Microsoft Windows NT 4 was a good system. It wasn’t a great system. It had plenty of flaws. But—at the time—it may have been the best in its class.
Apple was working on a system code-named Copland to replace the aging Mac OS as a transition to Gershwin, which would supposedly be a real modern, personal-computer OS. But it was a quagmire that would eventually be scrapped.
Linux wasn’t quite old enough...yet. Some people will say “Desktop Linux” is perpetually two years away, but it was good enough to serve as my primary system for the years between Windows NT and when I switched to Mac OS X.
(Apologies to the OS/2 fans, in particular. I never had much experience with it. And no doubt there are other contenders that I’m forgetting. But it was programming for Mac and Windows that was paying my bills. Linux was the only venture away from them I had time for.)
Windows NT 4 had the basic OS services—virtual memory, memory protection, and preëmptive multitasking—that personal computers were finally ready for and needed. It had a UI that borrowed some of the goodness of NeXTSTEP by way of Windows 95. It was sufficiently compatible with older DOS and 16-bit Windows software. (At least for my needs.) And, most importantly, I found myself more productive using it than I was on my Mac.
By the time Windows 2000 came out, I’d moved on to Linux. So, I can’t speak much to when things really started getting worse for Windows.
Sidebar: It seemed ironic how so many Mac people ended up on Linux during Apple’s dark years. On the face of it, at least, the two couldn’t seem to be farther apart. Completely open and customizable versus completely closed and curated. One that promises to let you do anything with it as long as you spend the time and effort; one that strives towards “it just works” provided that you want to do exactly what it wants you to do.
Microsoft today is so different. They’re no longer on top, and that means they’re doing some really great things. (And Apple is pulling Microsoft-style moves.) Yet they’re still doing a lot of silly things. And I wonder if Windows can ever again be even as good as it was with NT 4. Should I leave the Mac again, I can’t imagine it would be for a future version of Windows. Most likely it will be Linux again, if not some upstart that doesn’t exist yet.