Humble Beginnings: How Microsoft Created Windows from DOS

Screenshot of Windows 1.0 | Courtesy of Bing Images

Winner of the Spring 2018 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Cultural History”

With the release of Windows 10 in 2015, Microsoft has been working with the Windows Operating System for over thirty years. We know Windows today as one of the most powerful and ubiquitous operating systems in the computer world. It has great features like Cortana and the File Explorer. Windows 10 also offers a large amount of accessibility, such as more tiles in the start menu and more communication with cloud applications, such as OneDrive and Dropbox. Windows’ powerful and easy-to-use style has made it the most used operating system in the world, with over one billion users daily. But that was not always the case, and as we will see, the Windows Operation System had very humble beginnings. Let’s go back to a time when microcomputers were just beginning, when they had limited functionality.

Photo of Commodore 64 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1980s, there was DOS, or Disk Operating System. When the early microcomputers of that decade were made, they contained many pieces of hardware that allowed the computer to turn on and process data, but the Operating System allowed the user to communicate with the computer and use its hardware to do things, like run a program, open and save files to a disk drive, or send data to a connected printer.1 The usage of DOS was very important in the development of computer technology. The Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) was a widely used operating system that was initially sold with International Business Machines (IBM) microcomputers, starting with its flagship release of the IBM PC in August 1981. The difference between the microcomputers and the technology that came before them, is the microprocessor. These microcomputers are the same as today’s personal computers and laptops. We just call them “computers” today because it is shorter. The reason MS-DOS sold so well was because it was licensed to IBM, who used it in all of their microcomputers. Because of this, Microsoft received a commission on each microcomputer sold. While PC DOS (MS-DOS running on an IBM PC) was compatible with microcomputers other than IBM’s, in order to run PC DOS on other machines, many customizations had to be made. But thanks to IBM’s established name, and its marketing strategy, IBM PC sales were monumental. Its rapid growth was a boon for both IBM and Microsoft. When compared to operating systems we use today, DOS seems very crude. It was complicated to use and required quite a learning curve in specific commands and keywords in order to do anything. However, it was a necessary first stage in the further development of operating systems like Windows.

Floppy Disks holding MS-DOS | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The microprocessor was a key component to the development of microcomputers. The microprocessor made it possible to have high processing power with little space consumption. It is common sense that computers use electricity, but the hardware in computers uses the electricity in different ways to solicit a response. Computer hardware is a necessary component for the computer to run, and before the microprocessor came to be, the hardware was not very space efficient. The issue of space was a problem for the people using computers at home and at work because the previous technology was even bigger. The company Intel, who was a large manufacturer of computer hardware, found no need for a microprocessor until it was approached by a Japanese calculator company known as Busicom. Busicom wanted to open a new line of calculators that were fast and could hold several circuits on different chips. Intel quickly realized that the job was too hard to handle for the size of their company at the time, but someone from their engineering staff imagined the idea of a central chip that managed static and dynamic memory simultaneously, the Microprocessor. Calculators are meant to be portable and compact, so naturally a calculator would need hardware that could run it, while maintaining portability. With that in mind, Intel created the 4004 microprocessor chip.2 The 4004 was a 4-bit chip and was not very successful, but its descendant, the 8088, was very successful as it was 8-bit and more powerful. The 8088 chip was the microprocessor chip that IBM used in its first line of microcomputers, which brought these two companies together for the first time. This powerful new technology, however, not only benefited IBM. It was also exactly what the company Xerox, a digital document tech producer, needed in order to change the world of computers forever.

Xerox Star | Courtesy of Bing Images

Disk operating systems like Microsoft’s MS-DOS were only a stepping stone on the path to operating systems like Windows 10. Over at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, Xerox was developing something huge. This something was so revolutionary in the world of computer science that we still use its technology today. Xerox was working hard on the idea of interactivity, a concept that the chief spokesman of Xerox, J.C.R. Licklider, had researched and written about. Interactivity allowed computers to operate in “real time.” Many of the things we use in our lives operate in real time, like cars, telephones, and lawnmowers. These things operate in real time because they respond instantaneously to people, which is a concept that computers had not had before the microcomputer age. Computers had operated in a mode called batch processing, meaning that the programmers wrote code to execute programs away from computers completely. Before DOS, coders had to punch code into special punch cards by the hundreds, one card for each line of code. Then those hundreds of cards were fed into a card reader connected to a mainframe computer, which then executed the commands of each card. If the program required data to manipulate, that data had to be punched into cards as well, and then read by the card reader. The machine that these cards were put into would read the spacing between each hole and compile each card that was input. This type of input made the computer and the user completely disassociated. The user did not interact with the computer. He or she rather interacted with the punch cards and the input machines. For a computer to run in “real time,” it would need input devices that would allow a user to have immediate access to command execution. With MS-DOS, one could access files and programs on a disk or tape in real time using the input device that transformed microcomputing: the keyboard.

