When considering the oldest and most influential independent Windows software makers, one name stands out above the rest: Stardock. Recognized for its prominent products such as Start11, Object Desktop, and the game Galactic Civilizations, Stardock has a story of longevity, persistence, and adaptability that deserves attention, especially as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this month.
On a personal note, my own journey in personal technology began in 1993, the same year Stardock was founded. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of knowing Brad Wardell, the founder, president, and CEO of Stardock, and miss our interactions at industry events. Additionally, Brad Sams, a colleague who worked alongside me at BWW Media Group, now plays a crucial role at Stardock. Through podcasts like First Ring Daily and regular updates to Stardock’s applications, both Brads continue to have a significant impact on my life.
I recently had the opportunity to virtually sit down with Brad Wardell and dive into his experiences and those of his company. When asked about the company’s beginnings, Brad shared that in 1993, while he was still in college, he needed to find a way to pay for school. Being passionate about OS/2, the IBM operating system that competed with Windows at the time, Brad decided to start building PCs from his dorm room. He named the company Stardock Systems, inspired by the Raymond Feist fantasy fiction series Riftwar Cycle.
However, Brad’s involvement in the OS/2 space didn’t stop at building PCs. He and a friend embarked on the unique venture of developing a game called Galactic Civilizations for OS/2, which targeted the usually business-oriented system provided by IBM. His mother insisted on incorporating the company, as she foresaw potential legal issues. Unfortunately, they were not compensated for their work on the game when the publisher reaped financial benefits from it. Nonetheless, the experience established valuable connections and paved the way for expanding into software development, particularly with utilities that filled functional gaps in OS/2. Thus, Object Desktop was born, predating its appearance on Windows.
It is worth mentioning that Stardock had an uncanny habit of creating features for its products that Microsoft later incorporated into Windows without any acknowledgment. Object Desktop, for example, boasted features like presenting ZIP archive files as folders and a superior file manager named Object Navigator. These offerings predated Windows 95 and even included a Taskbar. Brad humorously reflects on the brand name, admitting that “objects were all the rage in the 1990s.”
As OS/2’s future in the mainstream market became increasingly uncertain, Stardock made the transition to Windows in the late 1990s. This switch was not without challenges, as Brad was a staunch OS/2 supporter. However, the company persisted and successfully released Object Desktop for Windows by the end of the decade, introducing even more innovative features to the new platform. Shadows, ZIP files as folders, gadgets, and widgets were among Stardock’s contributions to Windows.
However, Stardock’s breakthrough on Windows came from an unexpected source of inspiration: Apple. When Steve Jobs introduced unique user interfaces like Metal and Aqua, Stardock found a way to inject these designs into Windows, enabling users to customize the appearance of their operating system. This discovery led to the development of WindowBlinds, a popular skinning tool that allowed Windows to emulate other platforms. Although customizing Windows in this manner has become increasingly complex, WindowBlinds remains a testament to Stardock’s innovation.
In conclusion, Stardock’s 30-year journey exemplifies the continuous pursuit of excellence, adaptability to an ever-changing market, and the ability to identify and meet real needs. Through Brad Wardell’s leadership and the dedication of the entire team, Stardock continues to push boundaries, enhance user experiences, and leave an indelible mark on the Windows software industry.