July 2015

Volume 30 Number 7

Don't Get Me Started - 100 Years of Solitaire

By David Platt | July 2015

David PlattOK, it’s not exactly 100 years, but 25 years ago this month Microsoft took the watershed step toward becoming the colossus it is today. I speak, of course, of releasing Solitaire with Windows 3.0.

You cannot discuss the social history of the last quarter-century in the computing industry—roughly half its entire lifetime—without acknowledging the impact of Solitaire. As I wrote in “Understanding COM+” (Microsoft Press, 1999), “Windows versions 1 and 2 flailed around irrelevantly .… Microsoft practically gave them away in Cracker Jack boxes, and still no one would use them .… Windows 3 produced a pretty good MS-DOS multitasker that also played Solitaire, and the rest is history.”

The DOS multitasker attracted the serious geeks; probably including you, dear reader. But it was Solitaire that brought ordinary users into Windows. It was so much easier to use than the DOS apps on the same 386 box. You selected commands from menus, and dragged cards with the mouse, instead of typing in obscure alphabetic sequences. And the graphical display, actually seeing a pretty picture, instead of text scrolling by too fast to read—oh, joy.

Solitaire demonstrated that these hitherto-boring boxes could inject some fun into your life. As Josh Levin wrote in the online magazine Slate : “Moving a black two onto a red three may not have seemed particularly enticing on its own terms, but compared with the visual stimuli provided by an Excel spreadsheet, a post-victory card cascade was an unimaginably rousing spectacle.”

And once you had tried it, you couldn’t ignore it. Waiting for a phone call, or just didn’t feel like tackling that pile of work? No problem. “Just one quick game. Dang, lost that one, another to break even? Great, I won. A rubber game? Why not? Aw, heck, the obstetrician can leave a voice mail.” (That might have been the first example of the irresistible force that draws your hand to your mobile phone, of which I wrote in February 2012: msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh781031.)

It could get out of hand. I remember teaching a Windows programming class (16-bit SDK in C) and getting annoyed at students playing Solitaire instead of listening to me. So I booby-trapped the lab computers, redirecting the Program Manager Solitaire icon to activate a noisemaker program. When one student’s PC started blaring, I turned on her, shouting, “A-HA! I caught you playing SOLITAIRE!” She blushed brick red, and wanted to fall through the floor. No one dared touch Solitaire for the rest of the class. (Joanna, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. Sort of.)

Solitaire evolved and grew along with Windows. I remember the 1992 PDC in San Francisco, introducing Windows NT to developers. The GDI team explained how kernel-user mode transitions had degraded the victory cascade in Solitaire. They wisely announced the workaround at the same time, for surely that crowd would have defenestrated anyone who violated their beloved Solitaire.

We marked Windows milestones by their Solitaire variants. Windows NT gave us FreeCell, which we loved because almost every game was winnable. Windows XP gave us Spider, where you could cheat by uncovering cards, then using Undo. Vista didn’t have a new Solitaire game. Do you wonder that it flopped?

Solitaire isn’t built into Windows 8, though you can get it free in the Windows Store. Perhaps Microsoft figured that Solitaire would draw users into the store, as it drew them to the original desktop. But it’s one thing to give users something new and great; an entirely different thing to remove something they love and make them work to get it back again. The firestorm over removing the Start menu was nothing compared to the pool-pahover removing Solitaire. No wonder that SKU tanked. Microsoft had to backtrack in Windows 10, restoring the Start menu due to popular demand. I hope the company comes to its senses regarding Solitaire, as well.

This column was fun to write. But now I have to wipe those Solitaire programs off my machine, because I’m not getting a damn thing done. I tell myself it’s research. Oh, heck, just one more game. Satya can leave a voice mail.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.