Advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1

I’ve talked a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of old milestone operating systems. But what were the advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1? That’s a fair question.

Advantages of Windows NT 3.1

advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1
Although few people actually used it, Windows NT 3.1 was a landmark release for Microsoft.

Windows NT 3.1 was a landmark for Microsoft: its first fully 32-bit operating system. It was the weird offspring of Windows 3.1, IBM’s OS/2, and DEC’s VMS. How could it have three parents? Don’t ask. Just smile and nod.

OK, I’ll explain. IBM and Microsoft co-developed OS/2 as a successor to DOS. But they had a fundamental disagreement over how 16-bit Windows fit into everything. Eventually the disagreements led to a very public divorce that left IBM confused. IBM soldiered alone, developing and eventually releasing OS/2 2.0 and OS/2 2.1, both of which worked well and were surprisingly popular. Microsoft took its nascent code that it intended to form the base of OS/2 3.0, renamed it Windows New Technology, and eventually released it as Windows NT 3.1.

So how does DEC VMS fit in? Microsoft hired Dave Cutler, the chief architect of VMS, to be the chief architect of Windows NT. Cutler’s work on VMS and other DEC operating systems influenced the internal workings of NT.

Being 32-bit, it was more stable than 16-bit Windows 3.1. It also had the ability to do something resembling real security. The implementation wasn’t perfect, but the capability was there. It also did real pre-emptive multitasking like OS/2 and Amiga.

Believe it or not, in 1993 there was some question whether Intel would dominate the future of the CPU field. Microsoft hedged its bets by porting NT to any 32-bit chip it could think of. One was MIPS, the chip architecture later used many consumer routers, including the venerable Linksys WRT54G. Another was Power PC, the Motorola/IBM CPU that Apple used in its Macintoshes for about a decade. The third was the ill-fated DEC Alpha, a criminally underrated chip from the 1990s. In 1993, this versatility was an advantage.

Aside from the improved stability and security, it had a new filesystem, NTFS, that was more efficient and faster than the ancient FAT filesystem DOS used.

NT 3.1 was mostly compatible with 16-bit Windows, and its “Windows on Windows” approach to running 16-bit apps was more transparent than OS/2’s approach.

Finally, its user interface was more familiar than OS/2. It was completely different under the hood, but if you could use Windows 3.1, you could use NT 3.1 too.

Disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1

In 1993, memory was expensive, and Windows NT wanted 16 megabytes of it. In 1993, 4 megabytes of RAM was standard and some systems still came with as little as 2.

Setting up NT 3.1 was also difficult, since Plug and Play was still a couple of years off.

Driver support was also anemic. Most consumer hardware didn’t have NT drivers at first, so you had to dual boot with DOS and Windows 3.1 to use a lot of computer hardware we take for granted today.

In the early 1990s when I would get into operating system debates, I advocated for OS/2. People always said, “What about Windows NT?” That was a short argument because I only ever met one person who ran Windows NT 3.1 on a regular basis. I was working at Best Buy and he came in with a pretty long shopping list. But we couldn’t find a sound card, CD-ROM drive, or flatbed scanner that would work with NT 3.1 at the time. Or at least I couldn’t guarantee any of it would work, since it didn’t say so on the box. DOS worked. Windows 3.1 worked. Even OS/2 usually worked. For NT, you were on your own early on.

Windows NT grew up, but 3.1 was a bit of a rush job and it showed. It was really NT 3.51, released in May 1995, that gained a lot of use, and NT 4.0, released in July 1996, that took Windows NT into something resembling mainstream.

Legacy

Windows NT 3.1 is probably the most influential operating system nobody used. It lived up to its promise, as every Microsoft operating system from Windows XP onward is its direct descendant. If you ever wondered why you have to hit CTRL-ALT-DEL to log in, it was so Windows NT could get C2 Orange Book certification from the U.S. Government.

Windows NT 3.1 was Microsoft’s attempt at a “Unix killer.” That didn’t exactly happen. Both Unix and NT are far, far more widespread now than anyone had any right to imagine in 1993. But NT definitely did put a dent in proprietary Unix. There’s a lot less AIX, Solaris, and HP-UX around today. Much of that is because of Linux, but NT had something to do with it too. And Windows NT turned out to be far, far more successful than Microsoft’s ill-fated Unix product.

Oddly, even though NT was designed to leave Intel behind if necessary, it may have saved Intel’s x86 architecture. Since NT could run on cheap PCs, that was what most people bought, and they put up with the limitations of a $1,500 PC. It wasn’t as good as a $3,000 RISC workstation but it was probably better than half as good. Sustaining that market share gave Intel the cashflow it needed to eventually make x86 competitive with those other chip architectures. You don’t hear much talk of x86 going away anymore.

2 thoughts on “Advantages and disadvantages of Windows NT 3.1

  • April 6, 2018 at 1:44 pm
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    Started to betatest NT in 1991. Did not use it much as I only had 4MB RAM in my PC at that time, and quite slow on my 386.

    Got much better with NT 3.5 when I got a 486/66 in the end of 1994. Continue to use multi boot with Win 3.11, OS/2 and FreeBSD for some time. Got even better when expanded the RAM in my 486 from 4MB to 8MB (OS/2 was no problem for me with 4MB).

    With NT 3.51 it improved both performance and also the device driver support to be on par with my OS/2 installation (first 2.11 and later Warp 3.0). Worked so well that it become my most used OS at that time (still had the others for multi boot option).

    With NT 4.0 I got rid of the other OS:es and used only NT after that. Even bought my first laptop preinstalled with NT4 (DEC HiNote). Never look back.

    Today I use both Mac and PC, and enjoy both systems very well (and occasional test of some Linux distros). I think that both macOS (High Sierra) and Win10 generally both very well and stable (it is more my phones and tablets that suffer from instability at times).

    Reply
    • April 7, 2018 at 8:54 am
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      Agreed, blue screens grew more and more rare for me in the XP days. I might get a blue screen once every few years now and I can usually trace it to a faulty driver or a bad memory module.

      I use a Mac for work these days and the OS itself is rather stable. Some the applications aren’t, but I’ve never been able to bring down the OS itself, so far. These days, as long as we don’t buy our computer equipment out of the back of a van parked at an abandoned gas station, our computers tend to be pretty reliable. I’m with you though, phones and tablets haven’t caught up yet, and it’s not just cheap phones either. My crazy expensive Apple phone crashed once a week when I first got it late last year, and that was under pretty light use. My Android phones would do that about once a year, which is better, but below what I’d accept from a PC.

      Reply

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