Windows NT turns 20

The first version of Windows NT, version 3.1 (to coincide with the then-current 16-bit version of Windows) was released 20 years ago today. It was an insanely ambitious effort for Microsoft that took a while to pay off, though it eventually did in spades. Windows NT was what killed off Novell and OS/2 and turned the proprietary operating system market into a duopoly. Although a user running it wouldn’t see much difference between Windows NT and regular Windows except that it didn’t crash nearly as much, it was the first version of Windows that qualifies as a modern operating system, with pre-emptive multitasking and protected memory.

This past week, The Register ran an analysis of how Novell fell fast and hard. I didn’t watch Novell’s rise, but I certainly witnessed its fall. Windows NT of course had a lot to do with that. Violating the Windows NT license had even more. Because, you see, early versions of Windows NT Workstation would run as servers happily, while costing a couple hundred dollars, which was far below Novell. I don’t know how many people did this, and my employer at the time, to its credit, did not, but I imagine this inexpensive source of servers hurt Novell and sped up adoption of Windows NT.

When I first became a network administrator in 1997, Novell networks were still common. I don’t know what their market share was at that point, except that people were still buying Netware, but NT was growing faster. The story of Novell’s fall, as recounted in The Register, is sad, and Novell’s mistakes may have hastened the company’s fall a bit, but Windows NT was a steamroller that eventually was going to crush Netware and pretty much anything else. Even Apple came dangerously close to being crushed by it.

What I didn’t like about NT was how Microsoft always got the benefit of the doubt on it early on. And by early on, I mean in the early 1990s. People would ask me why I bothered with OS/2, and I would say pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection, and they would say, “What about Windows NT?” Then I would say, “Have you looked at NT’s driver support?” It was harder to find hardware that worked under NT 3.1 than it was to find hardware that worked with OS/2. Much harder.

In fact, the same people who asked me why I bothered with OS/2 usually prefaced it by saying they had hardware that didn’t work with it. So it was somehow OK for Windows NT to have pathetic driver support, but OS/2’s less-pathetic driver support wasn’t OK.

But that’s why NT was destined to crush everything. Everyone in the industry was eager to give it the benefit of the doubt until it was ready. People joke about Steve Jobs and his reality distortion field, but what people forget now that panning Microsoft is cool was that in the mid 1990s, Bill Gates had a reality distortion field too.

Of course eventually Windows NT became usable. With version 4.0, it inherited the Explorer interface, and the hardware support became tolerable. Windows 2000 added Plug and Play that worked pretty well, and Windows XP added consumer-friendly driver support. And you know the rest of the story. Vista flopped, 7 soared, 8 made people long for Vista, and 8.1 isn’t out yet but is getting mixed reviews that ought to concern Microsoft.

Because that’s the thing. With 3.1, everyone wanted to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, but with 8.1 today, not so much.

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