Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Lost in Cyberspace

Evidence of squashed Windows competitors alive on the Web

This article was originally published on April 4, 2000 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

Bill Gates may or may not be ultimately vindicated by an appeals court in the government's antitrust case against him, but when he tries to lay claim to having made computers easier to use, he goes too far.

In a press conference held the day U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled Microsoft had violated The Sherman Antitrust Act, Gates said, "This ruling turns on its head the reality that consumers know: That our software has helped make PCs accessible and more affordable to millions of Americans."

The truth, though, is less rosy. In fact, Microsoft actively held up the proliferation of easy-to-use graphical interfaces for Intel-based PCs because they threatened the then-dominant position of the company's MS-DOS operating system.

MS-DOS was many things, including powerful and stable, but accessible and easy to use? Not to most folks. MS-DOS was (and remains) a line-command interface: You type in by hand the commands you want the computer to execute. Want to copy a file in DOS? You type in "cp file.txt file2.txt." Not quite as easy as duplicating a file on a Mac or Windows machine today, is it?

It was the introduction of the Apple Lisa in 1983, and vastly more affordable Apple Macintosh in 1984, that made possible the currently lucrative market for home computers for the masses. (And Apple had blatantly stolen the idea of a graphical desktop, controlled by a mouse, from a behind-the-scenes tour of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, which never capitalized on the PARC team's late-'60s inventions of the mouse and program window.) No longer did you have to be a world-class typist with the ability to memorize arcane commands in order to use a personal computer. Suddenly, the machine would do most of the drudgery for you, leaving you free to actually use the computer to do your work.

A year after the release of the Mac, Atari and Commodore followed with similar graphical-interface computers of their own (the ST and Amiga, respectively).

Yet for years after that breakthrough, users of the Intel-based computers of the day (XTs and, later, '286s) found DOS to be their only real option. While Microsoft did, in roughly that same period, introduce Windows 1.0 and Windows 2.0, both were clunky, slow and prone to crashing. It was easier to simply stick with what worked: DOS.

Unless, of course, you wanted one of the add-on graphical interfaces designed to run on top of DOS. Two such programs were released at about the same time as the first versions of Windows, and clearly outperformed it in speed, reliability and ease of use. (For instance, installing a new program as a clickable icon in early versions of Windows was a multi-step process. GEM automatically recognized DOS programs and assigned them an icon.) Yet neither GEM or Geoworks ever got much of a foothold in the market.


For the very same reasons Judge Jackson outlined in his decision regarding Microsoft's campaign against Netscape's Web browser: Microsoft used its deathgrip on the operating system market to pressure computer manufacturers not to pre-install the competitors' products, making it difficult for them to make a living off GEM or Geoworks (or, later, Netscape).

GEM (which was published by Digital Research, whose once-dominant C/PM line-command operating system was buried by MS-DOS) did survive as the graphical desktop for Atari's family of ST, Mega, TT and Falcon computers, and lives on today through a descendant called MagiC.

Geoworks fared no better at the time – although it, too, survives today under a different name and publisher, NewDeal.

But if both GEM and Geoworks survived, neither flourished the way they might have in a truly free market. They were affordable, stable, and easy to install and use. They were well-marketed and had competent corporate support.

What they didn't have – couldn't have – was market presence, because Microsoft used its control of MS-DOS (which every company selling Intel-based PCs needed at the time) to block them from gaining any.

When the next-generation '386 computers came out in the late '80s, Microsoft was ready with a new version of Windows (3.0) that was a significant improvement over the earlier ones. Even so, Windows 3.0 merely offered the speed, ease of use and stability that GEM 2.0 and Geoworks had been offering consumers for years. By the time Windows 3.0 came out, though, GEM and Geoworks were clearly nonplayers in the market. Microsoft had already done to them what it would do to Netscape a decade later.

And in so doing, Microsoft betrayed Gates' sunny assertion that his company, through its now-competent Windows operating system, is making personal computers more "accessible" to consumers.