Microsoft roadkill on the journey to Windows 7

Microsoft has long copied ideas of its rivals and moved to put many out of business. Relive the dark side of the journey to Windows 7.


Since its inception, Microsoft has made a practice of folding innovation by others into its proprietary products. Windows 7 is no exception. Beginning with version 1.0, Windows has accreted features that often eclipsed third-party products, sometimes killing them in the process.

This isn't to say that Microsoft doesn't innovate on its own -- clearly it does. The question is: Why does Microsoft so frequently, and completely, vanquish third-party software by merging their capabilities into its OS? Is it for competitive advantage? Perhaps, as bundled features ultimately cost users less, although at the expense of future innovation through competition.

Or could it be part of Microsoft's ongoing efforts to lock in its customer base? Frequently Microsoft's versions of third-party capabilities add proprietary code and protocols that limit their use to Windows, and Windows only.

Studying some of the history of Windows as it progressed to today's Windows 7 sheds light on Microsoft's motivations and the ultimate effect of its feature-grabbing to limit user software options.

Windows 7 starts out on the wrong foot

Although it's too early to fully measure the impact Windows 7 will have on the third-party market, it's already off to a bad start with its heavy-handed dismissal of third-party video codecs. Third-party codecs cooperate with video compression standards that Microsoft's own video applications, such as Media Player, were heretofore loathe to support.

But Windows 7 adds some new codecs to Microsoft's quiver, and where these collide with third-party products, you won't be surprised who comes out on top.

Windows 7 pre-empts third-party codecs in Microsoft's own applications, such as Media Player, by using its own embedded codecs whenever possible. This is a major change from XP and Vista operation, where users could override Microsoft codecs globally. Although users can circumvent Windows 7 codec usurpation with some effort, the process is not intuitive and decidedly less convenient than the old behaviour.

Early Windows dismisses, then plays catch-up with Apple

The Windows 7 codec "roadkill" move is just the latest example of the company's behaviour -- habits that started with the very first version of Windows.

Apple introduced the first windows-based GUI in 1983 with its Lisa system. Microsoft at first derided the GUI concept, using the acronym WIMP (for "windows, icon, menus, and pointing device") to describe the Lisa interface. Nevertheless, Microsoft proceeded with its own versions of a windowed OS, initially writing OS/2 for IBM, then releasing its first edition of Windows in 1985, a year after Apple's Macintosh.

Windows 1.0 was famously dinged for copying the Macintosh. Although Apple's Steve Jobs accused Microsoft's Bill Gates of directly stealing features from the Mac's user interface, Gates claimed the similarity was because both systems copied the Xerox PARC Alto. Partly as a result of this controversy, Windows languished for many years, considered by most to be much less usable than the Mac.

Microsoft's first truly competitive version of Windows, version 3.1, didn't arrive until 1990, at which point Redmond had a lot of catching up to do. Through its next few iterations of Windows, Microsoft would often find itself adding features in response to Apple innovations, developing few revolutionary ideas on its own. Apple was first to deliver networking as part of the OS, the first to support desktop publishing with high-quality laser printing, and the first to support 32-bit addressing.

Microsoft was thus not well prepared for the game-changing Internet in the early 1990s.

Windows 95 kills Netscape with bundled IE

As with GUIs, Microsoft at first eschewed the Internet, claiming it was just a fad and that Microsoft's own proprietary Microsoft Network was what people really needed.

Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the web browser, coupled with Mark Andreessen's delivery of the free, commercial-quality Netscape browser in 1994, changed all that. Users flocked to the Internet, immediately grasping the concept of the Web and revelling in the easy-to-use Internet viewport provided by Netscape.

Despite Netscape's popularity, Microsoft continued to ignore the web when it released Windows 95 in late 1995. Although Windows 95 did support TCP/IP, the default installation did not include it, so Windows users were locked out of the Internet unless they took pains to install the optional TCP/IP component.

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