Windows 1.0: The flop that created an empire

Two years later than planned, Microsoft's new graphical operating system went on sale November 20, 1985. It wasn't worth the wait. But a bigger story was soon to unfold.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
2 min read
Windows 1.0
In the beginning.... Screenshot by Remember the dot

The big story in The New York Times on November 20, 1985, concerned Hurricane Kate's advance as it smashed into northern Cuba and the Florida Keys before barreling north to threaten the Gulf Coast. But another big story -- for the technology world -- was about to unfold thousands of miles away in Las Vegas, where the Comdex trade show was getting under way.

Apple had grabbed headlines a year earlier with the introduction of its graphical Macintosh. Now, after two years of delays, Microsoft was finally ready to debut the much-promised Microsoft Windows.

Ford's Edsel arguably received better reviews.

Computer reviewer Erick Sandberg-Diment wrote in his column that "running Windows on a PC with 512K of memory is akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic." That critique was one of many describing the product as an unadulterated flop.

Microsoft Windows 1.0, where it all began (pictures)

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This was just a momentary setback for Microsoft, which shrugged off the initial embarrassment. (Tandy Trower, the product manager charged with shipping Windows. 1.0 offers a great write-up here about the history of how the company labored to get things right.) Unfortunately for Microsoft, Windows 2.0 wasn't much better than Windows 1.0. However, by the time the third incarnation of Windows came out, in 1990, Microsoft had a clear winner.

It also caused a rancorous split with longtime partner IBM, which had its hopes on another graphical user operating system for PCs it co-developed with Microsoft called OS/2. But Bill Gates stuck with his vision and Windows became a veritable money machine that would create billions of dollars in wealth for Microsoft and its investors.

To this day, you'll still hear Microsoft critics complain that the various flavors of Windows through the years have never come close to offering the simplicity or elegance of the Mac operating system. (You'll hear a similar refrain from many OS/2 diehards.) I'll leave that one for a bar stool debate. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, however, this much is clear: Windows 1.0 was a flop. But it also was the embodiment of a technology vision which would create a tech empire.