- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

People fuss a lot about how terrible Microsoft is. In some ways it is; it gets a mite predatory at times. I think, though, that the company has done more good than it sometimes gets credit for.
To a large extent, the progress of computing is the story of standardization. Consider:
When the first personal computers came out, a bit before 1980, let's say, they were pretty close to useless. They had different designs, and there was no common operating system. This meant that a program written for one wouldn't run on another. Lacking a large unified market, software developers didn't write many useful programs.
Then a company called Digital Research came out with CP/M, a standard (crucial word) operating system for most of the non-Apple computers of the time. This allowed software houses to write programs, such as word processors, for CP/M instead of for particular machines. Any CP/M machine could use them. This greatly expanded the market and led to lots of much better software.
However, computers still used different disk formats. Thus, if you had your novel or business data on a disk (floppy disks were still standard) from a KayPro computer, you couldn't give it to someone with a computer from TeleVideo. They couldn't read one another's disks. This was what is technically known as a "real problem."
Then IBM released the IBM PC. It wasn't the best possible design probably and perhaps hadn't been thought out too carefully. IBM was the Lord of Big Iron huge mainframes and didn't think toy computers for desktops were terribly important.
Businesses, however, began to buy the machines like crazy. IBM was a real company. If Big Blue sold a little computer, it must be all right. IBM quickly took over a huge slice of the market. This forced everybody to write programs for the PC's central processing unit, to use its disk format, and so on. In short, the PC imposed a de facto standard on the market. Order out of chaos.
Then Big Blue got eaten alive by agile start-up companies and kids, such as Michael Dell, who began computer companies in garages and dorm rooms. But the standard lived usefully on.
Microsoft imposed the next standard.
Before Windows came along, programs for IBM clones worked pretty well, but they all worked differently and often mysteriously. For example, a word processor might use Control-V to start marking a block of text and Control-Q to move it. It worked, but it wasn't obvious, wasn't intuitive, and if you didn't use the program constantly, you'd forget the commands. If you used five programs word processor, spreadsheet, database and so on you had to learn five sets of inscrutable, awkward commands, then new ones when you changed programs. It was convincingly awful.
Enter Microsoft Windows, which came into being in slow steps and revisions but did indeed arrive. It had the splendid effect of imposing a standard that all programs had to follow. Weird cryptic commands disappeared. With Windows, if you wanted to open a file, the "file" drop-down menu was always at the upper left of the screen and always had the "print" command beneath and "exit," and so on. "Cut" and "paste" were always done with the same little icons at the top of the screen and worked the same way in all programs.
So many things worked the same way that using drop-down menus and scroll-bar windows became intuitive, and people forgot how beastly it was before. (They also didn't associate these things with Microsoft.) Learning software became easy, as did stealing it, because most of a program's function became obvious. Frequently you didn't need a manual.
Now, those who hate Microsoft (They are gathering in my yard, with a rope.) say Bill Gates stole many of the ideas behind Windows from Apple. Perhaps, though Apple had stolen them from Xerox PARC. But Apple didn't have the business acumen to dominate the market and impose its standard. It sank slowly into the status of an off-brand computer serving the graphics market and scuttles around in the shadows of commerce. Microsoft, whatever one may say about its rapacity and Wehr-machtlike imperialism, did impose Windows.
Which might be better. Of course, making it better to please some people might make it worse in the eyes of others. But when I load a new piece of software and begin using it productively in 15 minutes, without a manual, I know why.


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