Part 1: What if Microsoft Never Existed?

by James R. Stoup Feb 13, 2006

This piece is the first in a series of articles that seeks to answer two basic questions: Where would the computing world be if Microsoft never existed? and Would the computing world be better off without its 20 years of influence? This series will start off with an unbiased, alternate history in which Microsoft doesn’t rise to power. Then, alternate histories will be constructed for various key players (past and present) to examine how they might have ended up had Microsoft not existed. Finally, after analyzing the most likely “alternate” course of history a conclusion will be reached to determine whether or not Microsoft’s existence has ultimately done more harm than good. [Authors Note: Microsoft can have a negative influence on several major companies but still be judged as a positive force when taken as a whole.]

While writing these articles various opinions were solicited from different types of users. Most people fell into one of two categories: the “Microsoft Unites” camp and the “Microsoft Suppresses” camp. Depending then, on which side one favors, Microsoft’s influence on history (or lack thereof) will either be positive or negative. Here is a more detailed description of the two modes of thinking:

Microsoft As a Unifier of Standards
Proponents of this idea usually present an argument that goes like this: Without a central, dominant force there would be no standards. Without standards inter-operability becomes difficult to impossible. This drives up the price of software and hardware, which limits its adoption among average users. Due to this lack of adoption fewer computers are sold and more energy is spent making things work together than making innovative products. Progress slows and the computer revolution occurs over several decades instead of over several years. This has the side effect of pushing the arrival of the internet farther into the future.

Since Microsoft united 90% of computer users under one standard they saved the world from this nightmare. So, even though they provide us with an insecure, buggy computer experience it is better than the “standards war” that we would have found ourselves in otherwise. With that in mind Microsoft should be forgiven for any problems it might have caused.

Alternate History - Without Microsoft the industry never consolidates and progress slows.

Verdict - Microsoft is a necessary evil that should be tolerated and forgiven because of all the good it has done.

Microsoft as a Suppressor of Innovation
On the other side of the coin are people who believe that the negative effects of Microsoft far outweigh any short term gains. Their argument goes like this: In a true free-market economy the superior product (BetaMax excluded) will ultimately win. And the customer will eventually get the best product possible at the lowest price. This principle has held true in almost every industry whether it be the auto industry, textiles, TV, audio transmission, fast food, telephones, guns, medicine and everything in between. So, if all of these other industries can benefit from competition why can’t the computer industry gain as well? After all, if the auto industry were organized like the computer industry then we would all be driving Fords, getting 9 miles per gallon of gas, with no air bags, and the basic design of the car wouldn’t have changed for the last 30 years. Clearly that is a bad solution for the consumer so why pretend otherwise?

On the issue of standards the argument is much the same. Over time the best standards will prevail. And while that might take longer to achieve than a set of monopoly-driven standards, the end result will be a better, more robust cast of consumer choices.

Alternate History - Without Microsoft the industry thrives with many innovative products though consolidation takes longer than without a guiding monopoly.

Verdict - Microsoft has crushed innovation and forced the industry to conform to sub-par standards, and we would be better off without them.

It is, of course, impossible to truly know how history might have changed if the Microsoft monopoly had not come to be. Would there be another monopoly that would take its place? Or would the industry become mired down and stagnate due to too many choices. Would the same companies that prospered as a result of Microsoft still be here otherwise? And what of Apple? Where would they have stood in this new world? Let us then try and answer the most important question, what if?

Part 1: What if Microsoft never existed?
Part 2: A Destiny Destroyed
Part 3: Amiga, Apple, HP, Dell and IBM, Hardware Without the “Microsoft Tax”
Part 4: Apple, Amiga, BeOS, Linux and Unix, how the Other Operating Systems Fared
Part 5: Intel, AMD, Motorola and IBM, Rise of the Machines
Part 6: Where Could We Be?


  • A very interesting series you’ve begun, James. I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

    Interestingly, as I was reading the first point, about Microsoft being evil, but overall had done good for the people, it made me think of Saddam Hussein smile

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 299
  • The story I read years ago was that IBM was down to 2 OS options for their new PC:  One was said to be a lot better than what MS was offering, but when IBM execs paid a visit the programmers were working away t-shirts & jeans.  B Gates knew to wear a navy blue suit, white shirt & tie.  IBM bought the navy blue suit, white shirt & tie.

    The important part of the story is that IBM decided to go with an open system.  The IBM name established instant credibility for using a PC in business and MS just tagged along.  It killed PC-M and the number of PCs sold went through the roof.

    Alternate History.  The guys with the better OS got the IBM contract and PC users ended up with far fewer problems over the past quarter of a century.  Maybe malware would not be a problem that it is today.  Maybe even an OS that doesn’t have to spend the past 20 years following (and copying) Apple.

    Verdict.  MS was handed their huge success and great wealth on a silver platter and then stabbed their benefactor in the back.  They continue to have the albatross of backward compatibility hanging around their neck and are a joke when it comes to security.

    MacKen had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 88
  • You forgot about Atari ST. One of the great 80s systems. And Acorn. That was another great system.

    ericdano had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 7
  • jbelkin had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 41
  • >(BetaMax excluded)
    Betamax was the INFERIOR platform for most people at that time. At that time, VHS could record 120 minutes, Betamax could only do 90 minutes. At that time, the most recorded TV show was the two hour long “Saturday Night at the Movies”, because folks wanted to record their favorite movies when they couldn’t be home. For its most common use, Betamax was useless and on top of that, only the privileged few could afford the equipment that would reveal Betamax’s superior video. Betamax died because at the most critical competitive moment, is was not filling its user’s needs.

    italmac had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 1
  • After all is said and done the verdict should be that the marketplace would determine product successes or failures and this standard whine is just more liberal (socialist) social engineering and control or power over the masses.

