A life with windows

20 years of Windows: Colin Barker has used and written about Windows since the very first version. Like all long-term relationships, his shared life with Microsoft has had its ups and downs. Twenty years on, is he still faithful?

My first encounter with Windows some 18 years ago was not promising. Working as a freelance IT journalist, I had from time to time been contacted by earnest young public relations executives working for a PR company called Text 100, who wanted to tell me about this great new software.

I knew Text and Microsoft well enough because Microsoft's operating system, MS-DOS, had over a short period of time become the best-selling microcomputer operating system in existence, thanks to a lucrative and very canny contract Microsoft had signed with IBM, the world's largest computer company. IBM paid for the software, and Microsoft got the right to sell it to IBM's competition.

The execs at Text tried to get me interested in this wonderful new operating system called Windows. It would change the world, they told me. They were right of course, but like most of the world I didn't quite see that at the time.

No matter what the success of the IBM PC and Microsoft, it wasn't very interesting as a company. MSDOS was a straight rip-off of CP/M, an older operating system from Digital Research. Windows was a very poor rip-off of Apple's operating system for the then-new Apple Mac. As members of the press, we all knew the Mac and Apple. We liked them. We didn't like rip offs.

Bill Gates further soured our view, not that any further souring was needed. In those days, Bill Gates did not talk to the press — he talked at them. Like his PR company, Bill Gates told us that his company was going to change the world. He told us that we did not know a damn thing about technology. He told us that he knew exactly what the future of the technology world would be — more or less. For some reason, people didn't appreciate being talked to like that, nor did they appreciate that he just didn't care that they didn't appreciate it.

He wasn't right, but it didn't matter. He might not have known more about technology than we ever could, but he knew enough — and that attitude did the rest. He was going to be hugely successful.

That was in the future. Back then, while it was no more necessary to like Bill Gates than it is today, it would have been worthwhile for me to pay a bit more attention to what he was up to.

What he got up to then changed everything...

Windows 3.0 was the turning point in the Windows world, for me as much as for anyone else. At that time, while still in the UK I was working as a correspondent for the US publication, Byte magazine.

When Windows 3.0 was launched, the US editors of Byte magazine went overboard. To say that they loved it would have been a gross understatement. Unlike me, they liked Bill and they liked Microsoft so Bill's new baby was more than welcome. They ran a full review that said it was wonderful, despite nobody having the time to find out if that was true or not when you got out there and used the thing day in, day out. .

It turned out that Windows 3.0 was a bit of a dog. It crashed frequently and occasionally catastrophically, and the fans of other computers looked down their noses at it. That didn't matter either — it sold in the millions, the groundwork had been laid and the breakthrough was made. Now, you could have software on your own system and you were not forced to buy Apple hardware to use it. Instead, you could have more or less any system you wanted.

Which is more important, software or hardware? Gates said software, Apple's Steve Jobs said hardware. Gates won and took the journalists with him. Now we could like Bill Gates, the man who supported freedom of choice. In a short time he had moved from the position of rip-off merchant with no original ideas of his own, to defender of the common man. Well, almost. But remember that journalists do like things in black and white, and 40-point lettering, and with subtitles — as more than one wag has pointed out.

Could this new-found love last, my passion for Microsoft that Windows had planted in my bosom? Only for a while. With Windows 3.1, Microsoft had established itself as a world leader and in producing good quality software that was much more "open" than most.

Windows 95 was even better...

I was living in Boston, Massachusetts, on the day 95 hit the street. To the despair of some of my colleagues, my home system — currently my third generation of HP PC — is bought rather than borrowed from an obliging supplier. I like to test important things, like a new Microsoft OS, as a consumer would.

I bought my copy of Windows 95 together with the Plus! disk on the day it came out. I persuaded my niece to join me so she could see what it was like to do an operating system upgrade on your main system.

That may seem a hard thing to do but, as a Rolling Stones fan even my niece had been infected with the "Start Me Up" mania that the hype machine had drummed up for the launch.

Windows 95 launched as smooth as anything. Then I loaded Plus! which has a new service from Microsoft called MSN. Microsoft had really got online in a big way. I was delighted. My niece was relieved. And I loved 95, from the Start icon to the lioness portrayed in glorious hi-res graphics on the installation screen. Then something funny happened.

I had been online since my days at Byte — one of the first magazines to develop an online service back in the 1980s. In 1995, I was a CompuServe subscriber so I didn't bother to load the MSN client. Compuserve loaded, and promptly crashed. CompuServe just didn't do that — it was a well behaved piece of software, although it might drop the line. Under Windows 95, it crashed every time. Windows would tell me it was the application's problem. I smelled a rat. I am a journalist after all.

At that time, Compuserve was one of the world's largest providers of online service for consumers. Microsoft wanted to be and now is one of the world's largest providers of online services.

Microsoft always denied that they had done anything to make Compuserve crash when running 95. Like many who witnessed this, I did not believe them and still don't.

This was probably one of the more significant incidents in my life with Microsoft. It soured my feelings. Deliberately crashing someone's favourite application in order to promote your own will do that to a person.

So, it was no surprise as the US Department of Justice went after Microsoft over antitrust and market manipulation. Journalists like me cheered them on. It was a shame for Microsoft, heroes to zeroes in a few short years, but at least they had the money to warm themselves with.

After that, the operating system story got worse as well. Microsoft launched something called Windows Me. I became an Me owner, although not by my own choice. In the US I upgraded my system and Me came with it. I was happy to stay with 95, but I got Me whether I liked it or not. I didn't like it. Dubbed by Phil, my friend and IT support engineer, Millions of Errors, Me was a dog from the same kennel as Windows 3.0. It crashed all the time and offered little improvement over 95.

The story could have ended there. I could have thrown the PC out and got a Mac. I didn't. I stuck with Microsoft. Only cowards jump ship at the first sign of trouble.

I am glad I did. XP is a dream. Works fine, rarely crashed and has lots of new features that still keep turning up. Secure, mature. This will do nicely.

But what's this. Now they are talking about this thing called Vista. I am not sure at all about this. Do I want to push my luck with another new system so soon? No, I think 2008 sounds just about right. I'll be ready for a change by then.