Windows NT had an unusual start in life, when star programmer Dave Cutler, creator of the VAX VMS minicomputer operating system, had a project cancelled by his employer, DEC (Digital Equipment Corp).
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates decided to back him by setting up a lab for him and his team. In 1988, they started to write a 32-bit operating system that Microsoft hoped would replace the 16-bit OS/2, which had been developed jointly by Microsoft and IBM to replace IBM PC DOS (aka MS DOS). After Microsoft and IBM fell out, what might have been OS/2 3.0 was quickly rejigged to support Windows 3 applications, and released as Windows 3.1 NT.
One key point about NT was that it hadn’t been developed on Intel x86 chips, to which DOS/Windows was inextricably wedded. At the time, the hype-merchants saw Intel being wiped out as the world moved to faster Risc-based processors. NT was intended to be cross-platform and at various times ran on Mips, DEC Alpha, IBM PowerPC and Sun Sparc -- the main Risc processors. Indeed, IBM, Apple and Motorola agreed a common PowerPC Reference Platform to create PCs that could run Windows NT, Mac OS and Unix, but this failed. (IBM had unlaunched machines sitting in warehouses; Apple never delivered.) Some cheap PCs did have DEC Alpha chips, but consumers resolutely stuck with DOS/Windows on Intel’s 386, 486 and Pentium (586) processors.
It took Microsoft a decade of hard work to shift the market from DOS/Windows to the more powerful and far more stable NT version, mainly by making NT look and work more like Windows 9x. It had some success with Windows 2000 (ie NT 5.0) in businesses, which started beta testing in 1997. It finally made the breakthrough in the consumer market with Windows XP (ie NT 5.1), launched in late 2001.
Microsoft had started as a plucky underdog that got lucky when asked to provide IBM with its Basic and then an operating system for the standard-setting IBM PC, launched in 1981. However, the success of Windows had sent Microsoft’s revenues through the roof. Annual turnover had increased from $1.2bn in 1990, when Windows 3 was launched, to $6bn in 1995, and $23bn in 2000. It was now America’s most valuable company, by market capitalisation, and Bill Gates had become the world’s richest man. The company had also come under attack from America’s Justice Department, with a high-profile anti-trust case over the IE browser that was settled in November 2001, just a week after Windows XP hit the shelves.
At this point, Microsoft was the hated monopolist and, at its launch, Windows XP was buried in abuse. Failure seemed assured, especially since Bill Gates -- pilloried for his awful testimony during the anti-trust trial -- had stepped down as chief executive officer in 2000 and set up the charitable Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Still, Windows had dominated a decade of computing from 1990-2000, and it was time for the company to sink back into oblivion over the next decade. Obviously, Steve “Monkey Boy” Ballmer, operating under close US government supervision, would be unable to prevent the new, free Linux operating system from rapidly taking over the market.
The fact that Microsoft’s turnover has grown from $23bn to $62.5bn in 2010, and Windows 7 has become the fastest-selling PC operating system of all time, is another story.