Programming Windows: Happy Halloween (Premium)

“God, how deep is this crater?” Jim Allchin asked.

He wasn’t being rhetorical: After winning the battle for the soul of Windows in 1998, Allchin had emerged as the vice president of Microsoft’s new Platform Group, and he was the most senior executive at the firm responsible for Windows. Both Windows: Allchin oversaw the DOS-based Windows family as well as Windows NT, and he was spearheading an effort to combine the two into a cohesive, single offering. It would be called Windows NT 5.0.

But NT 5.0 was late. Really late. By mid-1998---the time of its original planned release date---NT 5.0 had grown into a monster of project that consumed over 40 million lines of code as more and more features were added by its eager engineers. Over 6000 Microsoft employees were working directly on NT 5.0. But the delays were triggering related delays all over Microsoft, because so many other product shipments were dependent on NT 5.0. And they were presumably triggering some angst with Allchin, who had previously failed to ship Cairo, a planned major upgrade to the original NT. He had to get this one right.

NT existed because Microsoft CEO Bill Gates had wanted a “Unix killer” a decade earlier, a portable OS platform that could run on non-Intel chipsets in case the industry went in a different direction. This ultimately didn’t happen, on the PC client or on servers, but the world’s leading Unix vendors of the early 1990s---Sun, IBM, and HP---all ran on very high-end proprietary hardware. And as NT finally shipped and evolved over time, it started eating away at Unix’s hold on the server market. First with workgroup computing and then with intranets and Internet servers.

But Windows NT 5.0 was going to finally blow past Unix and networking rivals like Novell by offering rock-solid reliability, resiliency, and failover capabilities. And by providing a full-featured directory service called Active Directory that could unseat Netware. With the release of NT 5.0, Microsoft would firmly put its foot inside the doors of enterprises everywhere. And the plan was to close the door behind it, lock it, and throw away the key.

Consumed as he was by internal battles for the control of Windows and by defeating Unix and Novell, Allchin at first didn’t seem to care much about yet another competitor nipping at Microsoft’s heels. This competitor was both independent and free---literally---and it would eat away at NT from the bottom, just as NT itself was then doing to Unix and Novell. It was called Linux, and it was, for Microsoft, a nightmare scenario.

The Linux story is, by now, well understood: Created as a personal project by Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, Linux is an open-source variant of Unix designed to run on the same commodity Intel-based PC hardware as both Windows and NT. Before Linux, Unix was expensive and the province of white lab coat-wearing experts. But with Linux, Unix became free and available to all. And through...

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