higher. PC Magazine's first review, in February 1986, pointed out that "Windows strains the limits of current hardware."
That first version had a large number of utilities and accessories, most of which remain in Windows today, including the Calendar, Notepad, Terminal, Calculator, Clock, Windows Write and Windows Paint, Control Panel, and the Reversi game. The menus had moved to the top of the screen, and the windows couldn't overlap; instead, they could be stacked as tiles, so one was next to another.
The first few versions of Windows were available as an "operating environment" that ran on top of DOS, or, more commonly, as a runtime environment that was included with applications. A few early programs would take advantage of this, notably the Micrografx CAD program called In-A-Vision. Still, most PC users were content to stick with DOS.
Windows 2.0: Overlapping Windows
Microsoft continued to improve Windows over the next few years. The most significant improvements during this period came in December 1987 with the release of Windows 2.0, when icons and overlapping windows were added, and with Windows/386, which took advantage of the abilities of Intel's 80386 processor to run multiple sessions of DOS. This established Windows as a competitor against products like DESQview, which was designed more simply to let you load multiple DOS applications in memory at once, switching among them.
What continued to hold Windows back in the late 1980s was the dearth of applications available for it. Along with In-A-Vision, the most important were Aldus PageMaker, a page layout program, and Microsoft's own Excel spreadsheet. Excel was one of three applications Microsoft had already decided to develop when Charles Simonyi arrived in 1981 and became director of application development. The other two were word processing and database products. But Microsoft focused first on Excel because it had the "best cost-benefit ratio," Simonyi says.
Both PageMaker and Excel had first appeared on the Apple Macintosh, but they were where Microsoft's application strategy really came together. Unlike Lotus, which was focusing on single integrated applications (Symphony on DOS and Jazz on the Macintosh), Microsoft concentrated on large individual applications like Excel and, later, PowerPoint and Word.
Giving Apps "Depth" and "Breadth"
Jeff Raikes says he convinced the company to work with the developers of AppleWorks (an older Apple II integrated suite) to create a low-end suite, which became Microsoft Works, to complement the individual large programs such as Excel.
"I had to explain to Bill how we were going to position Works with the rest of the product line. That's when we came up with 'depth users' and 'breadth users,' that whole positioning," Raikes recalls. "It worked."
Indeed, the depth- and breadth-user concept was the overarching theme of the era for the industry. Each application fell under either low-end or high-end functionality, and integrated or standalone programs. In the low-end standalone category were products like the PFS line; low-end integrated products included AppleWorks and Microsoft Works. There were many high-end integrated packages, such as Symphony, Framework, and Enable; high-end standalone products included Microsoft Word and Excel, along with DOS competitors such as 1-2-3 and WordPerfect.
Though Microsoft had been working on a word processing program for a few years, it was an obvious missing piece of Windows until 1989, when Windows 2.0 and Windows/386 were the versions on the market. That year, first Ami (then from Samna, later acquired by Lotus) and then Word for Windows shipped. As Raikes remembers it, while Excel, which shipped a few years earlier, was mostly ported from the Macintosh version, Word for Windows was a whole new architecture. Simonyi points out that the Mac OS had handled many of the functions Word would need, such as dealing with fonts properly, but they weren't tackled for Windows until Windows 3.0.
Ray Ozzie, now a Microsoft chief technology officer, was starting a company at that time called Iris Associates, which would eventually produce Notes. He recalls how difficult Windows programming was in the early days. Memory management was very tough in 16-bit Windows, but Ozzie decided to stick with it, instead of trying to build a graphics environment of his own. "Because I knew Bill and Steve [Ballmer], after playing with it I talked with them about it," Ozzie says. "I was convinced that they had the will to want to get it right."
Iris Associates eventually signed a development deal with Microsoft and created Notes with Windows in mind; it shipped in December 1989. But memory continued to be an issue. "Of the five years of development time that it took to develop Notes, about a third of it was spent on memory management," Ozzie recalls. "It was just staggering, and it wasn't the app, it was just fitting it in memory."