IBM punch card | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The keyboard allowed for direct input into the microcomputers. When using DOS, words or phrases needed to be inputted to initiate functionality, which is why the keyboard was so important. When a key was pressed on the keyboard, a string of binary numbers was input to the computer. Each letter or character had its own 8-bit string, so the computer was programmed to read each individual string and print the character on the screen to the user. This was much closer to interactivity than the input devices previously, but it was still not at the level it could be. So, with the idea of interactivity, Xerox created the Alto, a personal computer that was the first computer to use a graphical user interface and a mouse.3 The mouse allowed for manipulation of the cursor on the screen to move items around and select files or icons that the user demanded. The mouse operated completely in real time; when moved, the cursor would move, and when the button was clicked, something was selected. Unfortunately, the men upstairs at Xerox did not continue to develop the Alto, but instead they shared them with their competitor, Apple Computers. Soon the Alto lost its success, and Xerox gave away its shot to be one of the major players of the microcomputer age. If Xerox had continued to develop their technology, they might have become the most successful company in the field. But after they gave the golden egg to Apple, the graphical user interface became the basis for a completely new type of operating system.

The Graphical User Interface (GUI) is used on every computer today. Instead of having to type many different lines of command keywords and phrases, which someone using DOS would have to do, the user simply selected an icon displayed on the screen to open an application like Microsoft Word, or play a game like Fortnite. Icons had been in use long before the introduction of GUI on computers. Map artists, for example, would use icons of planes to signify an airport in that location.4 With GUIs, icons received a different use; when using a smartphone, an iPhone for example, the user sees a screen with different icons on a screen. Since, the technology for touchscreens is an advanced form of GUI, the screen of the iPhone is graphically displayed so that the user can select an application in real time and see their screen change. The emphasis on real time is important because the idea of interactivity relies on real time. When looking at a screenshot of DOS and its functionality, it is easy to see why the GUI is much more efficient and pleasing to the user. Graphical user interfaces do not only have the use of displaying real-time action a screen, but it also allows the users to organize their computers to display files and objects in a way that is pleasing to them. Microsoft, Apple, and many other companies knew this and used it in the development of their next products.

Screenshot of Command Prompt
Apple Macintosh | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the information they received from Xerox, Apple Computers integrated GUI into their software with the help of some former Xerox PARC employees. The news of Apple computers having pictures and a mouse spread quickly, and Microsoft’s PC DOS could not compete. Bill Gates was devoted to making computers “user-friendly.” He wanted computers to be accessible to the everyday user and not just to computer experts or to businessmen. His drive for a better computer led him to envision the “interface manager:” a new product that would be the same PC DOS core operating system, but with a graphical user interface shell to cover it, making the software easier to use and more efficient. This project was named Windows and it started with the version 1.0 in 1981, with applications being organized on the bottom of the screen. In 1982, this was changed to pull down menus and dialog boxes and it featured the ability to simultaneously display more than one document on the screen in “windows,” which is how it received its name.5 Windows was still in its development phase when the Apple Lisa was released in 1983. The Lisa featured a high resolution graphical interface sitting on top of the Apple disk operating system. Microsoft had no competing products. Thankfully, Lisa was not successful, but a year later, in 1984, the Apple Macintosh was released, which was designed to be lower in cost. It was the first commercially successful product to feature a multi-window graphical user interface. It used icons that looked like paper for files and icons of folders for the file directory. It also provided many tools to use that worked well with the graphical user interface. It showcased a “desktop,” which was a virtual area where programs and files could be stored to be easily seen by the user.6 When the mouse was connected, the cursor could be moved to manipulate objects and files by selecting them and moving them or opening them, all in real time!7 In the same year, Bill Gates and the Windows team added the mouse to Windows to increase capability, but their product was growing to be more complex as time went on. They needed to get their product ready to launch and it needed to be soon.

A large reason why the graphical user interface was so successful was because of the ease of access it gave to files in the directory. When using the computer, we download, save, delete, and edit files on a regular basis. If it is difficult to find the files we need, would we use the computer as much as we do? The GUI allows a graphical representation of the hierarchical file directory and many other programs on the computer. In DOS, the user can look up a file in the file directory using the DOS command dir, and the directory is shown as a list of files and folders with their addresses according to memory. DOS was very basic and the user needed a good deal of experience in order to use the computer properly. GUI on the other hand was intuitively easy to learn and use. It only made sense that a visual representation of something that you must use is much more effective than reading words and phrases on a screen.

