Tales In Tech History: Microsoft Windows

Windows 10 is one, but find out more about Microsoft’s operating system through the years. Just don’t mention Windows ME

Tech History is a new series on TechWeekEurope in which we reflect or lament the technologies, figures and companies that have made major contributions to our industry. You can find more Tech History articles here

On 2 August, the first major upgrade to Windows 10, the operating system that seeks to control jut about every type of device imaginable from PC to Raspberry Pi, will roll out across the world, delivering a range of usability and security enhancements.

It’s almost 30 years since the first version of Windows was made generally available and has since become essential to just about all types of business – those which don’t need fancy Mac computers that is.

But how has Windows developed over the past three decades? We take a trip down memory lane to see how the platform has transformed from a GUI shell for MS-DOS into the behemoth it is today, but no, we don’t know where Windows 9 is either.

Windows 10 Anniversary Update: What we know

Windows 1.0 (1985)

Windows 1.0It all started in November 1985 when the first version of Windows was made available. It required two floppy disks and 192KB of RAM to install and was essentially a front-end for MS-DOS, creating a graphical environment for the platform and capable of summoning certain functions.

However despite the eventual success of the operating system, Windows 1.0 received some negative reviews – partly because of its reliance on the mouse, which hadn’t been widely adopted at the time

Windows 2x (1987)

Windows 2.0Windows 2.0 built on its predecessor by adding more sophisticated keyboard shortcuts, overlapping windows and support for VGA graphics and introducing features that have become staples of the Windows experience.

These include the control panel, the terms ‘minimise’ and ‘maximise’ and support for the first Windows versions of Word and Excel. Windows 2.0 was also the last version not to need a hard disk to install.

Six months later, Windows 2.1 was released to take advantage of new Intel processors, while a further update in 1989 made minor changes to memory management, printing and drivers.

Windows 3.0 (1990)

Windows 3.0The third major release of Windows was arguably the first successful one, with a revamped UI, better memory management, 256 colour VGA mode and enhanced multimedia options such as support for sound cards and CD-ROMS. Notably, Windows 3.0 also separated files and applications into a list-based manager for the former and an icon-based manager for the latter.

A new protected mode allowed Windows applications to use extra memory more easily than on MS-DOS, while the release was the first to come pre-loaded on some PCs.

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Windows 3.1x (1992)

Windows 3.1Two years later, Windows 3.1 built on the foundations of 3.0, most notably with publishing and networking features for businesses. It was the first version of Windows to be released on a CD-ROM and was considered more stable than its predecessor. It added ‘drag and drop’ functionality, multimedia options like Video for Windows, which introduced the .avi file, and an add-on for ‘pen computing’.

The Windows for Workgroups 3.11 extension allowed businesses to share resources without the need for a central server and the embedded version was so popular it was provided to manufacturers until 2008 – partly due to its use in cash tills and in-flight entertainment systems.

Windows NT (1993)

Windows NT 4.0At this point, although Microsoft didn’t plan for it, the Windows line divided into the NT and 9x families. The business-focused NT 3.1 – the first in the line – was built from scratch as a 32-bit operating system made to have the same aesthetics as the 16-bit Windows 3.1.

It was released in July 1993 in workstation and server editions, and received an incremental update in the form of Windows NT 3.5. Windows NT 4.0 (right) followed three years later, boasting a similar interface to Windows 95, although NT 4.0 was considered much more stable than its consumer counterpart.

Windows 2000, originally labelled NT 5.0, followed at the turn of the millennium boasting some of the usability improvements of Windows 98 as well as new administration tools. It came in professional, server, advanced server and data center varieties and was the last version of Windows not to require product activation.

Windows 95 (1995)

Windows 95Windows 95 was originally meant to be based on NT architecture but Microsoft abandoned these plans amid fears an NT-based consumer operating system wouldn’t run on low-end hardware and would take too long to develop, opening up a gap in the market that could be seized by others.

This need to reach the shelves quickly resulted in the Windows 9x family, the first entry of which was Windows 95. Backed by a huge marketing campaign, Windows 95 came with a significantly enhanced user interface which introduced the start button and taskbar.

It also added simpler plug and play features and although the kernel itself was 32-bit, much of the code remained 16-bit because it was recycled from 3.1.

Windows 98 (1998)

Windows 98A follow-up was released three years later and was considered to be more stable than Windows 95, with easier support for plug and play devices, larger disk partitions, more robust USB functionality, networking improvements and new system tools.

Windows 98 was wildly popular to the point Microsoft abandoned its original end of support date of 1 January 2004 until 11 July 2006 (sound familiar?). Indeed, 27 percent of all visits to Google in 2003 were from Windows 98 machines.

Windows Millennium Edition (ME) (2000)

Windows MEWindows ME was intended as a stopgap release between 98 and XP and it showed. It became notorious for instability and unreliability, but at least it introduced the ‘system restore’ feature to give users a fighting chance of getting any work done.

Many of the new features had already been made available to Windows 95 and 98 users through updates and many enterprise functions were absent as Microsoft attempted to make a clear distinction between the consumer-facing ME and business-focused Windows 2000.

The much-maligned Windows ME had a limited shelf-life however as XP was released just a year later.

Windows XP to Windows 10 on page 2….