Doom is 30, and so is Windows NT. How far we haven't come

The difference between 1983 and 1993 is vast. Since then, not so much

Comment As we approach the end of 2023, it's interesting to look back at the tech of three decades ago. Not just to compare it to today's, but also to that a decade earlier. The interesting aspect isn't how much has changed: it's how fast it was, and is, changing.

As an Australian vulture noted recently, it is thirty years since id Software's "definitive horror slugfest" came out, complete with network "deathmatches". It is amazing to look back at the tech of 1993 and contrast it with that of 1983. In just ten years, much of modern computing was invented. Several major technologies that debuted in 1993 are still central parts of what we use today.

Just as Doom redefined video games in 1993, Windows NT redefined PC operating systems. The first version came out just a few months before Doom, and it was even more influential. '93 also saw the release of NCSA Mosaic, the OG web browser. Mosaic's spin-off, Netscape, started under the name Mosaic Communications Corporation, and somehow, that company homepage is still there. Later, Mosaic Corp evolved into Netscape, and that begat today's Mozilla. Also going online in '93 was the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, the first ever webcam.

1993 set the direction of much of modern computing. Over a human generation later, most desktop computer users still run a variant of NT: it is still the basis of Windows 11. More or less the last fragments of the Mosaic codebase died with Internet Explorer 11, but we still use web browsers derived indirectly from Mosaic.

To get a sense of how transformative 1993 was, compare it with just one decade earlier. 1983 was the year that the Camputers Lynx appeared, but it had no chance of competing with the UK's best-selling machines: the ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, and Commodore 64. The same year as the Lynx, another, much dearer flop launched over the pond. But while thousands of the Apple Lisa ended up in landfill, its ruthlessly cost-cut successor, the Macintosh, set the new norm for personal computers ... even if little classic Macintosh tech remains in modern Macs.

The Lisa flopped partly because it was $9,995, about $30,000 today. A lot, sure, but for comparison, the first version of the original IBM PC to ship with a hard disk as standard, the IBM PC/XT, also launched in 1983 – and thanks to its 10 MB (no, not gig) hard disk, it cost $7,545. That's about $22,500 now. This is why eight-bit kit like the C64 dominated the 1983 market: 64 kB of RAM, audio cassettes for storage, and an analog TV set for a display was all that most home users could afford. The C64 was $595 at launch in 1981. By 1993, inflation meant that was about $1,000, which by then would get you a 486 PC.

What a difference a day decade makes

In 1973, microprocessors barely existed. It was before the Intel 8080 or CP/M. What we think of as PC abilities required a custom workstation that would have cost the equivalent of $280,000 today: the Xerox Alto, which made the Lisa look affordable. Alongside the Alto, '73 was the year Ethernet was invented.

Ten years later, a $10,000 personal computer could just about manage a monochrome GUI, but few saw the benefits, and fewer still bought them. Ten years after that, Windows for Workgroups 3.11 came out, and by '93 even a low-end PC could run that just fine. 1993 was also the year that MacOS 7.1.1 came out, and any 1993 model Macintosh could easily handle that. The best selling video games of '83 were Pac Man and Donkey Kong; a decade later, it was a networked real-time 3D first-person shoot-'em-up.

From '83 to '93, the computer world went from eight-bit CPUs and double-digit kilobytes of storage to 32-bit machines with megabytes of storage, and a GUI as standard. NT 3.1 was also the first version of Windows with full pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection, replacing Windows 3's (and classic MacOS's) primitive and rather unstable cooperative multitasking. NT 3.1 was also the first version of Windows with TCP/IP built in, just as Ethernet started to become supplied as standard, and graphical web browsers appeared. The browser, and the first webcam, are what made the internet profitable.

It didn't matter much to most people at the time, but that first release of Windows NT already supported dual CPUs, using the Intel MP standard, seen in the Compaq SystemPro, the first 386 model of which shipped in 1989. When dual-core chips started to appear, NT was ready, but the real deal is that multiprocessor PCs didn't come along in the Noughties: they are late '80s tech, already working in '93.

In terms of on-screen graphics, we got more or less real-time 3D, although still rendered in software. OpenGL was ratified the previous year, also when Video for Windows appeared as a free add-on for Windows 3.

Then what happened?

Over the following decade, a lot of smaller pieces fell into place, but they were more evolutionary than revolutionary: helpful, rather than groundbreaking. Windows 95 modernized the desktop interface, and most still work like it, despite Microsoft's concerted efforts. Around the turn of the century, ADSL broadband started mass rollout in the UK, bringing fast internet to the masses. A year later, Windows XP came along and finally banished DOS-based Windows. Ten years after NT, the first 64-bit PC chips shipped.

Since then… well, what big advances can you name? Phones could understand spoken commands (even if The Reg thought it was a gimmick) before PCs. Your face can unlock your devices, but they still can't read expressions. Gestures are confined to trackpads. The move from 32-bit to 64-bit has been anticlimactic: mostly, it just means you can have more RAM. Computers are smaller, more power efficient, run cooler, and have way more and way faster storage … and that's about it.

Although the PC industry is in deep denial about it, as it was in 2021, just as it was a decade before that, computers aren't getting that much faster any more. Storage still is, and semi-dedicated purpose-specific chippery such as the latest power-guzzling GPUs still are too … although the performance of recent Apple Silicon shows that the secret to efficient graphics performance isn't hanging a huge hot GPU cluster on the end of a bus, it's integrating smaller ones into the CPU die.

We're nearly quarter of the way through the 21st century, but in place of amazing breakthroughs in programmability, or interaction, or whole new unforeseen tech, three decades of increase in computer capacity and parallelism has mainly enabled unprecedented levels of OS and app bloat.

Windows 11 is the latest version of the same OS that came out as Windows NT 3.1, and in 1993, it did most of the stuff Windows 11 does. NT 3.1 ran on two different CPU architectures (x86-32 and MIPS), it had subsystems for DOS, and Windows 3, and UNIX, and OS/2 apps ... and it fit into a 50 MB ISO file. Windows 11 is 6 GB. It's 120 times bigger. Hands up if you think it has 120 times the functionality. ®

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