The Big Idea: Microsoft At 30 (and How Windows Changed Everything)

It’s pretty amazing what can happen in thirty years.

Thirty years ago, Quincy Jones assembled U.S.A. for Africa to record “We Are the World” to raise money for famine relief. The pop stars who came to lend their voices included Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Dan Akeroyd (yes, that Dan Akeroyd), Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles.

Thirty years ago, Steven Spielberg’s latest film at the box office was The Color Purple, featuring Whoopi Goldberg in a dramatic role opposite of Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey.    

Thirty years ago, the Aldus Corporation introduced a new layout program for Macintosh computers. The program was called PageMaker. This introduced to the world a brand new term: Desktop Publishing.

And thirty years ago, another computer program was introduced to the world: Microsoft Windows.

windows-box.jpgOn November 20th 1985 Microsoft shipped the first version of Windows after their tremendous success of Microsoft Disc Operating System, known more commonly by its other name, MS-DOS. (If you are old enough to remember that and you are reading this blog, well done for keeping up with the change!) Microsoft Windows was considered a game changer, of sorts, offering to personal computer or “PC” as the MS-DOS computers would eventually be called, a graphical layer on top of the disc operating system. Instead of complicated commands and codes you would need to know in order to make a function happen, all someone would need to do is scroll a cursor over an item and click on it! Pretty big idea, don’t you think?

Well, global domination of the world as Microsoft would have it did not seem assured back then.

The company was facing a law suit from this small, upstart rival, Apple Computers, who said Bill Gates and his crew were stealing all of its ideas for a graphical user interface. Now, Mr. Jobs, if you want to really point fingers and cast aspersions, Apple had stolen the whole idea of a graphical user interface (or GUI) from Xerox, so Apple might have been a thorn in Miocrosoft’s side but not winners of this lawsuit.

There was also an issue with the rollout of Windows. It was supposed to debut in 1983. Announced two years earlier, Windows suffered delay after delay after delay. Microsoft was struggling to make their GUI accessible and functional. They were working with the remnants of IBM’s attempt at a GUI called Top View. They could never actually get the program up and running, so after cancelling the whole Top View program and selling their assets to Microsoft, Gates and his developers forged ahead.

Finally, this new Windows interface was slow and buggy. It’s nice to know that we’ve moved beyond that after thirty years.


I never actually used Windows 1 because, in the most scientific term I can muster, it was a dog. A tough start, to be sure, for what we now know as Windows OS. I didn’t even use Windows until version 3.1. Yes, it took three versions of the software before I even used it.

There was also the fiasco of marketing Windows 1.0. Steve Ballmer appeared in this hard-to-imagine-but-YouTube-will-preserve-forever Windows television commercial. He sounds like Bozo the Clown, and the wardrobe makes him look like Bozo the Clown.

What I find fascinating, from a marketing perspective, is how many things they got wrong in this ad. And yet, nearly 25 years later, Microsoft still manages to get things wrong in another failed ad campaign.

With so many things that Microsoft got wrong thirty years ago, Windows 1 still qualifies as perhaps one of the biggest of the Big Ideas as it brought to the general public the computer interface as we know it. Now I don’t doubt that those true and loyal to Apple will argue that Steve Jobs and his developers were the real pioneers (who actually took the idea from Xerox, but enough about those pesky details…) but because more people were using MS-DOS and because more people were on PCs than Apple machines, Microsoft Windows reached more people and shaped the Operating System environment, and our expectations for what we want a computer to do, as we know it.

Still, even in 1985, it wouldn’t have been that hard to find a better jacket for Ballmer.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.



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