Big changes were to come with Windows 3.0, which arrived in May 1990 and addressed some of the stumbling blocks that plagued earlier versions. It introduced Program Manager and File Manager, which became two significant features of Windows for years to come. And perhaps more important, Windows 3.0 was the first version to allow programs to use memory beyond 640KB.
Indeed, Windows 3 would turn out to be the version of Windows that first truly clicked. But in the meantime, Microsoft's operating-system strategy had gotten much more complicated. Microsoft and IBM had jointly announced work on OS/2 in early 1987, when IBM announced its new PS/2 machines. As part of that deal, both companies were promoting OS/2 as the long-term future for operating systems. They shipped both a character-based version (1.0) and a later version with the graphical presentation manager (1.1).
IBM had announced OS/2 with both a standard edition and an "Extended Edition" that would include database functionality. Microsoft was a partner only on the standard one and was trying to sell it to many hardware companies. The Extended version was sold only by IBM and was designed specifically for IBM hardware.
A Marriage in Disrepair
The joint venture between IBM and Microsoft soured quickly, largely because of a disagreement over graphics. Microsoft wanted OS/2 to have the same graphics as Windows, but IBM wanted it to have a different design, known as GDDM. "We got forced," Gates recalls. "There was this awful episode in '86 when they said 'We want GDDM graphics, not Windows graphics.' And they were basically kicking us out of OS/2. So then Nathan Myhrvold and I said we'd redesign the graphics to be like GDDM, which made it very incompatible with Windows and very big and complicated, and oriented toward this so-called metafile approach that for interactive interfaces isn't what you want."
Gates remembers that he and Steve Ballmer, then Microsoft's vice president of system software and now its CEO, flew down to IBM's headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, weekly to try to keep the team together. Meanwhile, OS/2 was being delayed, and Microsoft was complaining that IBM's software was larger and more complex than it should have been.The key argument was over whether Microsoft should ship a version of Windows that would directly address memory greater than 1MB. Gates says Windows programs did some smart things to let applications directly use that memory, instead of the more complicated "expanded memory" managers that were used by earlier DOS-based programs, which, for the most part, were limited to 640KB of memory.
Gates says IBM pressured Microsoft not to release it, because it would place Windows in direct competition with OS/2. But he adds that OS/2 was growing so big and was so far behind schedule that Microsoft decided to go ahead and release its next version of Windows, which was 3.0. (For IBM's take on the OS/2 conflict, see the Q&A with Jim Cannavino, who oversaw OS/2's development at IBM.)
Microsoft had positioned Windows 3.0 as a lower-end operating system than OS/2. But in fact, while Windows 3.0 theoretically would run on a 286 with 640KB of memory and a hard drive, users really needed a 386 computer with at least 1MB of "extended memory" to take advantage of it. And when they did, they got an operating system that provided much of the graphical underpinning that people wanted, along with decent multitasking capabilities.
With the release of Windows 3.0, both typical computer users and large companies began to adopt Windows as an operating system. "On the client side, it was the proliferation of fairly inexpensive hardware and very cool apps that let people do things more productively," recalls Jim Allchin, who joined Microsoft in 1990 and is now copresident of its Platform Products & Services Division. "Getting rid of typewriters, getting rid of calculators, those were big deals." (See our interview with Allchin.)
Personal computing was beginning to change the way people worked. "The PCs were much simpler and could be tailored faster for business operations by the IT staff than these big mainframes, where you have to wait in a big queue to tweak an application," Allchin recalls. "And I also believe Microsoft was continuing to improve the system such that it was more acceptable in the business space."
Perhaps more important, Windows 3.0 attracted large numbers of developers. "It really took the 386 for Windows to have the underlying hardware platform that could deliver a useful application and developer experience," says Brad Silverberg, who was then at software company Borland but would go on to head the Windows 95 team. "Before that it was just way too difficult and, as a result, people just wrote to DOS." With Windows 3.0 came "a total flood in 1990 of Windows applications," he recalls.
