Microsoft is a leading global vendor of computer software; hardware for computer, mobile and gaming systems; and cloud services. Microsoft's corporate headquarters is located in Redmond, Wash., and it has offices in more than 60 countries.

Company origins

Microsoft's roots go back at least as far as 1975, when the first commercially available personal computer appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics magazine. The Altair 8800 was a rudimentary system, but it found a market for home-based computers and created a new demand for software to use with these systems.

Bill Gates and his friend Paul Allen immediately saw the potential. Gates contacted the manufacturer Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) and offered to write a program for the new computer. Gates and Allen created an interpreter for BASIC -- then a mainframe programming language -- to use with the Altair.

MITS hired Gates and Allen in 1975. But by 1976, they had left to devote more time to their own fledgling company, Microsoft, which they incorporated in 1981. The company went public in March 1986.


Microsoft's major breakthrough occurred in 1981 when the company furnished an operating system for IBM's first major entry into personal computers. Called PC-DOS by IBM, Microsoft also marketed its own version, MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System). The early 1980s saw both IBM's and Microsoft's fortunes soar. Microsoft dominated the software market, just as IBM dominated the personal computer market. A PC -- other than one from Apple -- was commonly referred to as an "IBM-compatible" clone; these clones featured microchips from Intel.

Windows OS

In 1983, Microsoft introduced its first Windows operating system, Windows 1.0, which was not released until November 1985. Heavily influenced by Apple's existing graphical user interface, Windows 1.0 was more user-friendly than the command-line interface of DOS, with menus that the user could access with a keyboard or mouse.

Microsoft has released a long succession of operating systems for home users, including Windows 3.0 in May 1990, Windows 95 in August 1995 (later updated to Windows 98), Windows XP in October 2001, Windows Vista in January 2007, Windows 7 in October 2009, Windows 8 in October 2012 (later updated to Windows 8.1), and Windows 10 arrived in July 2015 as the latest OS iteration.

Windows Server OS

Microsoft also plays a prominent role in data centers with its enterprise-class server operating systems to give organizations powerful administrative control of large corporate networks and services. Key features in the Windows Server operating system include Active Directory, which automates the management of user data, security and distributed resources, and enables interoperation with other directories; and Server Manager, which is a utility to administer server roles and make configuration changes, either on local or remote machines.

Early versions of enterprise operating systems included Windows NT 3.1 Advanced Server (released in 1993), Windows NT 3.5 Server (released in 1994), Windows NT 4.0 Server (released in 1996) and Windows 2000 Server (released in 2000). Later versions adopted a "Windows Server" nomenclature, including Windows Server 2003 (released in 2003), Windows Server 2003 R2 (released in 2005), Windows Server 2008 (released in 2008), Windows Server 2008 R2 (released in 2009), Windows Server 2012 (released in 2012) and Windows Server 2012 R2 (released in 2013). Windows Server 2016 is the latest enterprise OS made generally available in October 2016.

Microsoft Office

Building on the success of its operating systems, Microsoft moved into the development of productivity software.

Microsoft Office first appeared in 1990. The productivity package features a number of bundled applications and includes the word processor named Word, Excel spreadsheet, Access database, PowerPoint presentation creator, Outlook email client and other tools in the same package. In addition to the desktop applications for Windows and Mac OS operating systems, Microsoft also offers Office Mobile for smartphones.

Internet Explorer

Microsoft capitalized on the growing popularity of the World Wide Web when it released its web browser, Internet Explorer (IE), in Windows 95 Plus in 1995.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Microsoft for antitrust violations. It accused the company of stifling web browser competition when it bundled IE with the Windows operating system. In 2001, a settlement was reached that did not require Microsoft to remove IE from the operating system.

Microsoft deprecated IE in Windows 10 in favor of the Edge browser. While it is no longer the default browser in Windows, IE remains a part of the operating system.

Development platforms

Microsoft launched its .NET framework -- a programming model to help developers build applications for Windows -- and its Visual Studio application development environment in 2002.

