The Borrowers

Like its forerunners, Windows 98 shows that Gates' real genius is acquisition, not innovation.

| Tue Feb. 3, 1998 3:00 AM EST

Windows 98, Microsoft's next attempt at blanketing the earth with its products, is just around the corner, scheduled for release by June. The most popular operating system for desktop computers isn't necessarily the best choice, as many Mac and OS/2 users are happy to point out, but that hasn't stopped it from gaining its tremendous market share: Windows now controls 85 percent of the market.

How does an OS become that successful? Judging by the pedigree of Windows, innovation isn't the key factor, and neither is excellence. Like its predecessors, Windows 98 is a patchwork of hundreds of ideas, technologies, and companies. Like a high-tech quilt-maker, Microsoft has bought, licensed, or lifted the ideas of countless other software developers, and stitched them together into its own profitable product. The strategy has made Microsoft the powerhouse it is, and helped turn Silicon Valley into a merger-and-acquisition feeding frenzy that makes the 1980s look like an hors d'oeuvre.

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So don't call Bill Gates a technogeek. The man may be a brilliant programmer—um, he and Paul Allen did write a snazzy version of BASIC—but that's not the key to his dizzying success. His genius is in creating a patchwork product that's more impressive than the sum of its parts, in letting other entrepreneurs innovate, then seizing upon their most marketable ideas [see "The Microsoft Media Map"]. The tactic works especially well for Gates because he's got the cash to buy any idea he likes, including these features of the new Windows 98:

Remember DOS?
Microsoft would be nowhere today if it weren't for the $50,000 Bill Gates and Paul Allen invested in DOS, which was just an afterthought. They'd wanted to secure a contract with IBM to sell BASIC with every IBM PC, and IBM needed an operating system to make the unit complete. The only person who could give IBM what it wanted at the time was Gary Kildall of Digital Research, who snubbed Big Blue and sent its representatives running to Seattle, begging for help. Rather than risk losing the project (they really thought their future was in languages), Gates and Allen went to Seattle Computer Products and bought QDOS, a CP/M knockoff. The operating system was then christened MS-DOS, and the rest is history. It's also the present and the future: At the heart of Windows 98 still resides good old DOS, with all its annoying quirks, including the clunky file management system known as FAT (File Allocation Table).

Clicking and Dragging and Pointing, Oh My!
Contrary to what Microsoft used to say four years ago, when Windows 95 was still in development, the most significant difference between DOS and Windows 95 isn't the transition from 16-bit to 32-bit. Many have already pointed out that Windows 95 isn't a pure 32-bit operating system, but rather a very mixed environment. Besides, the state of "bitness" is just too transparent for most users to care.

No, the significant difference was in the graphical user interface (GUI). From the tedious character-based command-line approach that was DOS, PC users were transported into a zippy world where little pictures rule, and clicking an image with a mouse results in an action. No longer did desk jockeys have to type long cryptic commands at the DOS prompt (remember "copy c:\myfiles\1992\*.bak d:\backup"?).

The common myth is that Microsoft stole this GUI from the Macintosh operating system. But the truth is, Apple's Steve Jobs had borrowed the idea from Xerox PARC, where he saw a prototype of a microcomputer which used a mouse, icons, and pull-down menus. The difference is, Apple paid PARC for the idea. Microsoft just, er, borrowed it.

Just Browsing
Unless the Department of Justice has its way, Microsoft will make Internet Explorer, its Web browser, the de facto user interface for Windows 98. IE4, which now is giving Netscape a run for its money, evolved from the original Internet Explorer, which shipped at the same time as Windows 95 in August 1995. IE1 was, surprise, surprise, a souped-up version of Mosaic, the prototype browser developed at the University of Illinois by Netscape honcho Marc Andreessen—Microsoft would later pay browser company Spyglass Inc. $8 million in royalties for using its Mosaic technology. In case you haven't followed Microsoft too closely, here's an axiom for you: The Redmond company rarely succeeds with versions 1 or 2 of a product, but by version 3, the world starts to take notice, as Microsoft wakes up and claims a market share. That's the way it was with Windows (before 3.0 it was a joke of a product), and with IE, which shocked the industry by taking big bites out of Netscape's market share when version 3 was released last year.

