By Randal C. Picker[*]
We are once again changing how we use computers. In the past, we moved from mainframes to mini computers to freestanding personal computers. That was a powerful shift in control and organizational structure. Mainframes were rare and, as such, were tended to with loving care and serviced by a small caste of computing priests. In contrast, PCs were everywhere: on every knowledge worker’s desk and eventually in the family room of many homes. In the PC age, the computer desktop was the most valuable real estate around, and for most people, that meant Microsoft Windows.
Microsoft Windows was—and is—both product and delivery system. Product in the sense that Windows performs certain functions that all operating systems perform. Windows tracks files, sends data through ports for printing, and tells your computer screen how to display fonts and images—all things that we expect of our operating systems. But Windows is more than that: Windows delivers software. Before the advent of the Internet, software delivery was difficult. A consumer might find the software was pre-installed on a new PC. Alternately, the consumer could go to a computer store—remember those?—and plunk down her credit card, and walk out with a large, almost empty box that had, buried within it, a CD with new software.
Microsoft had a special role in software delivery because it could guarantee delivery by just incorporating the new software into Windows. With each new release of Windows—from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 to 98 and on towards Vista—Microsoft expanded the footprint of Windows. This expanded footprint was not just a question of taking up more hard drive space; Windows got bigger because it expanded its functionality. In doing so, it killed off what had been separate markets in freestanding functions provided by other companies. Disk fragmentation was once a separate product category, but it wasn’t anymore once Microsoft added that function to Windows itself. Including a product in the next version of Windows insured its widespread distribution as each version of Windows quickly expanded its market share.
In a basic sense, Windows was fundamentally unbounded. That is, there was no obvious boundary for the scope of functions that might be embraced in Windows. This boundlessness mattered most when we introduced ubiquitous networks to link computers together to create the Internet and the Web. The move to networked devices created a possible inflection point, a point of churn and competition as different firms sought the upperhand in the new computing space. In his May, 1995 Internet Tidal Wave memo, Bill Gates famously feared that Netscape would “commoditize the underlying operating system.” Gates feared that users would no longer care what operating system ran on their computers; instead, consumers would care only about the browser that sat on top of the operating system. Windows was going to become plumbing, important to be sure, but fundamentally anonymous and only noticed when it wasn’t working right. Microsoft moved aggressively against Netscape and relied heavily on its ability to bundle Internet Explorer with Windows at no additional charge to defeat Netscape. Microsoft won its battle against Netscape, although it did so in ways found to be illegal by competition authorities in the United States.