My life before Windows

My life before Windows

Summary: 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

Topics: Operating Systems, Hardware, Microsoft, Software, Windows

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  • RE: My life before Windows

    yes, my brother and I read the same article Insider's Journal so many times and we had related the same to our developments schedules those days. Had good conversations and late night developments. Thanks for bringing back the memories. :-). Some of our colleagues loved Turbo Pascal over Microsoft C and we were using both Turbo Pascal and Microsoft C in addition to Zortech C++ for our development projects then. Our systems were written against DBase III, III+ and IV with Clipper and later C/C++. I was also into developing process control software targeting SCO XENIX. We both were doing graphics development using C++ for some CAD Shops then. We were strong readers of PC Computing, PC Magazine and PC World those days and those were the only avenues for us to have knowledge about whats going on.
    Ram U
    • RE: My life before Windows

      @Rama.NET Hmm Clipper. Heard it after a long time. Had a brief introduction with it. Nice to have some old memories.
  • Couldn't imagine computing without Windows

    I remember the days of DOS before Windows and the first days of Windows. And all these years later, even with the stumbles MS has made with it. I seriously couldn't imagine enjoying my computer as much without Windows. So people can bitch and whine about Windows, but I'm thankful for it every time I sit at my computer
    • RE: My life before Windows

      @Adaminvegas67 I totally agree. I've been using PCs since before there were hard drives available. I've tried every OS that's come along over the years trying to find something better (including OS/2, a dozen Linuxes, Solaris, Unix, etc.) I even have a Mac with all the latest updates on my other desk. But I always come back to Windows when I want to get work done or play games. There still isn't anything that can touch it, for the vast majority of my needs. Windows is far from perfect, but it's the best I've used. I only hope they can dump some of the old pig-slow portions of it and move us forward. It's long past the time for Windows to become fault-tolerant, self-repairing, and instant-on.
  • Always interesting to reflect

    "But they [IBM] moved too slowly to keep up with the youngsters at Microsoft, and the IBM bureaucracy worked against the agility..."<br><br>They actually had very different quality standards, IBM expected things to work, MS correctly predicted features were in greater demand than reliability for desktops. <br><br>It amaIng how bad the early versions of windows were. 1 & 2 were comical, 3 decided to lift more from Apple but only worked (almost) at 3.1.<br><br>98 was the first version to show promise, but followed by possibly the most buggy software ever ME. Similar struggles through NT to XP. Then the joke that was Vista. <br><br>back then I was selling software via CompuServe. Amazing when you consider what we sell these days.
    Richard Flude
    • I never had a problem with Vista. Neither does anyone I know.

      @Richard Flude: [i]98 was the first version to show promise, but followed by possibly the most buggy software ever ME. Similar struggles through NT to XP. Then the joke that was Vista.[/i]

      My GF and her daughter are still using it on their laptops. No reason to change.
  • Congratulations!

    Congratulations, Ed!

    I've been working with computers since 1990 (at age 10), and I confess I've been following you and Mary Jo Foley around since since I first read your articles so many years ago. Actually, you're the only two left that I actively follow.

    There were plenty of others back then (even at competing publications), but your articles are something I always admire and follow, because you'll step up and criticize Microsoft for the things it truly screws up on, but you're also one to quickly defend them when they're in the right and everyone else is missing the point.

    Congratulations on what I consider to be a hugely successful career.

  • RE: My life before Windows

    Aaron: > I've been working with computers since 1990 (at age 10), and I confess I've been following you ....<br><br>I've been working with computers since 1969 (does any one but me remember what PUFFT stands for?) but didn't start using PC's until 2001. <br><br>Somehow I wandered upon your About Windows forum and for months it was my home page ... much I know about Windows came from it. I still using several of the tools you recommended as "best software" especially Notetab
  • Before Windows

    I remember Win 3.0, it was not very stable. Win 3.1 was a better product but I had to copy the install disks into one folder to make the constant reinstallation go quicker.

    I remember going from Word Star to Word Perfect, Word Star was the application that most had used but preferred either WP or Word. Word Perfect was an excellent DOS app, the support was great at that time. I started using Word because Word Perfect version for Windows and WP 6 for DOS were buggy.

