Windows: A Family History

20 years of Windows: Windows has seen many changes in its 20-year career. Here, we look at those versions which have evolved directly from the very first version, see how we got here from there - and what thrilled and chilled along the way
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Windows 1.0 — November 1985
In the beginning was the MS-DOS Executive. That was the name of a small program that ran on top of MS-DOS 3, let you zip around lists of filenames, and run one by pressing Enter or clicking on its name with a mouse, lightpen or joystick. MS-DOS Executive had a scroll bar along the bottom. It had one colour scheme, seemingly borrowed from the flag of a small equatorial republic. It had a tiny selection of applications included — MS-Write, Notepad, Calendar, Reversi, Paint — and a control panel that let you load a new printer driver. There wasn't much else to control: graphics topped out at 640x350 pixels and 16 colours, there was no audio, networking, virtual memory or, well, anything.

Nonetheless, it got a cautious welcome. The bundled applications stood up well against their equivalents, especially at the all-in price of around £70, and the multitasking worked — after a fashion. It was very crude with no way to stop any application taking as much time as it liked and starving the others, but it did work well enough to effectively kill off the eight other multitasking DOS add-ons that were around at the time. Likewise the windowing system was hopelessly restricted by any modern standard — it only let windows tile against each other with no overlap. There weren't many of them.

There was one third-party Windows application at launch and for some time thereafter: In-A-Vision, by Micrographx. A CAD program, it shipped with a run-time version of Windows months before Windows itself was separately available. It cost thousands of dollars but was still seen as the best going for the price — and there was always that rumour that Micrographx was working on something a little more mainstream.

First use of: Virtually nothing. Graphics, menus, pointers and multitasking applications were all innovations in the MS-DOS world when announced in 1983, but had all appeared in other forms by the software's arrival in 1985.
Mainstream use of: The word 'vapourware'. Back then, a two year delay between announcement and launch was generally seen as eighteen months too long. Little did we know.
Last use of: an operating system that, when loaded, used less than 200k of memory.

Windows 2.0 — December 1987
[? /*CMS poll(20004068) */ ?]This was more like it. Icons, overlapping windows and better DOS application support might look like minor innovations from the hindsight of 2005, but they were big news in a world where the Apple Macintosh was starting to make a cult of itself. Still only 16 colours — the total multimedia support — which caused raucous laughter among the Amiga owners (They may yet be able to raise a chortle with Microsoft's excitement over transparent windows in Vista).

The really exciting thing, and one that made Windows 2.0 strictly an interim product, was the announcement of Microsoft OS/2 — an operating system that provided "the power of minicomputer systems" to PCs. And it was more than just that — it was the next stage in Microsoft's partnership with IBM. "With IBM's announcement of the availability of IBM Operating System/2(TM) to end-users in the first quarter of 1988, this toolkit will be extremely important to developers," said Steven Ballmer, vice-president of systems...

For more, click here... 

...software for Microsoft. Yes, he was there. So was an outfit called SCO (no, not that SCO), which had provided Microsoft with their latest Unix, also announced at the same time — Xenix/386.

These announcements saw an early use of Microsoft's trademark approach to awkward questions: "How much does the SDK cost? Microsoft will be licensing the MS OS/2 SDK for $3,000 a copy. Why is the SDK so expensive? The SDK is not expensive." That's the way to quieten troublesome punters, especially those who might be a bit upset that the SDK didn't include a copy of the operating system on which to run the code they wrote — because it wasn't finished yet. It did have 'over a thousand pages' of interface specification, though, at a "not expensive" $3 a page.

There was also a fanfare for Microsoft OS/2 LAN Manager, which would provide 'advanced network administration tools', 'high performance', 'advanced user security', 'open architecture', and support for 'important network programming standards' such as NetBIOS and DOS 3.1 networking extensions. TCP/IP was not seen as important enough — nor would it until Windows 95, still seven years away — which meant a lot of people would have to learn that Trumpet Winsock was not in fact the Congolese Football Federation's player of the year.

First use of: overlapping windows, extended memory, 3.5 inch floppies.
Mainstream use of: applications that ran with Windows but didn't come with their own copy.
Last use of: Microsoft Tiles nickname.

Windows/386 — December 1987
Windows/386 and Windows 2.0 came to life at the same time as everyone was discovering the joys of networking, together with a rapidly diverging selection of motherboard, graphics and other interface cards. They also had the first real wave of significant applications software — and the potential combinations created problem after problem after problem. This was exacerbated by Windows/386's first attempts at 'proper' multitasking, which used the 80386 chip's ability to create virtual 8086s to let multiple copies of DOS run at once — and no worries about licences. In labs, offices and homes across the land, people looked in awe as two, three or even four MS-DOS boxes loaded, ran and crashed simultaneously. Rather unfairly, the Windows component itself — in effect, Windows 2 — looked to the processor like a single piece of software running in its own space, so Windows applications still had to duke it out for system resources.

Microsoft was proud to claim 'patented techniques' for switching between different system modes in these versions of Windows, although observers at the conferences where these were revealed were less than impressed.

First use of: virtualization as a promised panacea for system limitations.
Mainstream use of: online postings starting "I've got a problem with Windows", usually in threads containing no other messages.
End of: any attempt to pretend that the 80286 wasn't an evolutionary mistake

For Windows 3.0, and beyond, click here...

