A Brief History of Microsoft Windows

Windows: A brief history

Pre-windows (on the PC)
Ignoring any Unix and Apple flavours, the first multi-tasking ‘windows’ program was IBM’s Topview application, released in 1984.

After this, in July 1985, some four months before the first Microsoft version, Quarterdeck released DESQview.

November 20th, 1985: Windows 1.0

The first version of Windows™
It’s main selling features were attributed to the inclusion of Calendar, Card File, Calculator and Notepad as much as the WIMP.

Windows 1.0 retail box

Windows 1.0 start screen

Windows 1.0 screenshot

December 9th, 1987: Windows 2.0 / Windows 386

For the most part this added better graphics and overlapping windows. The version I had, from Apricot, even needed a dongle! Was so awful slow I hardly ever used it, being happy to make do with DOS batch file menu load dBASE, SuperCalc, WordPerfect and, of course, games.

Possible boxes for Windows 2, 286 and 386

Windows 2.0 start screen

Windows 2.0 screen shot

May 22nd, 1990 : Windows 3.0

This was the version that made Windows actually usable, though I seem to recall a laughable claim that the minimum hardware was an IBM XT. I’ve still to find the Microsoft definition of “run”. I suspect it read, “If you turn the computer on and run a half marathon, it will load by the time you get back”. Included the Solitaire game!

Windows 3.0 retail box

Windows 3.0 start screen

Windows 3.0 screen shot

Windows 3.0 main panel

April 6th, 1992 : Windows 3.1

Pretty much a patch with better graphics support.

Windows 3.1 retail box

Windows 3.1 start screen

Windows 3.1 screen shot

Windows 3.1 control panel

July 27th, 1993 : Windows NT 3.1

A spin-off from what was originally a joint project with IBM for a new version of OS/2, this, along with its Advanced Server counterpart, was a multi-platform kernel-based operating systems aimed squarely at workstations and corporate networks.

I have vague recollections of IBM pushing OS/2Warp and poster campaigns with the Pink panther. Probably not related at all, but that’s my memory of it!

Windows NT Advanced Server 3.1 retail box

Windows NT 3.1 start screen

Windows NT 3.1 screen shot

Windows NT 3.1 monitoring apps

November 8th, 1993 : Windows 3.11

‘Windows for Workgroups’ version. Generally bundled with MS-DOS 6.22 for OEM’s, it came on 8 high-density 3.5″ (1.44Mb) floppies and was, in my opinion, the first version of Windows that was actually worth using. Added support for peer-to-peer and domain based networking and laid the foundations for Internet access.

Windows for Workgroups 3.11 Retail Box

Windows 3.11 for Workgroups start screen

Windows for Workgroups 3.11 screen shot

September 21st, 1994 : Windows NT 3.5

Added integrated Winsock and TCP/IP support, better file sharing and the first implementation of Microsoft DNS. Also included Remote Access Service SLIP or PPP protocols and VFAT allowing long file names.

(no screenshots yet, but almost the same as 3.51 below)

May 30th, 1995 : Windows NT 3.51

Bug fix really mostly. Also added support for PCMCIA cards and for the RISC based Power PC

Windows NT Workstation 3.51 retail box

Windows NT Workstation 3.51 start screen

Windows NT Workstation 3.51 screenshot with main panel

Windows NT Workstation 3.51 display settings

August 24th, 1995 : Windows 95

This had a new user interface incorporating for the first time the Start menu and was much more intuitive to use; it also had much better support for 32 bit modes. This version came on CD-ROM for the first time. I also remember that the beta version was actually faster and more stable than the release one!

Windows 95 added ‘plug and play’ for the first time (though it was hit and miss!) and integrated networking and Internet support. Within a year Microsoft had sold over 40 million copies.

Strangely, I mostly seem remember it for being the version that added Themes.

Windows 95 upgrade, retail box

Windows 95 (Plus) start screen

Windows 95 screen shot

Windows 95 apps

August 24th, 1996 : Windows NT 4.0

Offered a new interface to look more like Windows 95 and many of the applications built into Windows 95. Also offered a much better shell interface for administrators, with several other changes to improve speed, scalability and performance. The new interface brought with it a lot of instability issues though, especially with 3rd party drivers.

Windows NT Workstation 4.0 retail box

Windows NT workstation 4 start screen

Windows NT Workstation 4, control panel

June 25th, 1998 : Windows 98

Launched to the promise, ‘Works better, plays better’ and targeted directly at home users for the first time, it included support for USB and DVD’s and it ran a bit faster, if you had the hardware.

Windows 98 upgrade, retail box

Windows 98 start screen

Windows 98 screen shot

June 10th, 1999 : Windows 98 SE

This was in essence a big patch with better support for multi-media and Internet. What I remember most about Second Edition was the relief as the number of bugs, conflicts, BSOD’s and support calls plummeted.

