So what was GeoWorks like, anyway?
I had some experience with Commodore 64 thanks to a childhood friend of mine who owned one and let me mess around with it a bit, but ultimately, I caught onto the PC version of GeoWorks because it came bundled with a 386 I used when I was a kid.
That computer wasn't super-fast—what, with its 40-megabyte hard drive and one megabyte of RAM—and, as a result, it really benefited from the lightweight, object-oriented approach of GeoWorks. The operating system took up maybe 10 of those megabytes, tops. And in an era where connecting to the wider world wasn't really a big thing, the simplicity of the format was actually kind of nice.
Among the more interesting things about the platform:
Different interfaces for different skill levels: DOS was not a simple operating system for novices to jump into, and GeoWorks Ensemble made an effort to ensure it was more approachable. It offered two different tiers of usage—"appliances" and "professional," along with a shell to jump into DOS programs, so you could play Commander Keen without a problem if you really wanted to. For people who had never used a PC before, the strategy was perfect—it had built-in training wheels.
Built-in office tools: The software included a variety of apps that were roughly comparable to anything you could find on other operating systems, such as the Mac including a word processor, calendar, and spreadsheet. It also included a Print Shop Pro-style banner-maker, which came in handy if you owned a dot-matrix printer. Overall, these offerings were great for home users, an audience that Microsoft hadn't really emphasized early on in Windows' history. It wasn't as flashy as, say, Microsoft Bob, but it worked a lot better.
Strong capabilities, low power: But the best part of GeoWorks was the fact that it worked well without really strong hardware. Windows 3.1 really needed a 486 to shine, but GeoWorks could effectively run on a 286 or 386 without any problem. It was stable, and despite the fact that (like early versions of Windows) it was essentially a graphical shell for DOS, it rarely ran into hiccups.
The software had a cult fanbase, especially among German computer users, who have done a lot to keep its memory alive.
So why did it fail? To put it simply, it had no apps. America Online was one of the only third-party developers it had—certainly a biggie, but not enough to sell a platform. Part of the reason for this was that, early on, you needed a Sun workstation to develop software for the platform, a deeply ironic requirement—essentially, you needed a $7,000 computer to develop software for low-end PCs, which meant mom-and-pop shops had no chance to even get on board. At the time, Microsoft was releasing Windows-native development platforms like Visual Basic to win over small developers.
But those things could have been dealt with, honestly, if the desktop operating system itself gained a significant audience. Even GeoWorks' biggest fans knew it didn't stand a chance against Windows, due to Microsoft's already-established goodwill.
"I feel badly that this truly amazing program will never be given a chance, as IBM and Microsoft would never allow it," one such fan wrote to PC Magazine in 1991. "I hope that software developers will see Ensemble's amazing potential and will begin developing it. Without third-party developers, Ensemble will never survive."
Microsoft was standing on the shoulders of giants. GeoWorks could barely even reach the ankles.