Life without Microsoft

Friday May 1st 1998 by David E. Y. Sarna

...these two have retreated into their little Bill Gates/OLE/ActiveX-centric world. --Tom O'Toole, system programmer, Homewood Academic Computing, Johns Hopkins University

[April 2007 editor's note: This article from Datamation's 1998 archives has been reposted for historical interest. Clearly, times have changed since the late '90s. The quotes that begin the article are from readers who found an earlier piece by the authors to be too positive toward Microsoft.]

"...these two have retreated into their little Bill Gates/OLE/ActiveX-centric world." --Tom O'Toole, system programmer, Homewood Academic Computing, Johns Hopkins University

"Mr. Sarna's insults cause me to formulate an opinion that he does not have the experience necessary to make any valid points for enterprise computing using distributed architectures." --Tim Grant, senior systems programmer

"Mr. Sarna's reply [April issue of Datamation, Letters] shows that he is 'locked' into MSFT." --Michael Happel, controller, Badger Murphy Food Service

Obviously, some people think we focus too much on the Microsoft world. This month, at the prodding of our editor, Dennis Eskow, we tried to imagine, for a change, what life would be like without Microsoft.

That turned out to be a difficult assignment.

Microsoft, it is said, didn't invent anything. It merely popularized what others invented. Let's admit that Microsoft did not invent DOS 1.0 all by itself; it bought the rights from a defunct Seattle company and then enhanced it. But, clearly, were it not for Microsoft, there would be no Windows and no OS/2, since Microsoft invented Windows, and OS/2 was created as a follow-on by a joint effort with Microsoft and IBM.

It was Apple, not Microsoft, that first popularized the GUI. That's true enough. But the Mac was a totally closed environment, with a minimum of peripherals and software until it was prodded into openness by competition from Microsoft.

Remember the WordStar and WordPerfect days of CTRL this and ALT-SHIFT that? Are we better off?
Yes, we admit it. Microsoft had (and has) bugs. And yes, even Windows95 is a compromise, since it's a 32-bit platform built on the rickety foundations of a 16-bit DOS. But its openness and its DOS compatibility are what led close to 100 million people to appreciate the advantages of the GUI interface for their specific environments and applications. With Windows, even Windows 1.0, Microsoft started implementing open APIs, to its own benefit, to be sure, but also to the benefit of other vendors, in-house programmers, and all Windows users. Nearly anyone who wants to can write a Windows application. The pros can write in C[+][+], and the rest of us in Visual Basic, Visual FoxPro, PowerBuilder, or whatever.

Back to imagining life without Microsoft. Without Windows, we're back in the DOS era, where you had to learn a new user interface for each application. Remember the WordStar and WordPerfect days of CTRL this and ALT-SHIFT that? Are we better off without the secret handshakes, or was it better when each company had a few cognoscenti who understood PCs while everyone else lived either in blissful ignorance or in confusion? Have you forgotten? Not too long ago, it was a chore even to figure out simple things like how to make some DOS programs terminate (there was no standard way).

You don't like life without Windows? Okay. But in order to imagine windows without Windows, we'll imagine Lisa, Apple's ill-fated, overpriced, black-and-white computer, distinguished primarily by the fact that it was practically devoid of applications. Do you like that better?

Now let's imagine life on servers without Microsoft. The historical alternatives were Novell's NetWare and UNIX (take your pick of 49 incompatible flavors). If you were properly apprenticed to the appropriate guild member, said the right incantations, and went through the rites of initiation, you could be assured of full employment as you kept these abstruse servers humming. Servers were expensive and hard to justify, the preserve of the gurus.

Life without Microsoft NT means life without a simple, GUI-driven interface, without an install that asks little more of you than typing SETUP. (Yes, we do know that the most recent versions of OS/2 have much-improved installs, but that was a response to competition, not an innovation.) Truth be told, the phenomenal growth of departmental client/server computing is due largely to the simplicity of the Windows desktop coupled to Windows NT and its low ongoing maintenance requirements. So, to imagine life without Microsoft, we need to back up five years and return to a world limited to boring, character-based, and not-very-compelling applications; server-based file and print sharing; and convoluted e-mail--all horrendously difficult to maintain.

Life without Microsoft would also mean, for the most part, monolithic spaghetti code. True, CORBA has been around for a while and has always worked in theory, and Microsoft can't claim to have invented the concept of objects. But, initially, CORBA's spec was so weak that CORBA objects rarely interoperated beyond a specific object broker and required rocket science to implement. As a practical matter, life without OLE and without ActiveX is tantamount to life without reusable components. Say good-bye to the hundreds of ActiveX vendors that make their living providing the rest of us with thousands of reusable objects that we don't have to write, don't have to understand, and can use anyway.

Ditto for database management systems and Internet servers. Not invented at Microsoft. But enter Microsoft, and cost goes dramatically down while ease of use goes way up. Wide acceptance has given rise to a marketplace for add-ons, training, and consulting. In short, supply lines you can depend on, at a price you can afford, thanks to relentless competition.

Sometimes, we wonder if folks realize how far we've come in the 20 years since Bill G. dropped out of Harvard. On the one hand, we recently heard a client talking about writing his own multithreading system to build on top of--get this--NT. There apparently are still some folks around who don't get the idea of using other people's code. Fortunately, they're mostly keeping other endangered species company at your local zoo.

On the other hand, George goes home every night and watches his eight-year-old twins researching their homework assignments on a Windows-equipped computer. We know that would not have been possible just a few years ago.

No, Microsoft cannot be credited with inventing the GUI, nor for that matter can Apple. As everyone knows, the GUI was invented at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. But give the crew at Microsoft this: They certainly have gotten more nontechnical people to use GUIs than anyone else, and they've created a generation of computer-literate kids that will be invading the workplace in just a few years.

When we were growing up together with Abraham Lincoln, it was said that you couldn't take on the government or IBM. Today, the government is still a tough nut, and Microsoft has largely taken on IBM's mantle.

America loves to hate its rich and famous. Bill G. and Microsoft are certainly a convenient target. But, as our distinguished editor has pointed out, if the world didn't have Microsoft, we might need to invent it. //

Paradigm ShiftDavid E.Y. Sarna and George J. Febish recently took their company, ObjectSoft Corp., public (NASDAQ:OSFT). Visit their Web site at, and contact them, respectively, at and

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