One reason why IBM’s personal computer, the PC, has mastered its market is that it came to be seen as the industry standard. Even Apple, which may still be selling more personal computers than IBM, has grudgingly recognised that it must offer buyers the choice of a machine that can run PC software as well as Apple’s own. Now Microsoft, the software company which developed the operating system for the PC, seems to be aiming for a similar pre-eminence in personal-computer operating software.
On November 10th, Microsoft announced an extended version of its MS/DOS operating system. (An operating system is software that mediates between the machine itself and applications programmes such as word processing.) The new product is called Microsoft Windows. It will allow a personal-computer screen to be divided into sections (or windows), each displaying a different use such as a piece of text, a graph or a financial ledger. The new software will permit a machine to carry out different jobs at the same time, and let the user move information back and forth between (say) a ledger and a graph by using screen pointers (controlled, eg, by a desktop ”mouse”) instead of the computer keyboard.
The idea of using windows on a computer screen to display and work on information is not new. Apple’s Lisa computer, whose sales have fallen short of its technological dazzle, makes a centrepiece of it. But it is now possible to write a kind of operating-system software (clumsily christened ”environment” software) to create windows on almost any personal computer. Since windows are popular with users, this means that all personal computers are going to be equipped with software for them. The companies that produce environment software must be able to win over both computer makers (which choose the operating system for their machines) and applications-software companies.
Microsoft lined up some impressive backing for its announcement. It said that 23 personal-computer companies, including Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Wang, had agreed to sell Windows as part of their machines. More important, several applications companies (including Lotus Development Corporation, whose 1-2-3 programme is now America’s best-selling software) are preparing revised versions of their programmes that will fit into Windows.
Microsoft already dominates personal-computer operating systems. About a quarter of the 4.4m personal computers in American offices run on Microsoft’s MS/DOS system; that percentage is sure to rise as the market shares of IBM’s PC and machines compatible with the PC increase (together they now account for about 40% of personal-computer sales in America). Microsoft’s strategy is to integrate Windows completely into MS/DOS. The computer companies that offer Windows will usually charge nothing more than what a buyer would pay for MS/DOS alone; those that do charge will ask only $100-150 more.
All this makes for a strong tide in Microsoft’s favour, but not an inevitable one. First, Microsoft has not yet made the product. It has predicted deliveries in April, 1984, but most observers think they will begin later than that.
Second, there is plenty of competition. VisiCorp’s VisiOn environment software is, by all accounts, a sophisticated system. And VisiOn, though delayed, is available. Mr Terry Opdendyk, VisiCorp’s president, says that shipments in volume will begin by the end of this month. But VisiOn is expensive (about $495), and will be much better at developing new programmes than accommodating popular old ones (like Lotus 1-2-3).
Third, Microsoft’s success so far has made some applications-software companies nervous. Mr Bill Gates, Microsoft’s chairman, denies that Microsoft has any motive or ability to use its strength in operating systems software for the advantage of its own applications software.
Microsoft has grown fast; in 1982 its revenues were only about $35m, behind both VisiCorp and Digital Research (another operating-systems company that plans to produce environment software). Mr Gates says he expects Microsoft’s revenues in the year ending next June to be about $100m. If so, Microsoft would be one of America’s biggest software companies, a prospect that may lead anxious applications companies to write their programmes for other systems than Windows.
IBM has listened hard but said nothing. It is unlikely to refuse to sell Windows, but may choose not to allow a single environment software standard to develop. Or, just possibly, it may decide to make a window system of its own. Illustration, no caption