Microsoft's roadkill on the journey to Windows 7

From the very beginning of Windows, Microsoft has copied others' ideas and moved to put many out of business. Relive the dark side of the journey to Windows 7

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Ultimately the U.S. Justice Department, along with the attorneys general of several states, filed antitrust lawsuits against Microsoft, centered largely on the Windows-embedded IE browser and Microsoft's requirement that PC makers bundle a copy of Windows with every computer sold. In the end, Microsoft dodged the DOJ bullet, but was forced to significantly change the way it bundles software with the OS. Alas, those changes did not seem to temper Microsoft's willingness to squash third-party products.

Microsoft mimics WebBase features in ASP
With Microsoft at last fully engaged with the Internet, Windows began sprouting Web-oriented features left and right, many of them competing directly with existing third-party applications. Microsoft produced its own free mail client, Outlook Express, that severely damped the market for third-party clients. And Microsoft bundled a free HTML authoring tool, FrontPage, with its Windows NT 4.0 Server release. The popularity of the Web rapidly led to users wanting their business -- particularly e-commerce -- applications accessible over the Internet, which threatened to eclipse Microsoft's proprietary desktop application ecosystem centered on its Windows Server OS.

The holy grail of Web application development at the time was entree to Microsoft's powerful Access and SQL Server databases. SQL Server was the hub of Windows' desktop application environment, which depended on Microsoft's bundled Visual Basic programming language. Visual Basic applications were widely deployed at the time in enterprise-class organizations to replace mainframe applications.

Web developers hosting their applications on Windows servers had extremely limited database access. In late 1995, third-party software developer ExperTelligence began selling its WebBase package, containing a built-in Web server and programming language, which let HTML coders directly access SQL Server, among other databases, and a powerful scripting environment based on the dynamically typed SmallTalk language (another Xerox invention).

Essentially a Web application server and programming environment rolled into a single application, WebBase let users rapidly build applications with full-featured access to Microsoft databases. WebBase used browser cookies to keep track of multiple user sessions, solving one of the most difficult problems of e-commerce applications like Web storefronts, which need to process multiple orders concurrently. A significant advantage of WebBase over Microsoft's own Web application hosting options was its ability to run on both desktop and server editions of Windows. The cost of WebBase could be often be directly justified by eliminating the expense of a Windows Server license.

The first Web server programs for Windows were third-party applications like WebBase. In 1996, Microsoft added its own free Internet Information Server (IIS) Web server as an option pack for Windows NT Server. At the same time, Microsoft began developing application delivery tools competing with third-party products.

According to Expertelligence founder Denison Bollay, Microsoft visited Expertelligence in 1996 to discuss licensing WebBase technology, studying WebBase's language and integrated Web server during the visit. Microsoft never followed up with an offer, but subsequently announced its Active Server Pages (ASP) scripting environment as part of IIS 3.0. According to Bollay, ASP was remarkably similar to WebBase, with cookie-based session management, scripting embedded within HTML, and dynamic variable typing. The main difference was that ASP ran only on Windows Server ASP, which being bundled with the Windows Server OS, quickly dominated server-side Web application scripting; eventually WebBase joined the ranks of Windows roadkill.

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