Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ones That Didn’t Make It: Windows’ Failed Rivals

A quarter century ago, a new package called Windows faced some pretty daunting competition. 

Microsoft shipped Windows 1.0 on November 20th, 1985. Twenty-five years later, it’s not just hard to remember an era in which Windows wasn’t everywhere–it’s also easy to forget that it wasn’t a given that it would catch on, period.
The company had announced the software in November of 1983, before most PC users had ever seen a graphical user interface or touched the input device known as a mouse. But by the time Windows finally shipped two years later, after a series of embarrassing delays, it had seemingly blown whatever first-mover advantage it might have had. At least four other major DOS add-ons that let users run multiple programs in “windows” had already arrived.

Visi On

Debuted: December 1983, a year and eleven months before Windows
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: If pure prescience and ambition could ensure a product’s success, Visi On would have been a blockbuster. The follow-up to VisiCalc–the first spreadsheet and the young industry’s biggest hit to date–Visi On was the first full-blown windowing environment for PCs. It had a mouse-driven (although text-based rather than graphical) interface. And VisiCorp supplied a full suite of integrated apps–required, since it didn’t run DOS apps–that included Visi On Word, Visi On Calc, and Visi On Graph. People who saw early demos were reportedly so blown away that some of them thought it was running on an artfully-concealed minicomputer rather than a PC.
What the critics said: “In summary, the VisiOn system is a milestone in personal computing software. Like many other milestones, it both points the way towards the future and falls far short of it.”–Thomas Bonoma, Softalk
The publisher called it: “a ‘boss’ who instructs the computer on how to deal with the specific applications you want to work with…Since all these applications work for the same boss, they all work the same way. Learn to use one, and you’ve essentially learned to use them all.”
What happened: What didn‘t happen? VisiCorp thought it would be able to get Visi On running on floppy-based PCs, but by the time it shipped it required 2.2MB of hard-disk space, in an era when a PC with two floppy drives was considered luxurious. Buying all the software and the mouse cost a stiff $1765. And at the same time the company was trying to get Visi On off the ground, it was beset with legal and financial woes–VisiCalc creator Software Arts was suing it, and Lotus 1-2-3 was rendering VisiCalc obsolete. Reviews of Visi On were mixed at best: InfoWorld was respectful, but pointed out that the spreadsheet was harder to use than VisiCalc and forty times slower at recalculating a large spreadsheet. In August of 1984, VisiCorp sold Visi On development rights to Control Data; three months later, it sold itself to a company called Paladin; by early 1986, weeks after Windows was released, Visi On was already effectively dead.




Debuted: February 1985, ten months before Windows 1.0
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: TopView began as an IBM research product around 1980–before the IBM PC had reached the market. It was announced in August of 1984 at the same time as IBM’s powerful PC AT, and was intended to leverage that machine’s potent technical capabilities. (It required 512KB of RAM and two floppy drives, fairly imposing specs at the time.)  Rather than requiring all-new graphical applications, TopView was designed to run DOS programs, but third-party developers could also write “TopView-aware” apps that took advantage of its advanced capabilities. Pundits wondered whether it was designed to eventually supplant DOS, making it harder for third-party PC manufacturers to compete with IBM.
What the critics said: “I was impressed by the concept and IBM’s demonstrations, but, after using the recently released product, I’m less enthusiastic.”–Larry Magid, Los Angeles Times
The publisher called it: “[a] new kind of software program that lets you run and ‘window’ several other programs at once.”
What happened: Like Windows, TopView was announced and hyped well before it was ready. Two months after it finally hit the market, InfoWorld’s John C. Dvorak was already comparing it to the PC Jr.; few developers bothered to write TopView-aware software, configuring stock DOS apps to run with the package was notoriously tricky, and IBM reportedly sold only a few hundred copies a month. In August of 1985, Big Blue signed a deal with Microsoft to develop operating systems together, and the tech press immediately began speculating that the agreement marked the end of the road for TopView. (The IBM-Microsoft arrangement eventually led to the creation of OS/2, which shipped in December of 1987.) TopView wasn’t officially discontinued until mid-1990, but by that point just about everyone who found the idea intriguing had switched to Quarterdeck’s DESQview.




Publisher:Digital Research
Debuted: February 1985, ten months before Windows 1.0
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: By the mid-1980s, Digital Research was famous mostly as the company whose CP/M operating system was displaced in the market by Microsoft’s CP/M knockoff MS-DOS. But it got a chance to start fresh with GEM (Graphical Environment Manager). The package beat Windows to the market and looked far more like Apple’s groundbreaking Macintosh. The company also released an array of productivity apps for its environment, such as GEM WordChart; one very popular third-party app, Ventura Publisher, ran on top of a run-time edition of GEM. A modified version of GEM also served as the interface for Atari’s ST line of computers.
What the critics said: “…offers IBM PC users a Macintosh interface.”–Keith Thompson, InfoWorld
The publisher called it: “…not just software. It’s a movement.”
What happened: GEM ran into trouble almost immediately; shortly after its release, Apple sued over its Mac-like look, forcing Digital Research to release a new, less elegant edition. It never managed to give Windows serious competition, but it did muddle along into the 1990s, along with Digital Research’s MS-DOS workalike DR-DOS. Novell, which bought Digital Research in 1991, thought DR-DOS had potential but didn’t do much of anything with GEM. Still, the software was open-sourced in 1999 and continues to exist, at least sort of, as FreeGEM and OpenGEM.




