Microsoft turns 35: Best, worst and most notable moments

An opinionated look back at the good, the bad and the ugly of Microsoft's 35-year history

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Biggest under-the-radar success

A lesser-known product success story is Microsoft SQL Server, which has a somewhat checkered history. It began in 1988 as a joint venture among Microsoft, Sybase and the now defunct Ashton-Tate, and was designed for the troubled OS/2 operating system.

The product was largely a port of Sybase SQL Server 3.0, which ran on a variety of operating systems, including Unix and VMS. Microsoft and Sybase ultimately parted ways, with Microsoft developing SQL Server for Windows NT and Sybase changing the name of its version to Adaptive Server Enterprise.

These days, SQL Server has grown to become the third most popular database software in the world, behind those of Oracle and IBM.

Smartest software bundling

Office 1.0 for Windows box
Office 1.0 for Windows was released in 1990 (courtesy of Microsoft).

Clearly the smartest software bundling move Microsoft ever made was combining Word, Excel and PowerPoint into Microsoft Office, first for the Mac in 1989 and then for Windows in 1990.

Microsoft Word, which Microsoft originally (internally) called Multi-Tool Word, was released in 1983 for MS-DOS, in 1985 for the Mac and in 1989 for Windows. Excel was launched in 1985 for the Mac and in 1987 for Windows. Also in 1987, Microsoft released PowerPoint for the Mac, essentially a version of an application called Presenter that was created by Forethought, a company Microsoft had purchased that year. In 1990, PowerPoint for Windows was released.

Microsoft's bundling of Word, Excel and PowerPoint into the Office suite emphasized the company's commitment to business desktop computing. It proved to be a huge success, ultimately leading to the downfall of onetime market-leading applications Lotus 1-2-3 (spreadsheet), WordPerfect (word processor) and Harvard Graphics (presentation program) -- and to a near-monopoly for Microsoft Office in the business world.

Sneakiest software bundling

I'll give the award for sneakiest software bundling, hands-down, to Windows Genuine Advantage (WGA), Microsoft's antipiracy software. WGA warns people when they do not have a paid-for and registered version of Windows, and certain updates can't be installed unless WGA is installed and has verified that the copy of Windows is genuine.

Microsoft high-priority security updates
Microsoft disguised WGA as a high-priority security update.

In mid-2006, Microsoft began sending WGA to users' computers along with security updates via Windows Update; the company even labeled the WGA download as "high-priority." Unbeknownst to users, though, the update had nothing to do with security or stability -- it was WGA, sneaking onto their hard disks.

As Computerworld's own Scot Finnie wrote in July of 2006, "Microsoft is preying upon people's ignorance -- and their strong desire to install security updates. It's clearly wrong for Microsoft to use its security updating channel to install software that has no security benefit, and no benefit at all to its customers."

Users were frustrated enough that a lawsuit was filed, although the suit was recently dismissed in federal court.

Worst server glitch

As if users weren't annoyed enough about Windows Genuine Advantage, from Aug. 24 to 25, 2007, the antipiracy validation system accused thousands of paying Windows XP and Vista customers of being software pirates. According to Microsoft, the WGA servers went on the fritz, and users were tagged as running non-genuine versions of Windows. Even worse, Vista systems were stripped of important features, such as the Aero interface. The meltdown lasted for 19 hours.

Most embarrassing product glitch

When you use formulas in Excel, you expect them to do the math correctly -- after all, what is a spreadsheet for? But in September 2007, an Excel 2007 bug had Microsoft execs red-faced with embarrassment because of an apparent inability to do simple multiplication. In some specific cases, if a formula resulted in the number 65,535 or 65,536, Excel would instead display the result 100,000.

The problem, according to Microsoft, was not that Excel flunked math; it was a display issue. Excel actually performed and stored the calculation properly, the company claimed, but displayed the wrong results. Microsoft fixed the bug, and Excel has known its multiplication tables -- and how to display them -- ever since.

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