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A quarter century of DOS, don'ts, and delays

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Windows NT catches an infection

Windows NT 3.1 was completed in July 1993. It was 32-bit, included a secure file system called NTFS, and was designed to be portable between processors. The initial release ran on Intel, MIPS and DEC Alpha processors. Although backward compatibility was imperfect, a 16-bit subsystem ran many existing Windows applications successfully.

Heavy hardware requirements meant slow initial sales, and Microsoft continued to develop the less demanding DOS-based line, releasing Windows 95, 98, and Millennium editions. Even so, NT became the foundation of a new and wildly successful family of Windows operating systems. In August 2001 Microsoft released Windows XP, making the NT line standard across the entire range from consumer desktops to servers.

Unfortunately Windows NT became infected with past mistakes. It was not the underlying technology, but more the way Microsoft allowed it to be used. Windows NT has defined locations for operating system files, applications, and user data, but Microsoft failed to enforce them and many developers, used to the lax world of DOS and Windows, went their own way, writing files and data all over the operating system.

Windows XP

Windows XP: paid for sloppy coding practices and policies

Users who did not log on with full local administrator rights had problems running applications, so many of them solved the problem by running as administrator, making it more vulnerable to viruses and undermining system stability. Despite security features such as a built-in firewall, Windows XP was easy prey for malware.

Lack of discipline is also a problem in the way Windows is delivered, particularly in the consumer market. Software bundled with a new machine, much of it of poor quality, damages the user experience.

Windows became rather unpleasant to use, leaving space for Apple with its unified hardware and software, based on Unix and built with great attention to design and usability.

Vista and beyond

Microsoft fumbled its response. At its Professional Developers Conference in 2003, the company presented Longhorn, with an intelligent file system and a new designer-friendly graphical presentation layer. It was over-ambitious, and in 2005 Microsoft had to scrap much of the code. The consequence was Windows Vista, which not released until the end of 2006, more than five years after Windows XP. Many of the early Vista machines were barely powerful enough to run it, and its new security feature called User Account Control (UAC) annoyed and confused users. Microsoft had only itself to blame. If Windows security had not been so lax, UAC would not have been necessary.

Vista's shortcomings were a further gift to Apple and to alternatives such as Linux, but Windows is so deeply embedded into business that most users rather than switch, simply carried on with Windows XP. Windows 7 in 2009 fixed it, tuned for better performance, more reliable, and with a revamped interface that most users actually enjoy. Windows is getting better. Version 7 is decent, while on the server - which shares the same core code - there has been encouraging progress in modularising the operating system and making the graphical user interface less necessary.

That said, Windows has also become less interesting. Internet and mobile development are now the centre of attention, and even on the desktop it is Apple rather than Microsoft that seems to take the lead. When sketches of Windows 8 were leaked earlier this year, they were all about slates and app stores, following Apple's example, but this is Apple iOS and Google Android territory where Microsoft may struggle.

The next 25 years will likely be less Windows-shaped than the 25 just past. ®

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