Debuted: July 1985, five months before Windows 1.0
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: DESQview was based on DESQ, an earlier Quarterdeck product, and was initially marketed as a superior alternative to IBM’s TopView. Resolutely text-based and keyboard-oriented, it allowed for efficient multitasking of DOS apps and came with QEMM, a famously well-done memory manager that was also available separately. (This was back when PC users had to obsess over the 640KB memory limit and devote energy to figuring out how to override it.) People who liked DESQview really liked it; well into the 1990s, there were folks who swore off Windows and saw it as a way to avoid the whole graphical user interface revolution.
What the critics said: “…a powerful, useful, clever windowing system.” Marc Stern, InfoWorld
The publisher called it: “…the recognized pioneer in DOS multitasking.”
What happened: DESQview sold only a tiny fraction as many copies as Windows did, but it was one of the few packages here that qualified, for a while, as a success. At some point, though, sticking with DOS apps and running them in DESQview went from a perfectly understandable decision to a weird affectation. (In 1990, Quarterdeck had released DESQview/X, an ambitious, all-new environment that let users use Unix-based X Window apps as well DOS and Windows apps; it was too much too late, and never threatened Windows.) By the time Quarterdeck sold out to Symantec in 1998, the DESQview era such as it was had ended. And Quarterdeck, having failed to beat Windows, had morphed into a developer of utilities for it.





Publisher:Tandy (that’s Radio Shack to you and me)
Debuted: 1986
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: In the 1980s, many home PCs were pretty darn rudimentary, even by then-current standards. And a lot of them were sold by Radio Shack, then a major manufacturer of cheap IBM PC clones. At a time when many PC users deemed Windows to be a resource hog they didn’t need, the company put its DeskMate text-based windowing environment on machines such as the Tandy 1000, where it was sometimes stored in ROM. DeskMate never got very pretty, but it did become the center of its own little parallel universe, with multiple upgrades (it reached version 3) and special versions of such popular programs as Lotus 1-2-3 and Quicken. It was also eventually sold in shrinkwrapped form for non-Tandy PCs, and there was an edition for Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Color Computer.
What the critics said: “For many users, especially those with little computer experience or less powerful hardware (it requires just an 8088 and a single floppy disk) Deskmate has inexpensive and has a lot to offer.” Michael J. Miller, InfoWorld
The publisher called it: “The Friendly Face in the PC Crowd(tm)”
What happened: After Windows 3.0 shipped in 1990, DOS-only PCs went into a gradual but inexorable death spiral; the arrival of Windows 1995 finished them off. At the same time, Radio Shack gradually got out of the computer business. Its 1994 catalog was the last to mention DeskMate, and the 1995 one was the last to include computers at all. The company sold its PC business to AST, leaving DeskMate as an orphan.




Publisher:Berkeley Softworks (later GeoWorks)
Debuted: 1990, the same year as Windows 3.0
Why it was better than Windows, or at least different: GEOS (later known as GeoWorks Ensemble) was a graphical environment that looked and behaved much like Windows, with an interface based on Motif, a widely-used environment from the Unix world. But it was much meaner and leaner than anything from Redmond it ran just fine on supposedly obsolete hardware such as an IBM PC XT. GEOS tended to get excellent reviews. And even though it arrived at the same time that Windows 3.0 was selling like gangbusters, plenty of folks thought that the market would have room for both environments.
What the critics said: “If you can only swing a 286, GeoWorks is faster and slicker than trying to run Windows.” Sebastian Rupley, InfoWorld
The publisher called it: “…the fastest ramping graphical environment ever.”
What happened: Windows 3.0 and beyond crushed GEOS much like Godzilla crushed Bambi. But for a failed piece of software, GEOS has had a lively existence. It served as the platform for AOL’s DOS version the whole thing fit on one floppy and a pen-based version powered HP’s 1995 OmniGo palmtop; it was also bundled with Sony and NEC CD-ROM drives. Ownership of the software changed hands several times, and it’s still around as Breadbox Ensemble. Somewhere out there, people are still using it which is more than you can say about DeskMate or Visi On.


  1. Very nice article. I love Visi-On and I still have several Omnigo 100/120s around. I would bash windows, but I'm kind of using it while I type this comment :)