    In the Pre Win 95 days, I had to carry several versions of DOS from 3.2 to 5.0 as well as versions of DOS for the specific manufacturers. Win 95 and onwards helped reduce the number of versons I had to carry and support.
  • Long before Windows.

    I started computing late in life at the age of 38 in 1966 writing Basic on a teletype terminal connected by phone to a mainframe. Later under DOS I developed databases in Dataflex which was much easier to do than the same operations in Access. As a professional engineer computing was just a means of solving my problems so I learned Fortran 4 and C++.
    With Windows I have always had a love/hate relationship liking the GUI and hating the way MS was trying to make me follow their systems and making it difficult to do any variation. I have stuck with XP as it allows me to use Lotus Smartsuite which gives me freedom to do what I need to do where MS Office is a hindrance.
  • Does your arm hurt?

    Patting yourself on the back for what?
    You've managed to try to rewrite a bit of history in this article.

    WordPerfect wasn't struggling because of anything relating to their strong market share--they were struggling because Microsoft pulled the rug out from under them with undocumented API changes in Windows.

    Of course, long story short, Microsoft is now off the hook on any litigation which was only recently quenched:

    But let's be clear about it. Microsoft has a long-standing list of escapades of snookery and viscious anti-trust practices that precede them.

    I don't have any nostalgia other than knowing that before MS got big, I mean in the 80's, software innovation was vibrant and I spent from 1990 thru 1999 as a Windows developer watching that rich ecosystem get slowly dismantled by a monopolistic monster.

    What we have today is a 'renaissance' of software innovation, and it ain't coming from the likes of Microsoft.

    In a word, Linux has been largely responsible for a shift toward leveling the playing field and giving both consumers and oems a healthy dose of good old 'choice' again.

    And, there isn't anything that Microsoft can do about it at this point.

    They claw to hold on to their legacy software cash cow revenue sources but they continue to decline as smart forward-thinking CIOs learn how to do business with open source methodologies and avoid MS vendor lock-in entirely.

    That's where things are going and your little story didn't choke me up one bit because it is really a white-wash of the past that only a select few really understand.

    I am sorry that Pamela Jones has left GrokLaw because she was perhaps the one strongest 'light' focused on Microsoft for such a long time.

    So Ed, it's time for you to begin sharpening your Linux skills, and no, Apple OSX DOES NOT COUNT.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • As usual, you're wrong


      I normally ignore your nonsense, but I refuse to let this outright lie pass.

      The CEO of WordPerfect, Pete Peterson, wrote a memoir of his time at the company. He rather emphatically denies everything you wrote here. The problem with WordPerfect for Windows is that they got a late start and then delivered a buggy prodyuct. Here are his actual words:

      "In January [1990] Microsoft offered to make us a beta test site for Windows 3.0. We accepted their generous offer, but did little more than look Windows over. In hindsight, it is easy to see we should have done much more right away. ... Unfortunately, we did not have any experienced Windows programmers inside the company to form a development team, and there were not many outside the company to recruit."

      "We were ... disappointed by the lukewarm WPwin reviews. The reviewers complained that the product was a little slow and a little buggy, and they were right. ... We needed to get a cleaner and faster version of WPwin out the door, but it would take some time."

      You can go read the entire book yourself. I've actually done my research on this one.
      Ed Bott
      • There seems to be no shortage of differing opinion Ed

        @Ed Bott

        I don't need to read one man's recollections which are warped and fictional at best.

        The facts all point to Microsoft getting caught being 'naughty' only they succeeded in a motion to dismiss the case which was followed by Novell filing an appeal.

        It isn't over yet.


        Ed you've got to try Linux.
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • C'mon, WP made mistakes

        However your quote laments the very process that gave MS the (unfair) advantage. MS regularly moved developers between windows and office teams. This was essential at the time because the newer APIs weren't documented (many remained undocumented, though used by MS for a decade or more).

        None of us outside MS had access to the internals that MS had. This gave them significant advantage in developing their software, and was the driving force behind their entry into the productivity app market ahead of the competition.