1984 was the year Bill Gates announced the release date of Windows to the press; he set the launch date to be the end of 1984, but Windows was not completed until June of 1985.8 Windows 1.0 could not compete with the Mac’s operating system, but it was one step closer to what Windows would become. Windows 2.0 was more of a competition, but Apple tried to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, since Microsoft used the same idea of overlapping windows instead of tiles. Despite setbacks, Windows was starting to become a commonly used product for its compatibility. Windows could be run on many different types of machines from many different manufacturers, and many companies wanted their computers to use Windows. Microsoft received so much growth and profit that it started to dominate the market. In 1990 Windows 3.0 was released, and it was far more advanced than the Macintosh in functionality and went on to sell close to ten million copies in two years.9 Windows could be marketed and sold to many different PC manufacturers, and since Apple did not license its OS, it took a huge blow. With its product being used by the majority of manufacturers, Microsoft decreased the cost of microcomputers dramatically, almost putting Apple Computers out of business. If it weren’t for the Macinotosh’s effectiveness for graphic design and its use in schools, Apple could have gone bankrupt. Before it became the business giant in consumer electronics, Microsoft dealt with the challenge of developing Windows which spurred innovation and economic growth for the company.10 Since Windows 3.0, Windows has continued to develop and is still a widely used product around the globe.

  1. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Computer operating systems,” by John Panos Najarian.
  2. Gordon E. Moore, “Intel-memories and the microprocessor,” Daedalus Volume, 125 (1996): 55.
  3. Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander, Fumbling the Future (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.,1988), 57-60.
  4. Blake Ives, “Graphical User Interfaces for Business Information Systems,” Volume, 6 (1982): 36.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Microsoft Releases the Windows Operating System,” by Marcia B. Dinneen and Jonathan E. Dinneen.
  6. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Introduction of the Apple Macintosh,” by R. Craig Philips.
  7. Philip G. Stein, James R. Matey and Karen Pitts, “A Review of Statistical Software for the Apple Macintosh,” The American Statistician Volume, 51 (1997): 69.
  8. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Microsoft Releases the Windows Operating System,” by Marcia B. Dinneen and Jonathan E. Dinneen.
  9.  Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “Microsoft Releases the Windows Operating System,” by Marcia B. Dinneen and Jonathan E. Dinneen.
  10. Marshall Phelps and David Kline, Burning the Ships (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 166.
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48 Comments

  • I never knew how Windows came to be. I’ve just known about Apple.it is very interesting to read who worked on the inner programming of the computer. Windows knew that with apple they had to step up their game and work harder. This article does a great job in explain everything thoroughly and in depth. I really enjoyed reading this.

  • I’m currently using a laptop with Windows programed on here and never knew how it all came about. There was a lot of preparation and little things that had to be done to create this Windows to what it is today. I’m thankful for all the smart computer technicians who understand how this all works because without them we wouldn’t have the technology like we have today. Windows knew they had reached their peak of exitance beating Apple is product sells.

  • As a computer science major and a user of the famous Windows its great how the article well informed me of the importance of not only computer engineered who make hardware for computer but highlight the importance of those who work on the inner programming of a computer. It was great to find out that it took more than team and partnerships to develop what now almost every person in that has a computer now use. The craziest thing to think about was that this could have not only been the start of windows but also the start of many other developments such as apple software and google software.

  • The creation of windows revolutionized today’s technological world and without it, technology would be completely different today. This article emphasized what it took to create windows and all the sacrifices that were needed to create it. I like that the article spoke about all the people that were needed to create the operating system and because of that windows has reached the level it’s at today.

  • This article sheds light on something that we take for granted every day and that computing power. To think that commands were given to a computer using a punch card really shows how far we’ve come. Now we can simply save files directly onto the computer or laptop we use instead of going through numerous floppy disks to run what we want. Thankfully Microsoft worked through all this in the past decades so we can use what we have now a modern computer.

  • My dad currently works for IBM and I always see him doing things I have never been able to understand. His field of work is extremely interesting in many ways. He has worked for different computer companies for 27 years so he knows a lot about many different things involving technology. Its ironic how so many steps were needed to be taken in order to make computers and help them function how they do today. This article offers a lot of insight on how Windows became to be so big and how Bill Gates introduced it to the public.

  • The only thing more complicated than the physical hardware computers are composed of is the software that makes them run. The amount of people that it took to create an operating system as popular and common as Windows is nothing short of mind-blowing. Because of their contribution, we can build bigger and better things upon windows and other pieces of software like it. When I read stories like these, I realize just how lucky I am to be born at a time when we have figured out the (now rudimentary) problems that computers once presented us. How can we look at the progress around us without thinking about the people who first created the foundation for it?

  • The aspect I enjoyed most about this article was how it highlighted all the partnerships and help that was required to make computers what they are today. Majority of the time when people are setting out to innovate they keep their ideas very close to themselves and get angered when they are altered or stolen. I recently read a business article on how entrepreneurs are the “heroes” of America and whether that statement is true or not the article made a good point on how the economic success of a nation is dependent on people in society pleasing and serving one another. I found a correlation between the idea of that business article and the origins of Windows in the fact that it took a “village” of people to serve one another in order to push society forward in technology.

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