Bill's vision for the future of the PC, c1980 – er, Xenix

Failed business plans a-go-go...


Microsoft attorney Dan Webb's precis of Bill Gates' forthcoming trial contribution has prompted quantities of correspondence from bitter old lags on the subject Microsoft's pivotal role in the history of the computer industry, and on His Billness' "vision."

to refresh your memory: "They had a vision. Their vision was that Microsoft could facilitate consumer acceptance of personal computers if it developed this common operating system that could be installed in many different configurations of personal computers and that would provide these blocks of software code that software programmers, application developers could write to. That was the dream. That was the idea."

And there's something else Mr Webb had to say on Monday that we should take into account to set the scene. Of Unix he said: "It's used some, but it's never received widespread popularity, because what happened is that Unix got fragmented... So I respectfully suggest that a proper remedy in this case should not require the firm Microsoft, that has provided the most popular and successful product, to adopt the business models of those who have failed."

OK, vision for the future, invention of DOS, Microsoft's success stands in sharp contrast to that of the companies espousing the failed and fragmented Unix model, got that? Now, back we go to 1975-81.

Microsoft, in the shape of Gates and Paul Allen, kicked off with Basic, and followed up in 1978 with Fortran. Of course the real vision didn't arrive on the scene until 1980, when Microsoft got into operating systems; no, not DOS - the company licensed Unix from AT&T and announced it as Xenix, producing it for a number of processors, including the Intel 8086.

This much is well-known by those who were around at the time, and it's also well-known that the Gates vision we know so well today stemmed from a swift deal with IBM over another operating system, QDOS, which Microsoft bought in so it could actually fulfill the contract. Less well-known is that the vision of the time was largely constructed around the product from which all of those failed business models stemmed.

Both Microsoft and IBM viewed the IBM PC as essentially a low production run one-shot, and into the first years of the 80s Gates himself was still extolling the virtues of Xenix. Microsoft, incidentally, had farmed out much of the development of Xenix to a company called SCO, but if we get too far into that we'll get lost in the Unix Wars jungle, and never find our way out. The love affair with Unix/Xenix was company-wide, although not necessarily shared by the grunts, as one former grunt writes:

"I think Gates first tried to sell Xenix to IBM who, afraid of what a post-breakup AT&T could do to their markets, wanted nothing to do with it. [This seems plausible, as Gates would surely try to sell something he already had, rather than something he was going to have to grab quick. Nice footwork though, Bill]

"Anyway, when I worked there back in the mid 80's every poor sod in the company from Bill down to the mail clerks had a Xenix terminal on their desk and used it daily for email at least. Meaning every poor sod had to master vi before they could request vacation time (and everyone wonders why Microsoft is such a hateful cramped little place.)

"I think the original DOS might have been developed on one of their old VAX mini's but by the time I got there everything including DOS 2.x, all their languages and applications, Mac Word and Mac Excel, Windows Excel and Windows Word were written in vi and compiled on those goddamn Xenix boxes, and all their documentation was written in vi and compiled in troff and nroff. I don't think [they] really moved to the PC platform for development until around the time Windows 3.1 came out."

At the time Windows 3.1 came out Microsoft was breaking with IBM over OS/2, after a brief 'peace treaty' period where Gates at least appeared to agree that OS/2 was the future (and said it in public) but that Windows could act as a sort of interim platform. Microsoft was also covering its bets by proposing NT as an OS for ACE, which was being mooted as an alternative (to IBM's PS/2) successor to the PC. If ACE had worked we might all today be running machines using MIPS and Unix derivatives. Or alternatively, if Microsoft had agreed with IBM about OS/2 2.0, rather than spiking it with Win 3.1, we might all be running OS/2. Or if Microsoft had stuck with Xenix rather than throwing it back into the pot... But enough of that.

If it is indeed true that Microsoft was running on Xenix up until Windows 3.1, it casts an interesting light on how flexible Bill's vision of the future was right up until the early 90s.

Gates himself, speaking at Unix Expo in 1996, was still being nice about Unix, boasting about Microsoft's early Xenix work, and grousing about AT&T's leadership vacuum:

"I have to admit, it was fairly difficult to work with AT&T back then. They simply didn't understand what they had. They didn't understand how to manage the asset, either in terms of promoting it properly or in terms of making sure that there wasn't fragmentation in how different implementations were put together. And so that vacuum in leadership created a bit of a dilemma for everybody who was involved in Unix.

"Well, Microsoft stepped back and looked at that situation and said that the best thing for us might be to start from scratch: build a new system, focus on having a lot of the great things about Unix, a lot of the great things about Windows, and also being a file-sharing server that would have the same kind of performance that, up until that point, had been unique to Novell's Netware.

"And through Windows NT, you can see it throughout the design. In a weak sense, it is a form of Unix."

Sheesh, those failed business plans again, although to be fair the Bill vision here is presenting NT as a fix for the problems and frustrations Microsoft encountered with Unix. Like not owning it, for starters... ®


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