In the next few years, Windows went through minor changes that actually signaled the inclusion of many new features. In October 1991, Windows 3.0a added a number of multimedia features, making Windows a player in a world with sound and CD-ROM drives. Windows 3.1, which followed in April 1992, focused more on stability and ease of use, and added TrueType scalable fonts, which made everything look and read better. And Windows for Workgroups 3.1 came out in October 1992, adding file sharing, printer sharing, and Microsoft Mail, the company's first big mail client.
3.1 Brings Stability
Although it was just a point release, Windows 3.1 ended up as a milestone, because its improved stability made it something more businesses were willing to consider."The Windows 3.0 code was a little rough and ragged, and crashed way more," Silverberg recalls, "which is actually quite understandable, because nobody had ever shipped a product like that. So Windows 3.1 really was trying to take Windows 3.0 and make it a lot more solid, more stable, something that corporations could feel comfortable in deploying and using on a daily basis."
Many hardware manufacturers began preloading Windows 3.1 on their computers. "By having it take off so strongly within corporations, it became obvious for both IBM and Compaq, who were the principal PC manufacturers selling to enterprises, to preload Windows on their machines," Silverberg adds.
Suddenly, after years of skepticism about it, Windows had stepped into the spotlight. But true ubiquity was a little further down the road, Gates says.
"I'm not sure we achieved ultimate mainstream," he says, "until the shipment of Windows 95."
By the time Windows 95 came out in August 1995, the marriage between Microsoft and IBM had not only been severed completely but the two companies were engaged in an indisputable operating-system war.
The companies had parted ways in late 1990. IBM continued to push OS/2 with the Presentation Manager. Microsoft, along with pushing the various versions of Windows 3, was taking the work it had done on what would have been the next version of OS/2 and turning it into what would become Windows NT. That version, called Windows NT 3.1 (the number picked to echo Windows 3.1), was introduced in late 1993. It was the first version of Windows to be a full 32-bit operating system and introduced a lot of the basics of today's Windows.
Now Microsoft was talking up Chicago, the code name for the product that would become Windows 95, and IBM was countering with talk of OS/2 Warp.Though Windows NT 3.1 had had success with the server market, companies shied away from it in client situations because it required more resources than most PCs had. "We outpaced the hardware," Jim Allchin explains. In contrast, the world seemed ready for Windows 95, which required fewer resources and was more backward-compatible with Windows 3.1 and DOS applications.
A 32-bit operating system really designed for client computers, Windows 95 was the first of the regular Windows series to include the operating systems; Windows versions 1 through 3.11 were designed to run on top of DOS. Windows 95 required a 386 or later processor, 4MB of RAM, and at least 40MB of free hard drive space just to start, though as usual, most people wanted more in order to take full advantage of the system. And it introduced much of the user interface features we see in Windows systems today, such as drag-and-drop icons, the famous Start menu, and many of the underlying networking and Internet features.
So Many Apps, So Little Compatibility
Like many Windows releases over the years, Windows 95 shipped far later than it was supposed to. The push for applications compatibility caused most of the delay, according to David Cole, then a Windows program manager and now senior vice president of Microsoft's MSN and Personal Services Group. Up until Windows 3.0, Cole says, compatibility wasn't a big deal, because there were so few applications and users anyway. But with the release of Windows 3.1, that started to change.
It all came to a head during the holiday season of 1994. "We were thinking we were pretty close to being done with Windows 95. But then literally hundreds of these multimedia applications came out for the holiday season and didn't run, and we started testing them," Cole remembers. The multimedia features in Windows 3.0 and 3.1 weren't well documented, he said, so developers had to "hack their way in and use undocumented APIs." As a result, the improved system in Windows 95 ended up breaking a lot of applications.
"We got in my little Toyota pickup that I had at the time, we drove it to Egghead, and we literally bought one of every multimedia application in the store," Cole says. "Picture a small-size Toyota pickup and the back of it is heaped with boxes of applications, games, all kinds of crazy multimedia stuff. We brought them all back, literally backed the truck up to the building, and we handed them out to all the employees and said, 'We've got to get these things tested.'"
