There's a fascinating blog discussion going on here, here and here. The conversation is around Marc Andreessen's refusal to trash Microsoft and Bill Gates on stage. Andreessen points to the way in which the company drove the industry forward in the 1990's, and Mathew Ingram says "love them or hate them, at least Microsoft standardized the operating-system market".
The operating system war of the 1990's was actually not that important, and today we can look back at that and understand why. Up until Windows 95, IP stacks were third party add-on's to Microsoft's products. Difficult to install and mostly buggy, TCP/IP was a distant third on most corporate IT managers lists of networking strategies.
Microsoft pushed its own proprietary LAN Manager and unroutable NBF protocol in the early 90's. The strategy of the day among network software vendors was that if proprietary protocols could be maintained, then locks on entire corporations' networks might also be maintained. When that strategy failed for Microsoft, it first reverse engineered Novell's IPX (because Novell wouldn't license the technology — it was part of their competitive DR-DOS), in order to allow Microsoft's operating systems to interoperate with Novell Networks. Realizing that only strengthened Novell's position, Microsoft ultimately championed the open standard TCP/IP protocol.
At the risk of sounding very geeky, it was Microsoft's decision to include IP as a native component in Windows 95 that was the company's seminal contribution to today's computing world. The company didn't invent IP, didn't own any intellectual property in TCP/IP, nor did it profit directly from it. However, by ensuring a relatively bug-free implementation of IP on the dominant operating system platform, Microsoft forced an open, standard and routable networking protocol on the world. Without that protocol the Internet, the World Wide Web, blogs, podcasts, the iPhone, etc. etc. etc. would never have been able to be developed.
Related topics: Internet Protocol
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