The History of Windows: A timeline

Summary: As information begins to emerge about Windows 9, and the venerable Windows XP finally approaches the end of its extended support lifetime, we examine the long and complex history of Microsoft's operating system.


The History of Windows: A timeline

Windows — originally codenamed 'Interface Manager' — was announced by Bill Gates in 1983, but didn't ship until 20 November 1985. Its first incarnation was as a front end for Microsoft's command-line DOS (Disk Operating System). Windows 1.0 could only support tiled windows, but had desktop features such as MS-DOS Executive (DOS file manager), Calendar, Cardfile, Notepad, Terminal, Calculator and Clock. Utilities included RAMDrive (for managing memory cards designed to beat the PC's 640KB memory limit), Clipboard and Print Spooler. There was even a game, Reversi. In a 'special introductory offer', Windows 1.0 came with Windows Write and Windows Paint and cost $99. The minimum system requirements for Windows 1.0 were: MS-DOS version 2.0; two double-sided floppy disk drives or a hard disk; 256KB of memory or greater; and a graphics adapter card.

Fast forward to 2014, and Windows is still very much with us, subjects of the moment being how organisations should handle the end of extended support for the 2001-vintage Windows XP, and Microsoft's developing plans for Windows 9, codenamed Threshold.

Windows, 1985-2014

There has been a plethora of Windows versions since 1985, many of which will have played memorable roles in ZDNet readers' computing experience, at work and at home. During this time it has progressed from a simple DOS shell to a mature OS running everything from smartphones to datacentres. Whether you're a fan of Microsoft's platform, an implacable opponent, or an agnostic user simply trying to get stuff done, there's a lot of computing history wrapped up in the evolution of Windows.

For more detail on the many incarnations of Windows from 1985 to 2014, explore our Dipity timeline at the top of the page, and see how many you remember using — Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs anyone? My first sighting of Windows, incidentally, was in 1988, when version 2.x runtime came with Aldus PageMaker 3.0. Do let us know if you've used Windows right from the start — and also if there's anything significant missing from our timeline (note that we have not included the Windows CE family).

Topics: Windows, Windows XP and the Future of the Desktop


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I kicked in the same time as you did

    for the same reason... PageMaker, plus some other early OCR type of program whose name escapes me.

    I thought it was a neat idea, turning an unfriendly PC into something that was reminiscent of Macs. I horsed around in it a lot, as there were a lot of cool programs for it, such as the nascent CorelDraw.

    Stole DOS, rebranded it, sold it as "Windows 1-3X, 95, 98, 98-SE, Melinnium, all running a crappy GUI; then dropped DOS after they bought NT, called it, 3.1, 3.5, 3.51, 4.0, 2000, XP, Vista, Windows 7, then bolted on Metro and called it a mobile OS in Windows 8x.
    • such insight...

      please... enlighten us more.
      perhaps explain how you consider DOS as belonging in the Windows family. perhaps i've missed something since MS-DOS 2.11.
      • Windows 1.0-ME

        Windows all the way through Windows ME was really just a graphical shell that ran on top of DOS. Starting with Windows 95, Microsoft didn't want you to know that fact. They wanted to market Windows as a real OS that stood on its own, but that was never the case. They even went as far as to disable boot to MS-DOS mode in Windows ME, but the kernel was still fully 16-bit. Consumers didn't get a real Windows OS until XP.
        • true enough...

          early Windows required DOS.

          orandy's post reducing nearly 30 years of change to one sentence hardly qualifies as 'a history of windows' especially as it is poorly written.

          early versions of Windows compared to today were 'crappy' but they were what they were. might as well compare early cave-man drawings to the Mona Lisa - silly and pointless.
          • DR DOS 6

            I had a project had to run Windows 286 once for a customer :) yeah looks same as GEM. but the only way all those years later I could get it to run was on DR DOS 6.

            Always give me a smile.
    • @Orandy

      IM REally amazed of people like you, you obviously hate Microsoft to the gut, but you keep wasting your time to each and every Microsoft article trashing/bad mouthing it. Keep doing it though coz you make me laugh LOL!
      • Right? How is it even possible?

        What I find interesting is that many of the same people come to sites like this, day after day, and have not learned a single effing thing about computers. How is it even possible to read articles about computers every day and not pick anything up?

        Windows 95 did not run on top of DOS, DOS did the bidding of Windows. The only reason it was there was to boot Windows, and maintain 16 bit driver compatibility. Windows 95 was not just a 'shell', it was it's own OS.

        Microsoft bought NT? Become familiar with the relationship between IBM and Microsoft, and the development of OS/2. When they split, MS and IBM had essentially the same operating system. Windows has done OK for itself. How's IBMs OS doing?

          If Windows 95 was it's own OS, then why did it need to boot in DOS? If you knew anything about OSes, you would know that you answered that question for yourself. In order to boot, troubleshoot, run from the command line, and otherwise maintain Windows 3x through 9x and ME, you needed DOS, because the Windows part was just a fancy shell running on top.

          MS bought what would become NT from IBM. Actually IBM paid them to write it, wasn't happy with the finished product, and greedy MS took it off their hands for a bargain.

          My tech credentials are far too voluminous to list here, son!
          • "MS bought what would become NT from IBM"


            At least TRY to present SOME factual information in amongst your foaming-at-the-mouth ABM fanboism.
          • Correct

            They stole the pre-emptive multi-tasking from IBM OS/2 warp they did not really pay for it.
          • Go ask your dad, kid.