"Start Me Up"
Fixing the problem took another eight months, as public anticipation continued to brew. By the time Windows 95 was formally launched in August 1995, the hype that surrounded it was unprecedented—with the first big advertising campaign for Windows (featuring the Rolling Stones singing "Start Me Up"). People stood in line to get the software when it was first available, and over a million copies were sold in the first four days. (In contrast, when Windows 3.1 was shipped, Microsoft was ecstatic that it sold 3 million copies in two months.)Why all the commotion? "It was, in many ways, a perfect storm of all these major driving elements coming together all at once," Brad Silverberg says. "You could get PCs very inexpensively with very nice graphics displays and good-sized hard drives. People were starting to get Internet connections, and so there was the whole Internet element that was really coming together. You had software that was dramatically easier to use."
Yusuf Mehdi, who worked on Windows applications in the earlier years and now runs MSN, agrees that Windows 95 just happened at the right time. "Some of it, I think, we can't take credit for," he says. "We got to ride the phenomenon of the PC's becoming mainstream in the home."
Catering to this much larger and more general group of users required some significant design changes when developing Windows 95, says Joe Belfiore, who worked on the interface and is now general manager of the Windows eHome Division. Files and programs had to be easier to access than they were in previous versions, for example. The changes were time-consuming but necessary, he adds.
Windows 95 was also notable for a big change in applications. While most of the earlier Windows applications ran in it, it was really designed for 32-bit applications. The most successful of these would be a new version of Microsoft Office. Jeff Raikes traces Office's evolution to the emergence of chief information officers at many companies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They wanted consistent software, so Microsoft worked on developing a consistent suite.
The applications team, headed by Mike Maples, who had joined Microsoft from IBM, had to rethink the development process, focusing on the suite as a whole and not on the individual applications. As a result, the Office applications started using a lot of shared code, such as dynamic link libraries that represented a lot of the user interface. "That is still the structure we have today," Raikes says.
Other developers followed suit, and soon most applications were being developed for that system, including one that would ignite both excitement and controversy.
The "killer app"
"One of the things that really propelled Windows 95, obviously," recalls Silverberg, "was the consumerization of the Internet, and I would have to say that the killer app for Windows 95 was [Netscape] Navigator."
Netscape had launched Navigator in 1994, and the browser quickly helped turn the Internet from something of academic interest to a mass-market phenomenon.Because Windows 95 was the first version to build in 32-bit networking support and the TCP/IP stack with DHCP and WINS, it made it easier for applications to connect. "One of the key objectives with Windows 95 was to be completely plug-and-play, and not just for hardware but also for software," Silverberg says. "I think we really succeeded with that with the Internet and made it possible for anybody to pick up a computer and be instantly productive."
For the next few years, much of the Windows team was focused on Internet Explorer, which first shipped in Windows 95 in a very weak version. Microsoft's decision to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows, of course, would later become the heart of the U.S. government's highly publicized antitrust case against the company in the late 1990s.
Inside Microsoft, there were debates about the role of the browser. The concept of the browser wasn't new from a technical perspective, but no one was sure how much it should be part of the operating system. One thing they all agreed on, though—they needed to answer Netscape Navigator, and fast.
"We were facing this notion that, hey, there's a new thing going on now with the Internet, where the time to market is much faster, so how do we ship new functionality to customers, and how do we stay competitive on the Internet, when shipping every three to four years is not going to be enough for some customers?" Mehdi recalls.
Several versions of Internet Explorer followed, but it wasn't until IE 3.0 that the Microsoft team felt they really had something to compete against Navigator, Mehdi says. "I think we had superior scripting, superior browser control, superior HTML standards, and I think that's where we took the lead," he observes. "Then we didn't have to pay attention to them as much, because we were pioneering the way."
With IE 4 came the Trident display engine that enabled dynamic HTML. At that point, the race was on between Microsoft and Netscape to add as many features as possible in every new release. Both were investing in "push" content, in which users would subscribe to information that would be pushed to the desktop. Microsoft called this "channels," and it ultimately failed because it was too slow over dial-up connections. It was pulled from IE 5.Eventually, work on the browser slowed down. "I think we ended up having, believe it or not, feature fatigue, where people said, it's almost too much in this thing; can we just go back to some basics?" Mehdi says. "And that's why I think IE 5 was actually a way bigger hit than IE 4, because it just focused on simplicity and performance."