    ASCII data formatting has been in place forever.  You can standardize on that basis alone.  MS kept changing their file formats every 14 months or so to control their monopoly.  That’s one of the many reasons why it is so difficult to communicate between older PCs and new ones.  Many companies use Macs to move files across a network between PCs.  And that’s a fact.

    The MS-DOS IT Nazi mindset was in place almost immediately back in the beginning of the desktop era.

    The majority, if not all of the apps, for DOS and Windows in the 80s and early 90s, would not allow for exporting and importing of data.  Total lack of data portability.  THEY WANTED TO KEEP YOU LOCKED INTO THEIR APPS AND OS.  If you had data portability than who cares what OS you use.  And they knew it and created their OS dependent standard based on file formatting.

    It has been only in the last 8 or so years that Windows based apps have been data portable because the marketplace demanded it. Quickbooks is still a great offender.

    If this had been the case from the beginning who knows where we would be today.  It certainly would’ve been better than the reality of today.  Data portability is the great leveler.  Then the marketplace could have gone to work for the business or consumer based end user.

    Walt Mossberg, of the Wall Street Journal, is absolutely correct when he states that MS, and the Windows based OEMs could care less about the end user or the consumer.  Dell even dropped their consumer division.  What you have to deal with are Geeks telling their 500 node network customer Geeks what they want to hear and vice versa.  Stuff is then plugged in for the corporate Geeks and Voila the problems that Window users have to endure at all user levels.

    Remember, you cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse!


    BBSI had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 1
  • The problem with fantasy writing about what could have been if only some historical event did not occur is that it is nothing more than pure fantasy, sadly portrayed as reasoned thought, and lacking the entertainment qualities inherent with the inclusion of dragons, swords and sorcery, alien visitation, robots, etc.

    Rather than spend a long series of articles wasted on what could have been, why not spend some time working on what could be through the studious application of what has indeed actually been.

    Big E had this to say on Feb 13, 2006 Posts: 7
  • Damn!  I read that whole article and the titles of the upcoming articles thinking “aww man, you forgot the Atari ST!” only to get beat to the punch!  Thank God someone else on here remembers Jack Tramiel and his contributions (MAJOR contributions) to the computing world.  I hate to sidestep this whole “What if” thing as I find it all quite fascinating, but to leave out the Tramiel family and their contribution to technology (“we’ll call it the COMMODORE 64!”) would be a major omission.  There was a time in the infancy of this industry where you could buy a computer in your local Safeway grocery store and the only time you ever heard the name Microsoft was when you refered to an all-too-expensive flight simulator program.  Maybe MS changed all that eventually but I’ve been using computers for 25 years straight and it was only in November of 2000 that I first owned a MS OS computer, what did I miss?  You could say then that for me, well, they’ve barely existed at all anyway.

    (please note: this is not anti-MS sentiment here, just the way it turned out, I was never a PC fan…sue me).  Anyway, rise up Atari ST brothers!  May all of your desktops be a horrifying shade of green.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Feb 14, 2006 Posts: 112
  • Atari ST forever! Oops, sorry, got caught up in the moment. I owned - and loved - two Atari STs. sighhh

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 14, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • “Betamax was the INFERIOR platform for most people at that time. At that time, VHS could record 120 minutes, Betamax could only do 90 minutes.”

    Excuse me?? “Inferior?” What “time” are you talking about? The Beta machine I bought in 1983 could record 5 hours on a tape (that’s two movies+), and had better picture quality with only two playheads than comparable VHS units at the time could accomplish with four. That VHS unit, however, could record 8 hours. Sony then upped the ante by introducing “Beta Hi-Fi”, in 1985, offering what we would call today the first “home theatre” experience. But it was too late for Beta at that point.

    Sony’s bitter lesson in the US marketplace was that “quantity”, at low cost, always matters, quality rarely does, even at the same price. Bill Gates understood this well, or he wouldn’t have seen the need to make a cheap copy of MacOS and call it Windows.

    (BTW, I just got that old Beta unit completely restored inside and out, and am in the process of transferring all the hundreds of hours of tapes I made to DVD.)

    tao51nyc had this to say on Feb 14, 2006 Posts: 45
  • I still have one, a 1040ST, somewhere.  I went through a few of ‘em, customer service and warranties at the time not being what they are today.  Who puts joystick and mouse ports UNDER the computer though? C’mon!

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Feb 14, 2006 Posts: 112
  • Add me to the list of former Atari STers (1040ST and Falcon).  Just imagine what would have happened if Atari and Commodore would have put aside their differences and hammered out a common 16/32 bit standard shared by both companies and licensed to others?  This website - Apple Matters - would still exist today, but instead of bemoaning Microsoft, it would be bemoaning the algamated standard of the combined Atari ST and Amiga platform.  At least it would be a better monopoly in this case…

    Lynxpro had this to say on Feb 14, 2006 Posts: 2
  • Well, they’re here and not leaving tomorrow.  Let’s also consider the future:

    veridicus had this to say on Feb 18, 2006 Posts: 6
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    Samuel had this to say on Sep 15, 2011 Posts: 26
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