The flavor of Redmond Kool-aid

Chris Pratley has an interesting Microsoft Perspective on the history of Word, in particular talking about how Microsoft beat out WordPerfect as the wordprocessor of choice when platforms shifted from DOS to Windows. Pratley joined Microsoft in 1995, but what interests me most is his version of the Microsoft story prior to his arrival — it gives a great insight into the Redmond Kool-Aid served to new Microsoft employees:

In case you’re too young to remember, Windows development started back in 1983, and it was a joke in the industry. Windows 1.0 (released in 1984 I think) was sort of a demo. Windows 2.0 (1987 or so) was much better, but it was limited in memory (286 processor had a max of 1MB addressable RAM), and ran too slowly for practical usage. It is also hard to believe now, but all the pundits in the industry thought GUI interfaces with windows and dialog boxes and menus and mice (the Mac, Windows 2.0, etc.) were for novices and were basically toys, since they lacked the power of a command line interface. Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect ruled the desktop, with arcane command sequences that a professional user could work magic with, but which new users found impenetrable. Especially interesting was the discussion that came up around the impending release of Windows 3.0 around 1990. In 1989, all the editorials talked about whether application makers should bother with a Windows-version of their DOS apps. WordPerfect was pretty clear – they saw Microsoft as a competitor, Windows as a lame horse, and they felt pretty strongly that they would best serve their customers by sticking with DOS. Their customers knew the WP-DOS interface, it was faster and more professional than the goofy toy-like Windows interface. It became a point of pride that WP would not do a Windows version.

PC-Word, on the other hand, tired of losing reviews and not being able to shake the stranglehold that WP had on the DOS word processor market, had nothing to lose by making a Windows version. Fortunately, that also coincided with the direction that Microsoft was taking: bet the company on Windows. In retrospect, this seems like a no-brainer, but remember that at the time Windows was still considered a joke. Betting the company on it was a big, big bet.

Now I love a “techie bets the company on a radical idea” fable as much as the next geek, but this version leaves out the most important part of the story: WordPerfect wasn’t sticking with DOS — just like the other category-leaders Lotus 1-2-3, dBase and Harvard Graphics, they were spending their resources developing for OS/2, the new windowing OS being developed jointly by IBM and Microsoft. And the reason they bet on OS/2 is that both IBM and Microsoft were endorsing OS/2 as the platform for the 1990s: check out this quote from Bill Gates at the Fall 1989 Comdex. At the time, Windows was seen as essentially an extension of DOS, and was touted as being for low-end computers (a 386 with 4MB of RAM, also known as next-year’s trash). Which is to say, Windows was touted as being “for novices and… basically toys,” but the GUI and OS/2 were taken quite seriously. Now cut to Spring 1992, when Microsoft ships Windows 3.1 and signs a “divorce” document from the deal with IBM to develop OS/2 (much of the technology was later licensed for Windows-NT). Betting the company on Windows wasn’t just a big, big bet, it was also arguably the biggest bait-and-switch of the decade.

Oddly enough, Pratley doesn’t mention OS/2 even in his follow-up post, though he does make the claim that Microsoft built the first office suite:

Some of the posters noted that Word was helped to success by the Office bundle. That is certainly true – that move was a truly inspired marketing decision to use our strength of having enough apps to build a “suite” – something which hadn’t existed up to that point. At first it was just a bundle of three apps for the price of 1.5 apps or so. People said it was crazy – too much of a giveaway.

That’s another impressive claim, considering when Microsoft Works came out in August 1986 (for Mac, the DOS version was 1987) there was already Innovative Software’s SmartWare Suite (1983), Electric Company’s Electric Desk (1984 or earlier, later reborn as AlphaWorks and LotusWorks), Ashton-Tate’s Framework (1984), Migent’s Agility (1985) and Lotus Symphony (1985).

Pratley mentions a few suspect his blog is just a “marketing ploy,” but I figure his admiration for Microsoft’s history is genuine and his posts are from the heart — he just needs to get out of Redmond a little more. Perhaps his blog will be just the thing to cure the memory gaps that are so often caused by years of Kool-aid abuse…

Edit: changed typoed August 1996 to August 1986.