20 Years of Windows

Tech Analysis and Opinion: How one operating system came to dominate computing—and what's next. Has it really been 20 years? Two decades since Microsoft unleashed its graphical operating environment on what was arguably an unsuspecting industry? Say what you will about Windows, its impact has been huge. As eWEEK recognizes the operating system's china anniversary, each of the Labs' analysts examines the effects of Windows technology—both positive and negative—in his or her beat. Henry Baltazar: Storage For all the Microsoft haters who say the company never gives away anything for free, the CIFS (Common Internet File System) saga is a compelling example of the company's "largesse." Microsoft's CIFS strategy has demonstrated that the company is more than willing to create technology and bundle it into the operating system at no charge—provided the technology can knock the wind out of a multibillion-dollar competitor. Microsoft's embrace of the CIFS file-sharing protocol in 1998 was one of the most important developments in the storage industry in recent years because it caused a shift in the LAN landscape. Before CIFS' deployment, Novell NetWare file servers dominated LANs. However, Novell's servers were built on proprietary protocols. With CIFS embedded in every Windows system, Microsoft opened the floodgates for file sharing without user licenses. Through CIFS, Microsoft was able to bury NetWare, the former LAN network operating system king, and make NT the dominant network operating system. CIFS also pushed the IP protocol into the LAN market, which had been dominated by Novell's IPX in the early '90s. IP was originally popular in Unix and wasn't included in early versions of Windows. (Third parties wrote IP support for early Windows clients.) With CIFS as a protocol bundled into every Windows-based machine, the doors were wide open for NAS (network-attached storage) vendors and the open-source Samba team to deliver file services for Windows networks free of pesky licenses, picking away at Novell's key source of revenue. Novell's NDS directory and print services were better than Microsoft's, but file services were Novell's bread and butter—and IP-based CIFS became far more attractive than proprietary Novell File Shares running IPX. Novell's move to IP and away from IPX came far too late to change IT managers' minds about moving to Windows NT. Microsoft could afford to offer file services for "free" because it could squeeze IT managers on a wide variety of other licenses (for example, NT Server, Exchange e-mail, Office, SQL Server and, later, Active Directory). With NetWare unable to appeal as a platform for applications, much to the dismay of many a CNE (Certified NetWare Engineer)—myself included—its market share evaporated, and Novell was forced to reinvent itself as a Linux software vendor to escape elimination. Jason Brooks: Operating systems Needless to say, the impact of Windows on the operating system space has been dramatic. Windows now powers the vast majority of desktop computers, a sizable chunk of servers, and a large—and growing—segment of smart phones and PDAs. Regardless of where you and your computing device want to go today, there's a good chance you'll be climbing through Windows to get there, and Microsoft has used its intimate relationships with OEMs to make life difficult for rivals, such as the innovative, excellent and short-lived BeOS. There's no question that the dominant position that Windows has held—and the aggressive tactics that Microsoft has employed to maintain it—has worked to somewhat constrain our software options. That said, I think choice and flexibility, at least where hardware is concerned, have been the best things that Windows has wrought. Windows broadened our options by giving us independence from hardware-vendor-specific operating system implementations. Despite the Big-Brother-battling, "Computing for the Rest of Us" image that Apple strove to build for itself, it was Windows, and DOS before it, that empowered the various cheap, capable PC clones that defined my formative computing years—while other platforms such as Mac OS demanded more costly (but less cost-effective) hardware. From white-box clones to ultrathin notebook PCs, there's a great deal of cost and feature diversity among hardware systems, and Windows has provided a vital abstraction layer to span these options and help maintain flexibility for consumers. However, the hardware-commoditizing force that Windows has exerted on the PC world has helped set the table for Linux and the free-software movement, which have begun to broaden platform choices beyond Windows. Linux and free software will force Microsoft to focus more keenly on cost and innovation in the same way that Windows has helped keep hardware vendors on their toes. Just as the commoditization and fiercer competition that Windows wrought on the hardware level brought us lower costs and more choices in the boxes we run, the period of broadened operating system and platform choice into which we're now entering will mean more innovation—both from Microsoft and from others. Michael Caton: Collaboration The idea and nature of collaboration and enterprise applications have changed considerably with the evolution of Windows, but the success of Windows and enterprise applications seems intertwined, from the beginnings of OLE and DDE (Dynamic Data Exchange) through the client/server revolution to now-prevalent Web-based applications. In any discussion about the rise of Windows, it's next to impossible to separate the success of the applications from the success of the operating system. Server operating systems, including NetWare, Unix and IBM's LAN Manager, introduced most PC users—including me—to the concept of sharing data and applications over a network. However, Microsoft's introduction of Windows NT Server, starting with Version 3.5, brought simplicity to networking, and the common development model made it possible for software companies to write applications so businesses could run one copy as a server and a couple of other copies as clients. OLE and DDE allowed for the first cross-product collaboration by sharing data in one application with another, but the true granddaddy of office productivity was Lotus Notes. Although Windows (and Microsoft's ability to dominate office productivity software) eventually killed Lotus' first generation of products, 1-2-3 and Ami Pro, Notes allowed enterprises to put e-mail and data-driven applications on every desktop. Furthermore, Notes tied e-mail and the databases running on Lotus Domino servers together in a way that no other vendor did. E-mail, Web conferencing, and instant messaging and presence have become the primary drivers of collaborative productivity, making the desktop and server platform less important than the tools and data that reside on it. The Web itself, and the rich Web interfaces available through technologies such as AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) and Macromedia's Flex, will further reduce the relevance of the operating system as users get the rich and fast client experience that they used to get from client/server systems in a Web browser—regardless of the platform.

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