Over the next several years, Internet Explorer would begin to take market share away from Navigator, leading to Netscape's eventual acquisition by AOL and the antitrust case against Microsoft. The court declared Microsoft a monopoly and ordered it to open Windows to different browsers and software from other manufacturers.
Windows 98, ME
Windows 98, which shipped in 1998, included the version of IE that many people would use for years. The listed hardware requirements had grown to include a 486 or faster, 16MB of RAM, and at least 120MB of free hard-drive space. It was followed the next year by Windows 98, Second Edition, and then by Windows Me (Millennium Edition), both relatively minor upgrades.
By that time, though, most of the Windows team was focused on NT. In August 1996, Microsoft shipped Windows NT 4.0, code-named Cairo. The Cairo project was supposed to include an object-oriented file system, but it didn't make the release—and its current iteration, as WinFS, has not shipped to this day; it will not be included in the Vista release, either.Originally, NT was designed to allow for different APIs on top of it—the OS/2 Presentation Manager, Posix (a version of Unix), and of course Windows, which, with the success of Windows 95 and the Win32 API, became the focus of NT 4.0.
Microsoft had tried to get corporate users to move to Windows NT, but that just didn't happen with the earlier versions, Allchin says. "Frankly, where we really made traction, just to be clear on the client, was NT 4, because it's still out there," he says.
XP & Vista
In many respects, the current generation of Windows started with a project called NT 5, which first began to show up in 1997 and eventually shipped as Windows 2000 in February 2000.
Windows 2000 took the NT basics and added a number of reliability improvements, more support for notebook computers, support for Plug and Play, and more. This became the core system for both the desktop and the server products.
In October 2001, Microsoft added the user interface and software compatibility from Windows 98 on top of the basic core of Windows 2000 to create Windows XP, which remains the company's main operating system. Win XP came out in two flavors: XP Home, which was positioned as the follow-up to the Windows 98/Me series, and XP Professional, the follow-up to Windows 2000. Both used the same basic code, but the Pro version had a few more features, mainly aimed at network management and administration.
The challenge with Win XP was to give users new ways to use their systems, while retaining the features they had learned to appreciate from previous versions, says Chris Jones, corporate vice president of Windows Core Operating Systems Development.
"A lot of the value proposition of XP was, it's basically the same, with a new look, a new set of experiences around photos and music, and some new scenarios," Jones says. "But it had the new engine in it, and so it was just way, way more reliable."
The basic details of the user interface may not have changed that much, but UI guru Joe Belfiore points out the different ways it allows people to use Web sites, cameras, and multimedia today. "If you gave somebody a PC running Win 95 today who is used to running XP and doing the stuff you do with XP," he says, "they would think it was something from the Dark Ages."
Variations of Windows XP
Since Win XP's release, Microsoft has taken the XP code and created a few additional variations. In the fall of 2002 it introduced Windows XP Media Center Edition, which added a "10-foot interface" for viewing—from a living-room couch as well as the usual office chair—all kinds of multimedia files. Media Center Edition also included the ability to record television. Times were changing when it came to multimedia, Belfiore says; Microsoft needed to recognize the digitization of content and the ways people wanted to take advantage of it. "The idea was that you could store your content in one room but eventually be able to get to it from other places," he says.
Media Center started slowly but in recent months has started to take a larger share of the retail desktop market in the U.S.
Another Win XP variation, one with a much smaller audience, at least so far, is the Tablet PC Edition. "These types of really significant changes in how people consume technology take time," Belfiore says.
Microsoft also released a 64-bit version of the OS, initially targeting workstations and servers.
