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Why Apple failed to conquer the USSR, and Microsoft it turned out

In 1990, when computers gradually became a familiar attribute of American homes have any one specific problem. You can call it a problem QWERTY: what if the keys on your keyboard, you are used for decades of work, just vanish, and you will have no other choice but to move on to another language to perform even the simplest of tasks?

In the early era of the computer it is faced with this many users outside the US, especially those who did not use the Latin alphabet. Of course, there have been many attempts of localization of computer systems and create your own unique products — particularly in Japan where the PC-98 NEC range of personal computers from Fujitsu FM Towns was a huge success in the 80s and 90s, and in Finland, where Nokia has released a line of personal computers, before moving to mobile devices — but in the end these attempts have encountered an obstacle in the face of globalization. In the end, Microsoft and Apple was just very hard not to pay attention.

Technology companies are not always thought about the rest of the world, when he worked with computers, operating systems and applications in the near future become commonly used for business and entertainment. But nowhere, probably, this dichotomy between culture and technology were felt more acute than in the USSR, for which there was not only language barrier but also the Cold war.

And when the thaw began, Microsoft was right there with the ice pick.

Little German branch of Microsoft has a lead, which led to a revolution in the relationship between the computer industry in the U.S. and the Soviet Union: a full translation of MS-DOS and Microsoft Works for the Russian market. The case was serious, since this operating system and this application package played a key role in the initial capture of the Microsoft world of computers.

The potential advantages of doing business behind the Iron curtain were huge. Virtually untouched market, which occupied at that time one-sixth part of land and had a population comparable to the U.S. population. Soviet users of the era, regardless of his position, piratii everything I could. And Microsoft made no secret of their desire to make friends with the enemy of America in the Cold war. Himself bill gates came to Moscow in April 1990, in order to boost the morale of their subordinates.

Children playing Amstrad CPC464 computer in 1988. Data and programs were entered using the built-in tape reader to the right of the keyboard. Photo: Public Domain / WikiCommons

These subordinates worked in the Soviet-American venture “Dialog”, an organization created essentially to build bridges between the American and Russian computer industry. The project was ambitious. According to Yuri Starikov, who helped in the management of JV Dialogue, localization was not just replacing a couple of words here and there: “It is much more than the translation of documentation and error messages. The location has created new standards and terminology”.

In some ways this was contrary to the then global approach Microsoft. Although the software giant has already conducted projects on localization, the developers of the company of that era — in particular, from Redmond, Washington — openly admit that the localization in the 90s was kind of an afterthought, especially in relation to Windows.

“Although code written for the English version, was provided for localizable content in resources, often the source code itself was written with English in mind”, — wrote about the creation of Windows 3.1 Microsoft developer Raymond Chen. “For example, it was assumed that the text will be read from left to right, or to encode a single character takes one byte”. (The company did not want to comment on this.)

The problem was that to talk about localization is easy while doing is difficult. At that time there was no standard way to get the computer to work in another language. If you wanted to go beyond the standard 26 letters of the Latin alphabet — what’s required if you write in Japanese, Chinese, Inuit or Russian — you essentially had to create them from scratch. “The Unicode consortium”, which has eliminated this problem appeared only after several years.

Manufacturers and developers around the world, in fact, wrote new code, and the Soviet Union was no exception.

“The Soviet software industry exists and always existed in a state of chaos. In fact, she doesn’t even deserve the name of industry. This unfortunate state of Affairs fully and clearly for users, and for leaders of production, but to date the Soviet government has failed to take effective steps to remedy the situation”.

This is an excerpt from the report of Hudson Institute, 1989 about the state of the Soviet computing industry quite roughly, but accurately describes the state of the industry, highlighting the problems faced by the country and foreign companies who wanted it to work.

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The most famous problem was piracy. “Copying is so prevalent that people believe that Maxell and Verbatim, manufacturers of floppy disk, actually software developers,” — ironically commented on the situation for the New York Times in 1991, Larry Heimendinger, at that time President of Nantucket Corporation.

But the real problem for Russian users it equipment. There were many reasons, sometimes diplomatic nature. Coordinating Committee on export controls — a coalition of 17 Western States seriously limited the number of computers that could be sold in the Eastern block. Until the early nineties, the coalition has limited access to the most popular Intel processors, network equipment and certain production tools needed to create computers. Because of this, the entrance to the market was closed for many major technology firms.

Limited access to equipment, for the most part, kept Russia away from the computer revolution of the eighties, says the Elderly, has not yet been implemented EU-1840, clone, IBM, issued by Minsk production Association of computer technology (MPOVT) in 1986. These machines are clones in those days were common, but now little known, and since the early 90’s they were nowhere to be found.

Word processors in one of the pavilions at the Exhibition of achievements of National Economy, Moscow, 1985 Photo: Public Domain / WikiCommons

“However, none of the components were made in the Soviet Union: no drives, no hard drives, no monitors, no printers, nothing.”, — said the Elderly.

