Microsoft's 'Stranger Things' Gag Doesn't Make Sense Because No One Used Windows 1.0

Windows may be the winner now, but it was a cultural nonentity in 1985.
July 8, 2019, 2:45pm
Windows 1.0
Image: Microsoft

The great irony of Stranger Things, a show that trafficks heavily in both supernatural plotlines and 1980s nostalgia, is that its aggressive reliance on vintage brands for major plot points makes it susceptible to the decay of history, especially when it comes to modern brands.

It’s one thing to collaborate with Coca-Cola on New Coke references or give Kellogg’s ample Eggo namedrops—both companies are American institutions and unless one of them has a Radio Shack-style fall from grace, they won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. (Not dropping spoilers, but a key character during season 2 worked at Radio Shack.)

But Microsoft’s collaboration with Netflix on a 1985 Stranger Things branding exercise doesn’t really make a lot of sense, either for reasons of branding or for reasons of continuity.

The Redmond-based software giant has been making an aggressive push on social media about a Windows 1.0 relaunch in recent days, something it only recently admitted was a Netflix collaboration. From a synergy standpoint, Netflix teaming with the largest company in the world by market capitalization to promote one of its most popular shows sounds like a win.

But Windows 1.11—as the _Stranger Things_-themed variant of the operating system, essentially an OS-themed game that was released Monday, is called—kind of ignores the fact that Windows 1.0 was a fairly obscure software product in 1985, effectively a very basic graphical shell (see the demo, above) that shares a lineage, but little relation, with Windows 10.

Windows 1.0 wouldn’t have been a popular choice in the home. When it was first released at Comdex in November of 1985, its target market was corporate buyers, not home users. Which means that maybe the sexist pigs who edit The Hawkins Post might have used it, but it wouldn’t have been a popular program due to its limited application support. More popular software tools of the era would have been Lotus 1-2-3, dBASE, or WordStar. (And to be clear, Windows 1.0 doesn’t actually appear in the show this season.)

It was, to be kind, a good start. Back then, Microsoft was not a company that released new products to massive success out of the gate. Word, for example, was something of a flop in its first iteration; it took until the late 1980s, when the app came to the Mac, when it finally it its stride.

Likewise, Windows only became popular in the early 1990s, as Windows 3.0 and 3.1 finally started to break through in a big way.

To put it another way, this collaboration would have made more in Stranger Things season 8, as the gang heads off to college around 1990, discovers the internet, and external governmental forces find a new way to ruin their lives.

But even if Windows 1.0 makes an odd choice for a collaboration, a tech company was a good idea for Netflix’s promotional strategy. The problem is, like many of the brands in the Starcourt Mall, most major computer manufacturers didn’t make it to the present day, and even the ones that did were still in their formative stages.

Intel was barely even “inside”—it had only started branding its processors in 1985 with the release of its 386 processor; Michael Dell was still working out of his dorm room; and IBM, while at the top of the business-computer heap during this era, sold that business off to Lenovo 15 years ago.

In fact, going on the idea that the brands featured in the show sell things that were popular during the time period when the show is set, the natural choice for a promotion like this is a company that hasn’t existed for a quarter century: Commodore, which released the Amiga that year and was atop the sales charts thanks to the long-standing popularity of the Commodore 64.

There are other companies that we could bring up: Atari, a shell of its former self but technically a going concern in 2019, has already inspired Stranger Things marketing; and Nintendo, which test-marketed the Nintendo Entertainment System in late 1985 and is no stranger to retro marketing, might have been a natural choice.

Certainly, one could also make the case for Apple, and the plot of Stranger Things was such that Steve Jobs was still at the company during the time of the events of season 3. But Apple is a company that largely shies away from nostalgia, and doesn’t talk about the Apple II era very often these days, despite the platform’s longstanding popularity in the home and education markets. Those beige cases don’t fit into Apple’s modern product line so well these days—and let’s face it, Apple probably isn’t in the mood to help a competitor market itself.

As a brand marketing exercise, Stranger Things doesn’t work very well for the tech industry—not because people aren’t nostalgic, but because the dynamic of the industry is such that the movers and shakers of 1985 have moved and shaken into obscurity. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes Microsoft’s attempt at cultural relevance ring a little untrue.

In a weird way, Netflix’s decision to align with Microsoft on a bit of brand marketing for Stranger Things reflects the company that ultimately won the home PC market—not the one that was winning at the time.

If anything, it’s a reminder that the winners write the history books.