[TUHS] Story about Microsoft and *ix

Andrew Warkentin andreww591 at gmail.com
Thu Apr 8 16:48:44 AEST 2021

On 4/7/21, Ed Bradford <egbegb2 at gmail.com> wrote:
> In the early 80's it was Bill Gates who made strategic decisions for MS.
> That was even before they went public. My wonder is if Gates had ever used
> Unix. He (personally) developed BASIC for a CPM (I think) machine. I am
> unaware of any system level skills in his experience. If he had knowledge
> of or used Unix or XENIX (for which he had a master license from AT&T), why
> on earth would anyone go down the bazaar path of DOS with lettered drives,
> tortuous IO interfaces, and assembly language source code? Why didn't he
> choose a far simpler to support and easier to learn operating system that
> had
> 10 years of maturity. I would love to hear Bill Gates' description of the
> development of a DOS over Unix strategy.
> My guess is there wasn't enough memory on the first IBM PC's. I worked with
> LSX while at BTL and forget the memory footprint of LSX. Memory protection
> was another thing, but LSX looked and felt like UNIX without memory
> protection. Does anyone recall how much RAM memory could be put on the
> first IBM PC's? That was probably a major problem.
Limited RAM was probably the main factor keeping Microsoft from
replacing DOS with XENIX on early PCs. I think that the main factor
after most PCs started to come with sufficient RAM for Unix might have
been that the divestiture allowed AT&T to fully commercialize Unix and
charge a fortune for licenses. Microsoft did actually talk about
gradually phasing out DOS for XENIX before the divestiture happened.

I wonder if Microsoft would have actually followed through on
replacing DOS with XENIX had the divestiture either not happened at
all, or happened in a form that still restricted AT&T from
commercializing Unix (maybe a vertical divestiture in which the Bell
System continued to exist but was forced to become a wholesaler only).
It would probably have been the path of least resistance. History
would very likely have gone better than it actually did here, with
Unix likely becoming the dominant OS family by the early to mid 90s.
With their flagship OS being a Unix, Microsoft would have had a bit
harder time being as anti-competitive as they were here, and at least
they would have been pushing an OS that was sort of reasonable unlike
anything in the DOS-like family. XENIX would probably have gone on to
be the dominant implementation of Unix, but it's likely that
compatibility layers for it would have been common (as some PC Unices
actually did here).

I guess things could have also gone a lot worse than they did here
though. Linux sucks in quite a few ways, but Microsoft could very well
have actually finished winning the Unix wars in the early 2000s had
Linux not been there at the right time to emerge as the ultimate
victor. At least the possibility of writing a better OS and having it
be at least modestly successful by being Linux-compatible still
remains here, whereas it would be much harder for a better OS to
succeed in a world where Windows was pretty much the only relevant OS.

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