If Microsoft decided to try to give Russian consumers legal version of their operating systems, Russian computer industry probably would be forced to independently make their way on the information highway.

In the eighties there have been many attempts to localize DOS, for example, ADOS. This system, also known as alpha-DOS was created by the state of the clone that is compatible with MS-DOS 3.2. But such localization DOS had a half-baked solution, where the team was introduced to the hodgepodge of Russian and English.

In addition to this, notice the old, original product code was clearly copied from MS-DOS:

I met with the chief engineer of the Minsk computing plant that I showed alpha-DOS Russian operating system. I immediately pointed out to him on a string Copyright Microsoft Corporation, which is contained in one of the most important components alpha-DOS. This proved that alpha-DOS — piracy.

“Hodgepodge” is in principle exact description of the then Russian computer industry. The Hudson Institute noted in its report:

Taken little effort towards standardization, and support and development of programs is made only at the request of individual users. The Soviet world of computer technology there is no analogue to Digital Research or Microsoft.

The impact that Microsoft had on the Russian computer industry, best illustrated by the layout used by most modern Russian keyboards and how the keyboard differs from those used in typewriters of the past decades.

For example, the letter C, were used next to the numbers on the right side of the keyboard, now shared space with the letter W in the layout Microsoft. And because in the Russian alphabet much more letters (33) than in English (26), the characters had to shove into the keyboard in any way. As a result the keys that are usually responsible for the punctuation marks like brackets are now forced to do triple the work, sharing space with the letters b and Y.

Perhaps the most annoying change was the need to press Shift to type a comma in Russian layout, from which the author of this article probably would have gone crazy.

In addition, it was necessary to deal with many technical problems. Byelorussian SSR, now the Republic of Belarus needed its own layout. And the Ukrainians could not type the letter X (Unicode called “ghe with upturn”, or “Gae with a hook”), while Microsoft did not help them with this.

Bill gates in 1993. Photo credit: Rob Crandall /

Creating a translation DOS, the team of localizers was based on the Russian variation of the table scan-codes the keyboard of the IBM computers. It was created by a team of Computer centre of USSR Academy of Sciences. Table scan-codes, that is, the table of contents of the symbols appearing on the screen was created based on compatibility with most Western programs that was a key factor in “Dialogue”.

Used “Dialogue” as a result, character codes, though not exactly replicated created by the Academy, were more visually appealing than the existing set of IBM authorship.

The process of displaying these symbols on a computer monitor required new drivers for all sorts of permissions displays is not an easy task in the early nineties, when technology plug-and-play was only passionately desired, rather than the standard. In addition, the team sometimes had difficulties to explain the necessity of certain changes to its executives in Redmond.

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But the localization work conducted Starikov and others, went beyond the boundaries of Russia and influenced the line of Microsoft products; for example, code to display driver, written by one of the developers of the team, got into the American version of MS-DOS 5.0 and Windows 3.1 was improved support for extended characters, partly thanks to the work of man.

The amount of technical work carried out for untested product, facing the barely-opened market, is impressive. What Microsoft sent their President with a personal address to the Soviet people — a sign of a responsible approach to the project.

Gates repeatedly came to Russia, most recently in 2007, but his visit in 1990 was probably the most influential and least lit. About that trip is little known, but his work helped Microsoft to prepare the base for long-term capture of the Russian market and establishing relations with Russian developers.

The unofficial purpose of the visit was gates ‘ attempt to legalize the company in the eyes of Russian users at a time when the market was controlled by the pirates — that is, competition to Microsoft in the operating systems market was only pirate copies of its products. Esther Dyson, one of the few Western journalists who covered the first visit of gates to Eastern Europe, assumed that the decision to implement Microsoft DOS this market was an attempt simply to give users the opportunity to purchase a licensed product.

Home computer during the Cold war: the working environment of the East German home computer Robotron KC 85/1, Geracord 6020 Portable cassette receiver, dot matrix printer Robotron K 6313 and Russian TV Youth 402B. Photo: Hans Wollny / WikiCommons

“On personal computers, bought from Western firms, usually installed licensed copy of DOS, but those that are created by the state or are imported from countries that are not in the Coordinating Committee on export control, they are usually not,” wrote Dyson in may 1990 not published in now magazine Release 1.0. “Through marketing, planned to convince people who already use your product, that it is necessary to buy”. She added that when gates asked how people will pay for his programs if they are not sold in local currency, he found it difficult to answer.

Microsoft tried to fight back piracy, including in each copy of localized MS-DOS 4.01 displayed on the screen warning. Unfortunately, this attempt led to separate problems.

“For this message we have to add the special driver that the font is loaded on the video card, otherwise text was unreadable,” explained the Elderly. “To continue booting after the warning, you had to press any key. Hence some problems with automation when using the Russian version of MS-DOS 4.01”.