            Your credentials won't fit on the internets, huh? That's a lot.

            Win 95 used 32 bit drivers through VMMs for all hardware access when available. DOS was there ONLY to facilitate 16 bit devices or software when present. If there were none, then DOS just sat in the corner in RAM and kept it's mouth shut. Look, just because you didn't know that doesn't make you stupid. When you watch Win 95 boot, it LOOKS like it's just running on DOS. It's not.

            IBM and Microsoft worked jointly on OS/2. But IBMs vision for OS/2 was to be backwards compatible for their existing clients. Microsoft thought it was a better idea to drop support for the 286 and move forward, with driver support for as many component vendors as possible. Not just IBM products. IBM disagreed.

            This is a first year college business class example of two cultures using the same product for different reasons. IBM wanted to sell their PCs to business, and were confident their costumers would by the OS/2 upgrade including support. They saw the PC as the product they sold, and through that they would get people to buy OS/2. IBM insisted on compatibility with the 286 chip, because they had sold so many of them. IBM saw OS/2 as nothing more than 'value added' for their corporate clientele.

            Microsoft saw OS/2 as something that would get people to buy a PC for their home, as it was easy to use and it's the same thing I use at work. At the end of the day, the more units sold, the better, right? IBM disagreed again. They parted ways with the same knowledge. Microsoft parlayed that into the Windows everyone else but you is familiar with today. They did this simply by making it as device friendly and user friendly as possible. Since they had a different vision for the product, they re-branded it as NT. They've done well for themselves.

            IBM is still monolithic. The last machine I saw branded IBM was a 360, as a display. I haven't seen OS/2 since 1993.

            I'm pretty sure your credentials will fit on the interwebs without crashing them. Trust me. Go ahead and try. While you're waiting for all those credentials to upload, why don't you consider learning why Microsoft and IBM parted ways. It's a great story. You obviously don't know any of it.

            It's not unusual for an uninformed person to not only think they're right, but to be loud and obnoxious about it. Computers don't boot the same today as they did in 1997. But I don't expect you to know that, because you're obviously a child.

            Having an opinion is cool. Having your opinion be right is better. It is more grown up to ask if you don't know. Just saying.
          • 100% agree

            You need to add all the technology "agreements" they have made with other companies over the years. Then add the bits they stole from software, database, network and OS vendors. Also please add recently stolen Nokia Mobile to the list.
        • Sorry, could you explain that?

          Pishaw, your statement that "Windows 95 did not run on top of DOS, DOS did the bidding of Windows" does not clarify things for me.

          For example, I could say that "MS Word does not run on Windows, Windows does the bidding of MS Word", which is true in that when a Word user wants to open a file, Word makes a system call (bear with me) for file access, i.e., Word instructs the system to perform some task on Word's behalf. Thus, I could say that the system "does the bidding of Word".

          More specifically, suppose for the sake of argument that Windows 95 does run on DOS: the statement "DOS does the bidding of Windows" would be correct there, too. In other words, your statement alone does nothing to disprove orandy's position.

          To try to understand the point that you were trying to make with your statement (because I was clearly missing it completely), I took a look at the Windows 95 Architecture diagram thoughtfully provided by Microsoft at This diagram shows, from top down, applications running on user interface tools and 32-bit shell, which runs on top of "windows 95 core". Windows 95 core sits atop VMM, installable file system manager, and configuration manager, all of which sit on device drivers that interface directly to hardware.

          Where would DOS fit in this diagram? I think that would help me understand the case that you are making. To let you know where I'm coming from, I think of DOS as sitting above ROM BIOS and below applications. DOS included memory management (like the VMM?) and file system management (like the IFSM?) and supported device drivers -- all of which are located underneath Windows 95 in the diagram. For this reason, it looks to me like Windows 95 sits on top of DOS.

          It would help me to know where you would put DOS in this diagram.

          A second question I have is, how do you know so much about the internal decisions made by IBM and Windows with regards to NT? Did you work at IBM or Microsoft during that era? Is there a good book on the subject?

          Finally, although I am put off by orandy's dismissive comments such as "My tech credentials are far too volumnous to list here, son", I find your response "you are obviously a child" to be equally offensive: you said the same thing that orandy did, only you used more words to do it.

          I say this not because I want to insult YOU, but to let you know that you do yourself a disservice by stooping to such tactics. I was reading your responses, and the whole time I was thinking "Yes, this makes sense." When I got to the childish insults at the bottom of your later post, however, your credibility was suddenly thrown into doubt. Honestly, my first thought was "Oh, pishaw is just another teenager, too."

          I don't expect you to agree with me when I say that engaging in insults reduces the credibility of your argument, but I felt compelled to say it nevertheless. I make the same request of both you and orandy: Please, gentlemen, let's be civil. Childish insults undermine your own case.

          The questions I asked above were sincerely asked, by the way, and I look forward to your answers.
          Computer User
        • DOS does the bidding ?

          You mean Disk Operating System :) hahaha. so Windows did not know about disks..
    • Windows 286

      Please don't forget this little GEM :)
  • What about Windows BOB!

    That surely deserves a mention, albeit a snide one...
    • Bob = the original Metro interface

      I would say Windows 8 in all its Metro glory is a re-incarnation of MS BOB. Bob had an advantage though. You could exit it and work with Windows 3.1 or 95 the regular way. You can't get away from the Metro interface.
      • Exit to DOS

        Could System.Exit() to DOS too ;)
    • Bob

      Good could I forget Bob? A mention is on its way.
      Charles McLellan