Windows NT turns 20

Windows NT is celebrating its 20th birthday and is still operating under the bonnet of Microsoft’s current and future operating systems.

According to Mark Morowczynski of Microsoft’s Ask Premier Field Engineering blog over the weekend, 20 years ago the Vole launched Windows NT.

The operating system was so successful it is still part of Windows 8, Windows Server 2012, Windows Phone 8, Windows Azure and the Xbox One.

In 1993, Microsoft launched Windows NT 3.1, followed up by NT 3.5, 3.51 and 4.0.

Vole’s Windows releases still rely on NT numbering conventions. Windows 7’s build numbers commenced with 6.1; Windows 8’s with 6.2; and Windows 8.1 with 6.3.

NT stood for New Technology and the Vole promoted it as a cutting edge OS that included all the features users expected in an OS for workstations and small to midsized servers.

For those of us who were around then, it was difficult to see that it was going to make much of an impact. The networking market was pretty crowded and mostly focused on UNIX flavours.

David Cutler was the brains behind NT. He had come to Microsoft from Digital where he was involved in the RSX-11M project and VAX.

In the 1980s he was leading an elite group within Digital with the historically unfortunate name of Prism, which was a hardware project based around an OS called Mica.

In a short-sighted move, in 1988, Digital cancelled Prism and laid off many of its group members. Vole headhunted Cutler and more than 20 Digital employees.

Microsoft’s internal project name for the new OS was OS/2 NT, because the Vole wanted it to succeed OS/2 and retain the OS/2 API as its primary interface.

However, after Windows 3.0 did so well, the relationship with IBM started to turn sour. Six weeks after Microsoft released Windows 3.0, Microsoft renamed OS/2 NT as Windows NT,  It then designated the Win32 API as NT’s official API.

Gates wanted compatibility with the 16-bit Windows API and the ability to run Windows 3.x applications unmodified, along with support for DOS, OS/2, and POSIX APIs. Cutler’s team managed this thanks to a lot of well invested support from Gates.

The team was more than 200 engineers and testers by the time it was good to go.

The speed at which this was done made many think that Cutler and his team must have used VMS technology and there were some similarities.  While Digital developers wrote the VMS kernel almost entirely in VAX assembly language, Vole used C with some clean ups and tweaking.

In 1995 Digital did a deal with Microsoft to avoid an expensive court case. Digital announced Affinity for OpenVMS, a program that required Microsoft to help train Digital NT technicians, help promote NT and Open-VMS as two pieces of a three-tiered client/server networking and promise to maintain NT support for the Alpha processor.

Gates wrote a cheque for Digital for between $65 – $100 million.

Digital should have been thinking a little clearer about this.  It had just seen what was happening as Vole had just launched NT4.0 a few months earlier.

NT 4 incorporated the Windows 95 shell and Microsoft moved the graphics and printing from win32 into the kernel. This made graphics and printing significantly faster. It was also a honey to install compared to its rivals.  

Microsoft was competing with Novell’s Netware and Unix was fast becoming a thing of the past. Pretty soon Microsoft had control of the networking market.