In the end, this straightforward warning was shortlived because of low efficiency. Technically savvy user could bypass, in the Russian version Works is silenced, and in the translated versions of MS-DOS 5.0, finally, absolutely refused it.

And where all this time was Apple? While Microsoft tried to convince the people that its programme is worth paying for, their eternal rival never interfered. Doubtless even the expression of love — the creation of clones by users of the Soviet in the eighties — have not touched the company.

Agat, Apple II compatible machine with Cyrillic layout, was one of those clones. Bright orange, with custom keyboard, this machine was such an obvious copy that had contained the name of Steve Wozniak. Popular American BYTE magazine called it “a bad copy”, but like the Apple II in the United States, it began to appear in schools.

Soviet personal computer Delta, a clone of ZX Spectrum+. Photo: Vitaly / WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

John Scully, almost a decade has worked as a CEO of Apple, visited Moscow in 1988 with several other leaders of the company, but refrained from advancing a Macintosh, instead promoting a less powerful Apple IIgs.

“I think they are very interested in buying a Macintosh. The problem is that they have no hard currency to buy them. And they’d love them to produce, but there is no infrastructure for production,” — said in the year Scully in an interview to San Jose Mercury News.

For years the company was circling around the market, taking only tiny steps. Once Scully gave Mikhail Gorbachev Macintosh, but in 1990 also said in an interview with the New York Times that the country’s infrastructure is underdeveloped.

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“The quality of basic services that people need — telephone, hotels, flights is still very low, said Scully. Without phones and faxes, we can’t operate a business”.

Because of this delay, Apple took the opportunity to take advantage of the early advantage they had at the front of containment: “the Unicode Consortium”, officially introduced in 1991, was the result of early cooperation between the employees of Apple and Xerox. In fact, you have to understand Apple, how to present your product, she would come to the Russian market with a technological advantage. Alas, not realized.

When Apple finally entered the Russian market in 1993, it used a strong marketing strategy, which became famous in the United States. In particular, their famous ad “1984”, filmed by Ridley Scott, just the second time in history the Russian television.

The strategy was essentially the same as in the US show drastic product, which is demanded by the market, and sales will flow a river.

Russian keyboard 2009. Photo: Public Domain / WikiCommons

As in the U.S., this strategy has spawned fans of the firm — for example, in Moscow there is a large Museum of Apple computers, where you can see a rather obscure products, like the Apple G4 Cube, digital camera Apple QuickTake 200 and the Macintosh XL. The current Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev called the main Apple fan in Russia — he even expressed his condolences after the death of Steve jobs in 2011.

But the company remains a niche player in the size of the market. According to statistics from StatCounter, at the moment only 4% of Russian personal computers in a network managed by OS X, which is less than any recent version of Windows, and significantly smaller market share of 18%, which has this operating system in the United States. Five years ago, OS X was little more than one percent of the Russian market.

Although iOS in Russia is doing better than OS X, this front is also under threat, partly due to recent economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and its own Apple to stop online sales of their products to Russian buyers due to the instability of the ruble. StatCounter notes that the share of smartphones in the network running iOS in Russia this year has decreased significantly, from 45% to 34%.

Today to use a computer in the Russian language much easier. Unicode has set standards, and although the Russians are not as user preferences, as in the Western world, to use the computer in Russia to communicate quite painless. Pavel Gorodyansky, the Creator of Russian-speaking resource about Windows WinRus and an expert in localization programs, notes that in earlier versions of Windows read the Russian text was often difficult, especially for people with Western versions of the system. Then, users often had to download special fonts just to read the Russian text.

At this stage, the problem is not so much in reading as in writing, especially when using a Western keyboard.

The typewriter with Russian keyboard layout. Photo: Public Domain / WikiCommons

“Many still don’t know how to print Russian letters in Word, text editor, e-mail, on the website,” said I Gorodyansky. As a result, one of the most popular online products Gordynskogo software keyboard to print in Russian. On the website you can find various Cyrillic layouts for Russian and Ukrainian, as well as phonetic layout, popular with the users not from Russia. He said that many users of it resources — Russian immigrants who use a Western version of Windows, or linguists trying to understand better the Russian language, speak positively about its products.

Localization also allowed Yuri Starikov to start a successful career. The finished project Works for Microsoft, he accepted a job offer at Microsoft, where he spent almost twenty years helping, among other things, with Russian translation of Windows 3.1. Old people now working in the computer security firm Spyrus.

Tanks on red square during the 1991 coup. Photo: Public Domain / WikiCommons

Differences between cultures have not disappeared, but for the most part the Foundation of communication between East and West could be built with a team of programmers, which is in the process of writing drivers and compile the code a little closer together the people in the world. One side effect of Microsoft’s promotion on the Russian market was, for example, the loss of KGB control over the communication. According to Starikova, typewriters and printers connected to one computer or minicomputer, you can easily monitor. And a lot of computers with printers.

With this Foundation often and begin the revolution.


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