microsoft

A judge's decision proves very damaging to Apple. Image: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

August 14, 1991: As Apple and Microsoft head to court to battle each other, the tide begins to turn against Cupertino and its claims that Windows unlawfully copies the look and feel of Mac OS.

The case concerns whether key elements of Apple’s operating system are original enough for copyright protection. The decision turns out to be a major blow against Apple — and the start of the company’s 1990s decline.

Windows 2.03 pits Apple vs. Microsoft

Released in 1987, Windows 2.03 triggered the Apple-Microsoft legal battles of the early 1990s. The pivotal update added Mac-style icons and overlapping windows to Microsoft’s operating system. While earlier versions of Windows looked comically primitive next to the Mac’s OS, Windows 2.03 closed the gap — and Apple took notice.

Apple’s lawsuit against Microsoft also mentioned Hewlett-Packard, whose NewWave technology worked with Windows. Apple sought a massive $5.5 billion in damages, the equivalent of nearly $11 billion in today’s money.

Right from the beginning, things weren’t as clear-cut as they might have seemed. Although both the Lisa and Mac graphical user interfaces debuted before the first version of Windows shipped, Microsoft had been working on its operating system before then. To make matters even murkier, work done at legendary Silicon Valley research center Xerox PARC inspired both companies.

Apple’s lousy deal with Microsoft

Furthermore, Apple CEO John Sculley signed a terribly lopsided deal with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on November 21, 1985. Sculley licensed technology from the Mac’s “visual displays” to Microsoft so it could build its own operating system — as long as Microsoft agreed to continue developing for Mac. This included a two-year exclusivity window with Microsoft Excel.

In 1988, Apple sued Microsoft as Windows evolved to more closely resemble the Mac operating system. Apple’s suit identified 189 different user interface elements that it argued Microsoft used illegally. Unfortunately for Apple, the judge ruled that the agreement between the two companies covered 179 of those elements.

That left just 10 elements Apple could argue were its own work. The August 14, 1991, court ruling began to chip away at those, establishing that the UI elements were not original enough to warrant protection.

From bad to worse for Apple

Ultimately, the situation was resolved almost two years later on August 24, 1993, when the court dismissed Apple’s case. The company appealed, but the court’s decision was upheld. Microsoft went on to release Windows 3.0, 3.1 and — most devastatingly — Windows 95.

While Apple struggled, Microsoft went from strength to strength. It was a bad time to be an Apple fan, and an even worse time to be an Apple investor.

And then some guy named Steve Jobs rejoined Apple, and the whole thing started to turn around.

Were you an Apple fan during the legal battles of the 1990s? Leave your memories of that tumultuous era below.

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