Windows 98 Second Edition retail box

(no other screenshots yet, but pretty much the same as above)

September 14th, 2000 : Windows ME

(Millenium Edition)

This, like all previous versions, sat on top of MS-DOS, even through, strictly speaking, Windows was an OS in its own right. The foot-up from DOS was more to do with backwards compatibility.

Added a lot of multi-media and home networking enhancements and introduced new features like System Restore. Allegedly it had a number of reliability improvements, but I beg to differ!

Ask any IT technicians that were around at the time and you’ll hear horror stories of people losing all their data, nightmare support calls, crashes and so forth. I point-blank refused to sell or support this and if someone came in with this pile of kak for a fixing I used to waive the repair charge and made them buy a copy of Windows 98 instead. Then I’d rescue what files I could and give them back a working PC running Windows 98 SE.

Yes, it was that bad! No, actually, on reflection, it was worse than that!

Windows ME Millenium Edition retail box

Windows ME, Millenium Edition, start screen

February 17th, 2000 : Windows 2000 Professional

New version of Windows NT aimed at replacing all previous versions of Windows NT for businesses and corporations, generally running on large networks. Was a lot more secure, as was intended for its target audience. And it hated games. It was a workhorse for cubicle monkeys!

Windows 2000 Professional, upgrade box

Windows 2000 Professional start screen

Windows 2000 Professional screen shot

October 25th, 2001 : Windows XP

(‘XP’ for eXPerience)

Aimed at replacing all previous versions of Windows – including the NT kernel based Windows 2000, it was the first single version to start splitting Windows into market segments like ‘Home’, ‘MCE’, and ‘Professional’ and was launched worldwide at its inception.

Until Win 7 Pro, this was my favourite release of Windows. Fast, stable. Worked. Couldn’t ask for more.

Windows XP start

Windows XP login screen

November 30th, 2006 : Windows Vista

As far as I – and many others are concerned – Vista, in its multitude of forms – was just Windows ME revisited. It may not have been as crash prone, but it was still a bag of kak that should never have been released. It offered eye candy looks, paid for with ludicrous load times and even harsher hardware requirements.

I tried the beta a few time, it never lasted more than a day because the driver support, especially for soundcards, was abysmal. The release version was no better and in fact so bad it was the first and only version of Windows that companies (like Dell) were forced to offer a ‘roll-back’ option for customers to get it off their system and get Windows XP installed. I commented elsewhere that at the time companies like PC World attributed millions of pounds in lost sales because consumers didn’t want to upgrade to a slower machine!

Windows Vista retail box

Windows Vista screen shot

October 22nd, 2009 : Windows 7

Essential an ‘upgrade’ to Vista, what they actually did was just tear out all the bloated, buggy rubbish in Vista and add much better support for everyone elses software. Windows 7 is what Vista should have been!

Windows 7 retail box

Windows 7 start

Windows 7 screen shot

tba : Windows 8

Not sure yet what new features it will sport, but it’s currently in beta with release set for 2012.

(Addenda November 2013.
Will update this when properly I get a minute.)

So, Windows 8 was released – and bombed. What huge surprise. To my mind, they essentially built a PC operating system to work like an iPhone or tablet.
What, your monitor isn’t touch screen? No? Dude, that is so sad. Guess you’ll just have to use the start button. What start button? Oh, right, we’ll put that in the next major update, in a year or so.


I did actually look at it when it first came out – at a special price of about £23 for the full retail version. Then I tried it on a few systems in-store – with and without touch screens. It’s ME and Vista all over again, with added What the heck
Windows 7 works fine. I’ll wait a few more years for version 9, thank you.

Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I kind of like using a keyboard and mouse – and I managed just fine for years until the mouse came along for that matter. The idea of working by raising your arms to shoulder height and trailing your greasy fingers over your monitor to navigate is mind bogglingly stupid. Yes, tablet on your knee surfing, sure, and it looks great on the CGI glass and holographic screens you see used in movies like Iron Man or the Minority Report, but in real like, working at a desk said down for 8 hours a day, with your arms in the air swishing? N’uh! And yes, I’m fully aware of the “but you just…” Point is, that is it’s selling point. I’ve worked with touch screens in factories in the past, years before smartphones and Kindles and iPads were invented. I didn’t like them when they were cutting edge technology either.

I got most of the above screen grabs by pausing a Youtube clip by Compdude100: windows history (Windows 1.0 – 7) (Now unavailable)

This is good for earlier versions of Windows: Windows® Versions Features

Also of possible interest: Wikipedia : Comparison of MS Windows versions

Addenda, 2020

Windows 10 was released 29 July 2015.

Actually better than version 7, but not massively. Only seems like last year. Wonder what’s next!

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