My Life as a Microsoft Achiever

(or "How I tried to dump my Macintosh") by Philip Greenspun for the Web Tools Review

My Macintosh was a friendly little toy computer that I used for years for everything from writing a book about North America to Common Lisp programming to PhotoShop. Despite the 1950s style operating system, I was a reasonably happy camper until I connected my Mac to the Internet and watched various network applications shoot each other in the knees.

When I watched most of the interesting user apps being introduced for Win31 only, I decided that it was time to become a Microsoft Achiever.

The Genuine Intel box

Having once watched three MIT wizards spend 30 man-hours installing a sound card in a PC, I was in no mood to play with clones. I got myself an Intel Inside and Intel Outside genuine Intel-brand PC. I reformatted the hard drive with NT File System (NTFS) and installed WinNT Server. Everything went smoothly until I actually tried to use the computer and it went into Macintosh emulation mode: you move the mouse but nothing happens on the screen.

I spent two weeks trying to figure out why the user interface was crashing, reinstalling NT several times. Eventually I decided it was my incompetence and unworthiness of my personal hero Bill Gates so I enlisted the help of a profession NT administrator. He tried eight different combinations of file systems and still couldn't make it work. We had 50 of these genuine Intel boxes and they all behaved consistently so it wasn't a hardware problem. So we sent one back for diagnosis...

The WinNT-certified Pentium Pro

My friend Richard lent me a Digital Celebris 150 MHz Pentium Pro machine, certified to run NT and preinstalled with NT Workstation. This box actually worked great except that if you ever tried to use the Desktop control panel (an important one), the program would hang and have to be killed from the control-alt-delete pop-up menu.

The first thing I installed was the eXalt X server from Intergraph. This is a truly amazing product to behold because nowhere on the package does it say what it is, i.e., the words "X Windows Server" do not appear anywhere. Nonetheless, it functions quite nicely if you don't mind a beeping noise every time you use the meta key in Emacs.

After I installed Netscape, I noticed that it took 30 seconds (literally) of paging to switch from the X server to the Web browser. Apparently 16 MB of RAM is enough to run NT but not more than one app. I bought two 16 MB gold-plated SIMMs but my friend Chris made me return them. "Your board is jumpered for interleaved access. You need four 8 MB symmetrical SIMMs. Also, with tin-plated sockets on the motherboard, you need tin-plated SIMMs because there is a wiping action..."

It took me mere seconds to snap the memory in, after which the machine ran screamingly fast, much more responsive than my desktop HP workstation (saddled with Unix, X Windows, Motif, and VUE). I happily started up GNU Emacs 19 and prepared to edit some files on remote systems using ange-ftp. Ange-ftp is one of the best features of Emacs. It lets you "edit locally; save globally". Keystrokes are handled locally but when you issue a standard save command, Emacs automagically FTPs the file back where it came from. Not bad for a 20-year-old product.

Unfortunately, Emacs 19.30 running under NT doesn't do ange-ftp (19.31 allegedly does). In fact, there are a whole bunch of issues NT Emacs issues to consider. My friend Doug told me that I should be using SAMBA on my various Unix boxes that would make their file systems look like a Microsoft "SMB" server.

Most of the people I know who are facile with both NT and Unix have eventually taken down their NT Web servers and gone back to Unix. I think I'm beginning to understand why. WinNT seems to have what C programmers are fond of calling "memory leaks". This problem was solved by the Lisp programming language in 1959 but it has been preserved through the decades by low-level languages like C. Running just a Netscape browser and the eXalt X server, this NT machine would regularly exhaust its 125 MB swap file and nearly grind to a halt. Netscape of course has its own memory leaks but even after I'd killed it and eXalt, the OS's footprint was surprisingly larger than it had been on startup. My desktop HP Unix 10.01 machine, which runs more Netscape browser windows, more X windows, a local Emacs with many sub-shells, plus a porky relational database and a Naviserver handling 10 Web hits/second, is much more responsive (though it is an old Unix box with 64 MB of RAM and only has an 80 MHz processor).

Oh yes, the HP machine's screen saver also works reliably; oftentimes I would come upon the WinNT box and find its screen undimmed. I wasn't sorry when Richard came to pick it up.

The dual Pentium NT Server 3.51

I unboxed a genuine Intel-brand dual Pentium 166 server. NT Server 3.51 was pre-installed so I couldn't mess anything up. It was the biggest computer I'd seen in years. I felt like calling up some women to impress them, but I figured I'd better have Netscape installed first. So I downloaded a couple .EXE files from They wouldn't self-extract. I turned the machine off and went hunting for a copy of PC Solaris. At least I know how to maintain that remotely...

The Intel-brand Pentium Pro 200

I decided that I was too incompetent to touch one of these machines again, so I let an MIT undergrad PC wizard install NT Server 3.51 on this beautiful machine. He downloaded the Netscape Navigator .EXE file and managed to get it to self-extract. Then the installer crashed the whole machine. I told him to just install NT Workstation 4.0 beta 2 since it could hardly be less reliable that what we had. He managed to successfully download and install Netscape Navigator. I think I'll stick with this configuration.

So after nearly two decades of Unix hatred...

... I'm thinking of running a home Unix box.
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Reader's Comments

My experience with netscape on NT is that it leaks memory, but if you kill it the os will recover it. The trick is that when you quit netscape, it doesn't always die. If you go into task manager and look at the list of active processes, netscape will still be there even though the windows are all gone. If you select this guy and kill it manually, the memory reappears ! It seems fair to blame netscape for this, and not NT.

Also, for X servers, I recommend eXceed or eXodus. I particularly like eXceed because i can map alt to meta, and everything works.

-- Lee Schumacher, March 3, 1997

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