Most interesting were a variety of changes that were delivered as part of Windows Update, a new process that was introduced with Win XP. The Windows Media Player evolved to include new codecs and a new user interface. And perhaps most important, Microsoft introduced a service pack last year, called SP2, that addressed many of the security issues that had been plaguing users for the past few years. It included a built-in firewall and many fixes to known security holes. The Internet and all the threats that come with it these days led Microsoft to change its security strategy, Allchin says.
"If all you could do is bring around a floppy or some other USB medium and plug it in, if that's the only time something bad could happen, you still might want to have security in the classical sense of access per control system, which is what NT had," he says. The curveball of the Internet took everyone by surprise, he adds.
What Vista Will Bring
Now, as Microsoft develops Windows Vista, which is scheduled to ship in the second half of 2006, security is a top priority. The company talks about the big push to make Vista more "confident," "clear," and "connected."
Helping people visualize and organize their information better is another goal, which is why the user interface is changing yet again. Certain functions, such as commands, may change too, Chris Jones says, which would force users to learn to type differently. Microsoft's challenge is to change just enough to make the interface more intuitive, without changing so much that users begin to feel lost, he says.
Another highlight of Vista will be its new integrated search. Learning to adapt to the new search function won't be too much of a stretch, Jones believes, because of the full-text search tools people use in Microsoft Outlook, for example, or Google. In Vista, search is built into the OS, and every file is automatically indexed. Applications will be able to open files through a search menu, changing the way you think about where and how you store your files.
Bill Gates says Vista users will also notice the most significant change to the menu structure of applications since Microsoft introduced its early Mac and Windows applications in the 1980s.
"It is interesting that now, 20 years later, is the first time we're really taking that single-level menu structure approach and saying that for the productivity applications, that has run its course," Gates says. "The Office 12 user interface—it's super-interesting what they've done; it's amazing, but there will be people who resist the change. But that menu approach ran out of steam probably four or five years ago."
Behind the surface, Vista will have many new features, including a new graphics engine with new commands for programmers, a new programming model, new drivers, and security features that will make it easier for users to run without having administrator privileges on all the time.
A number of things Microsoft has talked about over the years won't be in Vista, though, including the Next Generation Secure Computing Base, a plan for running secure tasks separately from normal tasks; and WinFS, an object-oriented file system Allchin has been pushing for years. Though WinFS is currently being beta tested, it isn't expected to be included in the initial release of Vista.
As for future operating systems, Microsoft hopes to speed up the time between releases. During the 5-year-period between Microsoft's releases of XP and Vista, Apple has released several end-user upgrades and charged for them, Jones says. The question for Microsoft, he says, is "Where do we charge and where don't we for all these things?"Security updates, for example, should be included as part of the OS licenses people pay for, Jones says, and there are other things added to Windows for free because it's good for developers to have those features deployed. But Microsoft still needs to work out which extras to charge for, he says.
Microsoft is also always exploring ways to make new versions of the operating system interesting and significant enough for people to want to upgrade to them.
"First, we'd better offer a set of compelling capabilities in the software," Allchin says. "Second, we'd better work on the migration and deployment problems that people have today. If I look in the future, we have to do an even better job."
Keys to Windows' Past Successes
Looking back, Gates says the two most important things that led to Windows' success were creating a standard for application developers to write to and creating a standard, intuitive interface for users.
"We've got the developer model that connects to the past but also provides these new services for new classes of applications," Gates says. "We write applications ourselves and exploit that with Office, but it's really the breadth [of applications] that has made Windows such a strong standard. And that you can walk up to any machine and know how to use it, that's the user-model piece."
Both now have to evolve, he adds. "We need a model that is not as single device–centric as Windows originally was but that brings all these richer services, both local and remote, into that developer picture and into that user model," Gates says.
He notes that, in general, the basic UI hasn't changed all that much. "I could take you back to the Windows 2.0 UI and you'd find there wasn't the bar at the bottom and some things, but Windows users today would find it pretty familiar."Now, Gates says, it's time to "take the user interface to a new level." Such changes, he says, are always risky, just as moving from DOS to Windows was. But the goal remains to create a common developer model and a common user model."Those same benefits are as relevant today as they were when this got started."
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