Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 6    October 1998

Bill Me!

What Happened to Alternatives to Windows?

by Adam Trionfo

If I were to say that today's Windows machines were sadly lacking in features, I would be completely wrong. The statement isn't true, although it used to be. We probably all know someone who avoids Microsoft products. But it isn't easy to do anymore. There was a time when, if you didn't want to use MS-DOS or Windows, there were many other viable choices. But now what do we have? Are there really any alternatives to Windows available to the average PC user?

After IBM introduced MS-DOS-based machines in 1981, there were plenty of superior alternatives in the clone world that quickly followed. In 1984, the Macintosh was geared toward those who despised the massive IBM corporation (and all that it represented). The 8-bit computers (Atari, Commodore, Apple, TRS-80) of the early eighties were reasonably competitive against the IBM clones, though most were not able to display eighty columns of text without upgrades. Most businesses would never have purchased even an IBM or Macintosh computer that didn't have the ability to display 80 columns of text. This may be what ultimately spelled doom for the 8-bit computers.

When the Amiga and Atari ST were released in 1985, they were both reasonable (and in many cases better) alternatives to the IBM and Macintosh computers of that time. The Macintosh was still black-and-white only, while the IBM was, at best, using 16-color EGA displays. Who didn't prefer a computer with 4,096 colors (Amiga) or 512 (Atari ST) vs. the 2-color Mac or 16-hue IBM? The answer is: the business world. Businesses didn't care about color. Monochrome monitors were cheaper, and thus few offices even had color machines of any sort.

Without well-known and powerful business software, the promoters of non-MS-DOS machines were not able to penetrate the business market. The amount of advertising that both Atari and Commodore used to push their new 16-bit computers was minimal, and was targeted mainly at those who already owned company products.

IBM already had a reputation in the business world as the company that made mainframe computers (even its typewriter-based reputation probably helped sell the initial IBM PCs). By 1985, when the ST and Amiga were released, IBM had been able to use that same leverage to dominate the personal-computer market. Atari had the disadvantage (at the time) of being viewed as a company that made game machines. Commodore's 64 was also viewed as a machine used primarily to play games. Anyone who used these computers knew better than that, but their words usually fell upon deaf ears.

Times were different then, and home buyers didn't admit to the purchases of computers to play games. People supposedly bought computers to balance checkbooks, do their taxes and write Important Letters. It was no fluke that most home-based software that was eventually purchased turned out to be games, but few dared to admit that games were the reason they purchased the computer in the first place. Today it is the game industry that outwardly drives people to purchase new and better machines. Playing the latest games requires the latest hardware, and thus an outlay of more cash on a regular basis.

The large number of MS-DOS machines sold encouraged the software industry to write a large amount of software, including games that were very bad by contrast to those on other platforms. But it wasn't the games that mattered. The MS-DOS world had plenty of quality software for business use, while the other platforms had little. Big-name companies that converted top software like WordPerfect 4.1 were booed, because their conversions were filled with bugs and did not take advantage of the machines' extra capabilities, like better user interfaces (most 8-bit and MS-DOS software used multiple keystrokes to accomplish such simple tasks as bolding words or saving documents). People felt that they deserved more, and they were right. But who was there to fill the void? Was it Apple, Commodore or Atari? No; it was Microsoft.

IBM isn't responsible for the popularity of PC clones. You will not find an actual IBM product in every house that has an Intel chip set, but you will almost always find Microsoft DOS or Windows. In the end, when the business community bought into IBM clones, it was the end of alternative dreams. If there had been Mac, Atari or Amiga clones during the rise of the PC clone, the computer world would have turned out very differently. But those clones have only come to exist in recent years, and in quantities that certainly don't put them on par with the MS-DOS world.

With nothing but time on its hands, Microsoft was able to to take full advantage of the slow advances of other software companies. The first version of Windows shipped in 1985. It was awful when compared with other platforms' user interfaces of the day, but it didn't matter. Microsoft's cash cow, MS-DOS, would be there to support the community until a good version of Windows was released. Now, with Windows '98 and Windows NT, people are, unfortunately, still waiting. -- AT