16th April 2024

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The dollar bet that booted Windows into history • The Register

A former Microsoft engineer has waxed lyrical about how he and a colleague made a sporting bet over how far a new build of Windows would get before crashing.

Clue? Further than you might think. Plummer, the programmer that worked on MS-DOS 6.2 and Windows NT, yesterday explained how a dollar bill came to be affixed to a Redmond noticeboard.

It was 1994, and Microsoft was hard at work porting the Windows 95 interface to Windows NT for what would eventually become NT 4. Some – this hack included – might regard peak NT as Windows NT 3.51, replete with the Program Manager shell, but the Start Menu needed to be included and so the porting had to be done.

It was all a bit of a daunting task, starting with getting the Windows 95 user interface compiling for Windows NT, before tackling anything else.

“That meant adapting every system call that differs between 95 and NT, handling cases that just won’t work on NT,” said Plummer.

“For example, on Windows 95, you can re-initialize a critical section, but on NT, you cannot. And 95 shared a memory section amongst all shell processes, and so on.”

It took weeks, but Plummer finally managed to get the code to compile and “out popped explore.exe and shell32.dll.” There was still plenty to do. By Plummer’s estimation, a year of work remained for Unicode conversion and feature work. But it was enough to bring up a Windows 95-ized version of Windows NT.

Plummer grabbed a colleague, Bob Day, to show off his efforts. They made a bet for a single dollar on how far the code would get before it crashed. Day reckoned it would fall over in DllAttach. Plummer had the confidence of youth on his side and bet it would get all the way to the desktop.

The two sat before the CRT attached to Plummer’s 486DX2-50 development machine and fired up the code. It took a while – log messages scrolled past on a VT220 terminal connected to the serial port – but the debug build did its thing.

Plummer said: “A few seconds later, the PC’s screen turned that classic sea foam green!”

Icons appeared – mostly wrong and with missing labels – but it was unmistakably the Windows 95 desktop, running on Windows NT. Plummer got overconfident and clicked the Start Menu, and Windows responded by falling over into a heap.

But he had won the bet, and the dollar was his. Day paid up.

“I went to put it in my pocket,” Plummer said, “but he immediately said ‘Don’t put it in your pocket, it’s your lucky dollar!’

“I asked him, ‘Well, where do you want me to put it?’

“Anywhere, but not in your pocket. Or it will get mixed in with the others and become just a dollar. Which it is.”

Perhaps more No Country for Old Men than war stories for old developers. ®


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