My life before Windows

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: I joined Ziff-Davis a few weeks before ZDNet went live. At that time Windows wasn't the powerhouse it would later become.

ZDNet isn’t the only one celebrating a 20-year anniversary this year. My professional history includes a similar milestone, just a few weeks earlier. In March 1991, I joined PC Computing (part of the same then-powerful Ziff-Davis empire), after spending three years at archrival PC World.

If you’ve followed my work for the past decade, you know that I mostly concentrate on Microsoft—specifically Windows and its competitors. But in 1991, Windows wasn’t the powerhouse that it would later become. Windows 3.0 had been released a year earlier and had sold several million copies, but there was plenty of competition. Certainly no one outside of Redmond dreamed that Microsoft would go on to sell more than a billion copies of Windows in the next two decades.

And I didn't dream that my meeting with Steve Ballmer that summer would get a mention in the antitrust trial that changed the computing landscape at the end of the decade.

Back in 1991, Microsoft was one of several heavyweight software companies, but mostly because of MS-DOS.

Not only was DOS not dead yet, it was actually outselling Windows. Which isn’t surprising, given that every copy of Windows sold in 1991 required a copy of DOS. To mark the release of MS-DOS 5.0 in June, PC Computing published an enthusiastic review: “[N]early a decade after its introduction, [DOS is] still going strong on 50 million systems worldwide. The truth is, in this world nothing is certain but DOS and taxes.” (You can read the whole thing, in glorious text, here.)

I wasn’t intimately involved in that story (Gina Smith or Ron White probably wrote it) but I vividly remember the editorial meetings where we agreed to put DOS on the July 1991 cover. The big gimmick in the issue was a bumper sticker bound into the center of the magazine. I no longer have a copy, but I found this one on Flickr, and Graham Reznick graciously granted permission to reprint it here:

As a journalist, I had plenty of products to write about besides those from Microsoft. So what was I working on way back then?

WordPerfect: preparing to flub the Windows transition

When I started at PC Computing, the editorial staff was divided. The two camps feuded over which word processor was better: Microsoft Word or WordPerfect. I had been a longtime WordPerfect user but had recently made the transition to Word for Windows. Meanwhile, WordPerfect was desperately struggling to get its own Windows version onto the market.

For about six months in 1991, from May to November, I regularly visited Orem, Utah, where I was allowed to sit in with WordPerfect developers as they tried to button down the final product. That resulted in the first feature article I ever wrote for PC Computing, an “Insider’s Journal” in the January 1992 issue. (If you're interested in reading the original, I've posted the text of the story, complete with OCR errors, here.)

Some 15 years later, I was pleasantly surprised to read this blog post from a Microsoft employee who said that this article inspired him to become a software developer:

I remember reading this article over and over again and feeling a thrill each time. The story of how they developed the product, the delays, the highs and lows, made me want to be a part of it.

[…]

The article … describes many problems that I'm intimately familiar with these days: slipped schedules, the pressure of a new release of a hugely-popular product, the last few months of intense pressure, the final bugs and test passes, the importance of compatibility.

Some things never change.

OS/2: A better Windows than Windows

Windows 3.0 (and Windows 3.1, which would be released the following year) were “operating environments,” not operating systems. Windows NT, which was a real operating system, was still two years away, and if you wanted the real thing in 1991 your best option was OS/2.

I spent much of that year and the next running OS/2 and writing about my experiences. I recall a trip to Boca Raton to meet with IBM’s developers, who were then working on the big 2.0 upgrade that would include a Windows subsystem. This guided tour of the OS/2 2.0 Workplace Shell was published in May 1992:

IBM's tagline for OS/2 2.0 was "a better Windows than Windows." But they moved too slowly to keep up with the youngsters at Microsoft, and the IBM bureaucracy worked against the agility that the team needed.

So where was Windows?

Meanwhile, Microsoft was ratcheting up the Windows development schedule. In July 1991, Steve Ballmer made the first of several visits to PC Computing’s offices. I didn’t have to consult my diary to remember that date. It’s preserved in a Microsoft memo that later became an exhibit in the antitrust case that slowed the company down at the end of the decade. Here’s a snippet from that e-mail:

SteveB went on the road to see the top weeklies, industry analysts and business press this week to give our systems strategy. The meetings included demos of Windows 3.1 (pen and multimedia included), Windows NT, OS/2 2.0 including a performance comparison to Windows and a “bad app” that corrupted other applications and crashed the system. It was a very valuable trip and needs to be repeated by other MS executives throughout the next month so we hit all the publications and analysts.

Ballmer’s tour included stops at the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and the New York Times, as well as tech publications like PC Week, Computerworld, Infoworld, and CRN. This was what they had to say about their stop at PC Computing’s Foster City offices:

PC Computing. The new executive editor, Ed Bott, was highly interested in our product plans and we can work with them for good coverage on Windows 3.1 and Windows NT.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that meeting represented the beginning of a fundamental shift in my career. The next year, I co-wrote PC Computing’s cover story on Windows NT and led the team that produced the first of many Windows SuperGuides. During the rest of that decade, I wrote and published more than a million words about Windows (3.x, 95, 98, NT, and 2000) in magazines and books and online.

What’s fascinating about looking back on those times is how long Windows has remained relevant. Its days of absolute dominance are gone, but it’s still a multi-billion-dollar business, and the Windows brand will be around for a long time to come.

Of course, PC Computing was on ZiffNet (later ZDNet) in those days, and I spent a lot of time on the magazine’s CompuServe forums. The magazine itself didn’t wind up on the web until December 1994. That was back in the days when NCSA Mosaic was highlighting new websites every day, and PC Computing’s arrival was important enough to make their December 1994 edition.

It’s been a long and interesting ride. Congratulations to ZDNet for not just surviving but thriving. Here’s looking forward to celebrating many more anniversaries.

» Return to ZDNet's 20th Anniversary Special

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