        I suggest your read the DoJ vs MS antitrust investigation for more background. MS pulled a similar stunt with Novell and it's authentication product which you can read about in the EC investigation.

        Yes WP "got a late start and then delivered a buggy product". Ask yourself why that was, and why MS was not affected.
        Richard Flude
      • One man's &quot;warped and fictional&quot; recollections?

        @Dietrich Schmitz, the Linux windbag
        Uh... Right. So if the guy writes his memoirs - he's gonna make up a lot of nonsense - stuff that other people who were also there at the time can refute and publish it. And then when those who were there do refute it, he looks like a delusional moron. Sounds painfully masochistic.

        Seriously dude. WPWin 6.0 was a bloated pile of crap. I used it, much to my regret back in the day. It had, what, at the time, seemed like a nifty business card print template. Do it up once, print a full page of identical business cards.

        The problem was - it had no means to handle printing the page unless you had ungodly HUGE amounts of memory for it's time. 16 MB was nowhere near enough. I'm not entirely sure 32 MB would have been quite enough - and that was for what would be the simplest, bare bones, black and white 2 x 3" business card. It also took like an hour or so to generate that one, simple page.

        Btw... In case you've forgotten, the average RAM on most systems back in 1992ish was about 8 - 16 MB.

        From what I've heard, WPWin version 5.2 was an even worse, buggier pile of crap.

        Not that WP got any better with age. I came across WP 10 at an office I was doing some work for back in about 2004 or so. In an age when you can install MS Office without any headaches and have it available to ANY user on that system, WP X insisted on installing itself in single user mode. That means that if you need to make WP X available to 2 or more users, you have to elevate both user accounts to Admin level and install it twice - and then knock both users back to their previous security levels. It wasn't until version 11 or 12 that WP gained the multiuser install ability.

        And then there's the constant chatter over the network between the WP X box and the networked printer. Any time you do anything with WP X and your printer isn't locally attached, the program pings the printer and queries it to see if it can produce whatever character you've just typed. It does that each and every time you type anything. This makes printing by other users somewhat iffy as sometimes the printer is a bit busy handling the incessant "Can you print 'R'? Can you print 'o'? Can you print 'd'?" requests.

        At any rate, it's not exactly the most network friendly program on the market. If it weren't for the fact that this was a law firm and they're the only ones who have this unholy attachment to the WordPerfect line, the solution would have been much simpler - have them use MS Office which exhibits none of those ugly habits.

        Seriously Dietrich... Put the crack pipe DOWN...!
      • RE: My life before Windows

        @Ed Bott
        I don't know much about WordPerfect. I do remember using it on Windows 3.1 and for some reason it felt sluggish, response time for hitting a key and screen rendering was quite profound. MS Word, on the other hand, felt much faster. The only explanation (which I heard from an MS source) is that MS Word developers used undocumented API's bypassing one or two abstraction layers. If this is true (and I do not doubt it) than MS had a clear advantage.

        On the other hand, WordPerfect probably messed up on its own and they were too late, as Ed said.
    • Ha!

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate - "In a word, Linux has been largely responsible for a shift toward leveling the playing field and giving both consumers and oems a healthy dose of good old 'choice' again. And, there isn't anything that Microsoft can do about it at this point."

      lol. If Linux's market share and the public's disinterest in actually choosing Linux is what you call "leveling the playing field," then your bar is set preeeetttttty low, there, guy. Not to mention, all the years of Linux nutters reveling in the facade that Microsoft is on the brink of succumbing to Linux... it gets really old. None-the-less, it's still fun to giggle at sometimes. Ergo, thanks for the laugh, my friend. ;)

      • Android doesn't count? Printers, Routers, Tablets? Anyone?


        Stevey old boy. Are you thinking this one through?
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
      • When free to choose, nobody chooses Linux

        @StephenChapman It is funny to hear ol'Dietrich go on and on about this. If Linux were so great, people would have kept their XP boxes and switched them to linux...but they dont, they would rather buy Windows and OSX.
      • RE: My life before Windows

        @DTS - I'll wager that within 12 months of Win8 tablets going on sale that the sale of Android tablets will have already begun a precipitous decline.

        If I am wrong, I will donate $50 to a charity of your choice.