Windows 3.0 — May 1990
This was the true beginning of Windows as the thundering juggernaut which ate the world — and it came on a mere six floppies. With 3.0, Microsoft saw sales go above 10,000,000, enough Windows machines that there was no need for a stand-alone version to ship with applications. It had networks, it had more than 16 colours, it had the Program Manager and File Manager with folders and everything, it had a lot more in common with the promised Microsoft OS/2 than, well, OS/2 as it actually existed. Over the next couple of years, relations between IBM and Microsoft would sour to the extent that IBM would take over OS/2 and Microsoft would go its own way with Windows NT: the success of Windows 3.0 has been blamed as the catalyst for this.

But that success was heady. People started to ask questions like "When will Oracle work with Windows 3.0?" Others said "It's as fast as OS/2, it's as easy to use as a Macintosh, and it's got more applications than both put together: this might just work, you know". The few who complained, saying "What's all this about real mode, standard mode and 386 Enhanced mode?" were politely ignored. There was something called the 'multimedia extensions' that sometimes worked with your CD-ROM, and people started to get strangely excited by that. And there was something called WIN32.DLL which ran 32-bit software, if it ever found any.

First use of: wallpaper. It actually slowed your system down, it sucked out productivity as people spent hours trying out new pictures and swapping pictures of the Space Shuttle with each other, it was and is insanely popular.
Mainstream use of: multitasking without the expectation of immediate system collapse.
Last use of: Manuals. With the new Windows help system, Windows 3.0 began the long and miserable march to giant software packages shipping with total paperwork of a sixteen page, forty-two language booklet showing how to insert a CD.

Windows 3.1 — April 1992
The Windows world machine was in full effect now. Proper built-in multimedia support, scalable fonts, much more robust multitasking that let you shut down one errant application without upsetting the others. It still ran on top of MS-DOS, but in practice used that venerable fossil as a boot loader to be largely ignored thereafter. SDK price down from $3000 to $300, while the document page count was up from 1000 to 11,000: you don't want to be off developing for that OS/2 now, do you?

There was also Windows 3.1 for Workgroups, which came with more network support — but no, sir, not IP. No call for it. Not really a standard, not for proper businesses. This proved so unpopular that it quickly got the name Windows for Warehouses, as these were the only places where one could find much evidence of an installation — and then it was more in the sense of modern art.

[? /*CMS poll(20004069) */ ?]Windows 3.1 shared its APIs with the to-be-launched Windows NT, letting people develop software that was easy to adapt for either system. It had a high level of compatibility. What it wasn't was Windows 4.0, which at one point had been due to hit the world around now. That was going to be a combined Windows 3.x and NT, combining the two strands into one platform that supported multiple processors, DOS, 16 and 32 bit applications, networking, corporate and home requirements, and so on.

First use of: The Internet, which was spilling out of the universities and research labs and into the home, where it found Windows asleep in front of the fire.
Mainstream use of: Guns, rockets, plasma bolts and spells. PC gaming and Windows were learning to get on.
Last use of: DR-DOS, with whom Windows refused point blank to run. That wasn't fair, but by the time this is decided DR-DOS is in the open source afterlife.

For 95 and beyond, click here...

Windows 95 — August 1995
Farewell, MS-DOS! Windows 95 was a stand-alone operating system for the first time, a curious hybrid that looked more revolutionary than it was. It shared a lot with Windows NT, but maintained a lot more compatibility with earlier programs than NT at the expense of reliability and security — the trade-off that fatally poisoned the original Windows 4.0 idea.

But it did have a lot that recognised the changing role of computing. It had proper Internet support. It had much better multimedia. It had long filenames. It had a user interface that to old hands looked revoltingly twee and condescending — "My Computer" attracting nauseated comparisons with My Little Pony. It had animated characters, which didn't help, especially as they seemed to be associated with features like Search which were most in need of being fixed rather than Disneyfied. However, once you dug down you soon found a lot of the old Windows ways sheltering under the sugar, and the greybeards soon settled down happily as they found that newbies remained baffled.

Windows 95 went through various modifications — 95 OSR2, 98, 98SE, Me — which gradually added support for bigger disks, USB, DVDs (although never to the extent that they could play one without third-party extras), video editing, and frequently extra problems with reliability (Me in particular gained a reputation for ladling a bit too much onto a shaky infrastructure.)

First use of: Wireless data. The ubiquity of the Windows platform and the first sniff of broadband creates a mass market for what had been the most obscure and nerd-laden sector of industrial networking
Mainstream use of: Email. The Web revolution is kicking off, but the main driver for Windows into the homes of people who wouldn't have computers otherwise is an application that predates even MS-DOS.
Last use of: Netscape, which Windows put to sleep by the simple expedient of bundling its own 'absolutely essential to the operating system' browser. This wasn't fair, but by the time this is decided Netscape is in the open-source afterlife. Or is it...

Windows XP — October 2001
[? /*CMS poll(20004070) */ ?]Finally, Windows 4.0. One Windows that combines NT, 2000, 9X and all stations in between. One Windows that presented a single, united face to the world. One Windows that came in two flavours initially, Home and Professional. Then there was the Tablet edition, Embedded — although not Windows CE, which was embedded and different, Media Center edition, .NET Server 2003 and its spawn, the 64bit versions of some of the above, and... you get the picture. And if you don't, take a look at Éric Lévénez 's incredibly detailed timeline.

First use of: Open source. Netscape is back from the afterlife, and it's brought some friends.
Mainstream use of: Absolutely everything that can be squeezed into digits. Windows is at the heart of downloading, file swapping, home digital media and so on, but those darn kids just won't play the game and bow the knee to Bill.
Last use of: DOS. It's still in there, but when was the last time you opened the box? Next time round, proper command lines and scripting languages will excise the last remnants of the days of the MS-DOS Executive.

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