The Back Page - Yes, Microsoft Did Steal Apple's Interface (Under License)

by - July 8th, 2004

You know, there are few things more annoying than someone's attempt to correct a misconception with incorrect facts, especially when it's Apple history. TMO forum member Spider found just such an instance of that, and I thought it would be a good idea to correct the correction.

The Syracuse Post-Standard has someone calling himself "Dr. Gizmo" writing a technical Q&A column. Better yet, he refers to himself in third person like some sort of "touched" cousin of Mac the Knife. This week he chose to tackle a question about ancient history where he corrects the urban legend that Microsoft "stole" the original Mac OS interface. The only problem, of course, is that it isn't an urban legend.

From Dr. Gizmo:

Q. A rumor I heard went something like this: Windows as we know it would not exist if Apple had not "allowed" Microsoft to use the idea of the Mac operating system. I'm referring to the original Mac OS.

If Apple did allow Microsoft to use the Mac OS (the idea of it) as a base for Windows, wouldn't you think that Apple would be receiving royalties for that? Or what if Microsoft just simply stole the idea? Wouldn't there have been a lawsuit? - E.P. via

A. The doctor has heard the same tale. It's what's called an Urban Legend, a story that is told and retold so often it becomes accepted as true.

Apple Computer Corp. and Microsoft were each working on new operating systems in the early 1980s.

In the mid-'80s, Apple introduced Lisa and Macintosh, two radically different computers that were based on operating systems that used graphical representations of literally everything the computers did.

Shortly afterward, Microsoft introduced Windows. The first two versions of Windows are largely forgotten today (for good reason, the doc thinks, since they were awful), but Windows 3.0 and 3.1 became immensely popular within a few years.

Microsoft borrowed ideas from Apple's Lisa and Mac operating systems - one could hardly make a computer work with a mouse, windows and icons without doing a little borrowing from the brilliant Apple designs - but it's not true that Microsoft signed agreements to pay for the use of any part of Apple's interface.

Anyone who has seen Windows 1.0 and Windows 2.0 will sense immediately that Microsoft had no clue about how a graphical interface should look and behave. Changes in Windows 3.0 and 3.1 came about not because Microsoft was copying Apple but because it saw how Apple did things with the Mac and knew that it had to change Windows to be competitive.

The Doctor is in danger of being slapped with a malpractice suit.

The reality is that Microsoft did steal from the Mac, but that the company had what amounted to a license from Apple to do so. Indeed, as the bad Doctor's questioner alluded to, there was a lawsuit on this, and Apple didn't lose because there was no theft, but because of that license. The lawsuit ended up hinging on the terms of that lawsuit, and not the merits of Mac vs. Windows.

I thought it would be handy to turn to my writing partner for This Week in Apple History, and his marvelous book, Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World's Most Colorful Company. From that book, we learn:

Microsoft shipped Windows on November 20 [1985], and two days later during Fall COMDEX (a huge industry trade show) in Las Vegas, Gates and Sculley signed a confidential, three-page agreement that granted Microsoft a "non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, nontransferable license to use these derivative works in present and future software programs, and to license them to and through third parties for use in their software programs." In other words, Apple got Microsoft's commitment to upgrade Word for Macintosh, delay Excel for Windows until October 1, 1986, plus an acknowledgement that "the visual displays in [Excel, Windows, Word, and Multiplan] are derivative works of the visual displays generated by Apple's Lisa and Macintosh graphic user interface programs." In other words, Microsoft got Apple's crown jewels, and Apple got shafted. Not since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeased Adolf Hitler with the Munich Pact of 1938 had the world seen such a fine demonstration of negotiation skills.

Sounds pretty cut and dry, no? Bill Gates signed a document that said that Windows was derivative of the Mac OS, and had a license from none other than Apple that made it AOK. (Also, I always loved the Chamberlain/Hitler metaphor Owen uses.)

So what was this about a lawsuit? Apple thought that the above mentioned license covered Windows 1.0, and Windows 1.0 only, while Microsoft said "Nuh-uh." Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 when Windows 2.0.3 included things like icons (something Windows 1.0 lacked), and Microsoft's defense was that license agreement.

Read Owen's outstanding book for full details on how that went down, but the bottom line is that the courts eventually dismissed Apple's lawsuit because the similar features between the Mac OS and Windows "were either covered by the 1985 license, or could not be protected under copyright law," to quote Owen.

Also from Apple Confidential 2.0, John Sculley is quoted as having said in 1996: "We didn't realize we'd signed an agreement that would jeopardize our rights in the future. Our lawyers weren't good enough. We never had any intention of giving Microsoft the rights to anything more than version 1.0."

This position was backed up by Del Yocam, the Apple VP tasked with overseeing the lawsuit, when I interviewed him at last year's Apple Lore Apple reunion. Everything hinged on that license, and the proper interpretation of that license, but no one disputed at the time whether or not Windows was derivative of the Mac OS. Not even Mr. Gates.

Admittedly, there are at least two sides of every story, and in this case there is the all-important Xerox PARC's side. For instance, Bill Gates was quoted as saying "Hey, Steve, just because you broke into Xerox's house before I did and took the TV doesn't mean I can't go in later and take the stereo."

That stance certainly has merit, at least as far as it goes. Apple had borrowed, with a sort of permission, from the work done by the good folks at the PARC. In fact, key people at Apple had once worked at the PARC, and there is no denying at all that it Xerox who had shown how a GUI could work. Dr. Gizmo's effort to debunk this "urban legend" would have had more legitimacy had it relied on the PARC's influence on both OSes, something that most Microsoft apologists tend to do.

Be that as it may, Bill Gates had Mac prototypes to work from, and he was known to be obsessed with trying to make Windows as good as SAND (Steve's Amazing New Device), as a Microsoft exec named it. It was the Mac that Microsoft took for its blueprint on how to make a GUI.

Then again, it was also Mr. Gates who tried to get Apple to license the Mac OS to other manufacturers. Mr. Gates went so far as to line up (big) companies that were ready to sign a licensing agreement with Apple, but he was ignored by then-CEO John Sculley, whose execs wanted to keep the Mac OS proprietary. Mr. Gates loved the Mac, and wanted his company to make a ton of money making Mac software. So while he may have used brilliant business negotiations to rob Apple of its "crown jewels," he first bent over backwards to help Apple do what he thought it would take to make the Mac platform the preeminent platform on the planet.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ancient history, in tech-years, but it's well-known, and well-researched history. My prescription for the bad Dr. Gizmo is to look up some of that history before preaching on about urban legends.

Thanks again for the link, Spider!