The core components of the .NET platform are its Common Language Runtime, which lets nearly any language compile down to an intermediate language, and the Framework Class Library, which provides core functions for any language.

In 2014, Microsoft announced it would turn the .NET Core stack, runtime and framework libraries into an open source project and make the code available through GitHub.

Management applications

Microsoft develops and sells enterprise-class systems management software tools, including System Center, which helps IT administrators deploy, configure, maintain and manage sophisticated corporate data center installations. System Center components and services include:

  • System Center Advisor
  • System Center App Controller
  • System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM)
  • System Center Data Protection Manager
  • System Center Endpoint Protection
  • System Center Essentials
  • System Center Orchestrator
  • System Center Operations Manager (SCOM)
  • System Center Service Manager
  • System Center Virtual Machine Manager

Hardware offerings

Microsoft started its hardware division in 1982 to develop a mouse to use with Microsoft Word.

Since then, the company has ventured deeper into the hardware market, releasing the Xbox gaming console system in 2001 as a direct competitor to established gaming companies, like Sony and Nintendo. In November 2013, Microsoft's released its latest gaming console, Xbox One, which features the ability to recognize voice commands and use Skype via the Kinect camera.

Microsoft offers the Surface family of tablet computers, which bundle tablet hardware with the Windows operating system. The first Surface appeared in 2012 and has been superseded by several subsequent models. The latest versions include the Surface Pro 4 (October 2015), Surface Book (October 2015), Surface Studio (October 2016) and Surface Book with Performance Base (October 2016).

Microsoft's Windows Phone echoes this same strategy, melding smartphones from manufacturers like Nokia with versions of the Windows Phone operating system. Microsoft replaced this operating system with the Windows 10 Mobile operating system, which features the similar tile-based Metro interface and Cortana, a virtual assistant for voice-activated features.


Microsoft also entered the public cloud market when it introduced the Windows Azure platform in October 2008 and made it available in February 2010 as a competitor to Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The company renamed the offering Microsoft Azure in March 2014. As Microsoft's public cloud computing platform, Azure provides a range of cloud services, including those for compute, analytics, storage, networking, management, machine learning and big data capabilities. Users can pick from these services to develop and scale new applications, or run existing applications, in the public cloud.

Office 365 and SaaS

Microsoft further expanded its line of business with a range of online services to provide software as a service (SaaS) offerings to end users and enterprise customers. Microsoft launched Office 365 in 2011 and the webmail service in July 2012. Services allow persistence, letting users pick up where they left off no matter which device they work from, while eliminating the installation and maintenance issues that plague traditional endpoint installations. However, services carry recurring costs and connectivity requirements that users and businesses must consider.

Notable acquisitions

In May 2011, Microsoft acquired internet Voice over IP and video conferencing provider Skype for $8.5 billion.

In 2013, Microsoft announced a $7.2 billion acquisition of noted mobile phone vendor Nokia to make headway into the mobile market, which had been dominated by Android and Apple devices. But, in 2015, Microsoft said it would lay off about 7,800 employees -- mostly in its Windows smartphone hardware business -- and take a $7.6 billion write-down related to assets from the acquisition.

In 2016, Microsoft announced it would purchase LinkedIn, the business social networking site, for $26.2 billion. The company plans to integrate the LinkedIn platform with several Microsoft services, such as Microsoft Outlook, Dynamics and Office 365.


Microsoft has experienced several changes in leadership through the years.

Bill Gates led Microsoft from its earliest days before handing over the position of CEO to longtime friend and employee Steve Ballmer in January 2000.

Ballmer refocused the company on devices and services, leading to products like Xbox and Office 365.

Ballmer stepped down in February 2014 and was replaced by longtime employee Satya Nadella, who had been executive vice president of Microsoft's cloud and enterprise division. Microsoft's emphasis on services like Azure reflects Nadella's push to get the company to be the prominent player in the "mobile-first, cloud-first" world.

This was last updated in March 2017

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