Sunny Side Up
Microsoft has licensed Java from Sun for inclusion in its Web browser and operating systems. It had to. Users are being told by Sun and Netscape that Java is crucial, and they're demanding support for that language in their products, whether or not they understand why. (Realistically, the benefit of having Java in the OS is only apparent to corporate users, as the language allows corporate IT departments to deploy shared applications to all their users, regardless of which operating systems they use. For ordinary consumers, Java doesn't play a major role; they're only exposed to "fluff" applets on Web sites that their browsers can handle just fine.)

Sun and Microsoft are currently in dispute over their interpretation of that licensing agreement. Sun accuses Microsoft of modifying the "platform-free" Java environment to be Windows-centric. Microsoft says it's acting within the language of the contract. Either way, Java is incorporated into IE4, and soon into Windows 98.

Reality Check: Microsoft says it "loves" Java and isn't trying to spar with Sun over setting standards for Internet development environments. It also says that its own technology, ActiveX (formerly known as OLE), complements Java, and doesn't compete with it. Oh, sure...

HTML for the Masses
Another offering in Windows 98 is FrontPage Express, a lightweight Web authoring program, which is the "lite" version of the full-blown FrontPage 98. In 1996 Microsoft bought Vermeer, the original FrontPage software developer, and the product has since evolved into one of the best HTML editors on the market, with tight MS-Office integration. Vermeer's FrontPage was by far the best HTML editor at the time of the merger, which was a major coup for Gates.

Finally, A Decent Backup
One of the worst tools in DOS and Windows history is undoubtedly the Backup program. Its shortcomings are many, and users usually just ignore it and use the backup software that comes with their tape or Zip drives. For Windows 98, Microsoft has finally licensed Seagate Backup Exec, a decent backup tool from Seagate Software, which supports all known backup devices on the market, and even manages to back up the Registry, which Microsoft has long left to fend for itself—though third-party vendors have sold registry backups for years.

Prepare for Launch
Arguably, one of the worst aspects of using a computer is waiting: waiting for programs to load, waiting for documents to open, even waiting for the system to boot. To make Windows 98 that much more attractive, Microsoft has licensed Intel's Application Launch Technology, which accelerates the startup process for applications running on your hard disk. This technology, while promising, hasn't yet been benchmarked properly by third-party reviewers, so its impact on Windows 98's performance is yet to be seen.

Odds and Ends
This report wouldn't be complete without a mention of old (or as they're known today, "legacy") applets and technologies still lingering in Windows 98, which had their inception outside Microsoft before being added to the patchwork:

Paint: The rudimentary drawing program, which is thrown in as a "free" applet, has its roots in the old (as in, mid-'80s) PaintBrush from Zsoft, which Microsoft licensed for inclusion in Windows 3.0.

ScanDisk: Microsoft may deny this, but many people insist that this tool for diagnosing and repairing disk problems has its origins in the Norton Disk Doctor, now part of Symantec's Norton Utilities.

Defrag: Since Windows 98 still relies on FAT (though it's received an impressive facelift in the current version, FAT32), files still tend to get fragmented on your hard disk. To solve this problem, Microsoft licensed Defrag from Symantec, who had inherited it along with the rest of PC Tools when Central Point merged with Symantec in the early '90s.

HyperTerminal: Though it's not much in use anymore, now that most people use their modems to go on the Internet rather than to BBSes, HyperTerminal, developed by Hillgraeve and licensed by Microsoft, is still part of Windows.

QuickView: Right-click an icon in Windows 95 or 98, and you'll get an option to "QuickView" its contents. This utility is the watered-down version of Quick View Plus by Inso, licensed by Microsoft.

On the Upside
True, Microsoft's inclusion of various third-party utilities (or third-party inspired tools) in its operating systems has caused some companies to disappear from the face of the earth, or become near-extinct. Some examples include Quarterdeck, which once owned the memory management market; Central Point, which made an excellent quasi-graphical user interface for DOS (remember PC Tools?) and was eventually swallowed by Symantec; and DataStorm, which made the once massively popular communication suite Procomm.

On the other hand, many small startups pray to the Silicon Gods that Microsoft will notice them and offer to buy their technology, or even their entire company. Think about it: When Bill Gates comes knocking, you've as good as hit the jackpot.

Unless he just "borrows" your idea, that is.

Know of other Win98 features Microsoft didn't invent? E-mail your tips for additions or changes and we'll include them in an ongoing update.