A brief history of Microsoft Windows

If a rose by any other name would have smelled as sweet then we'd all be looking forward to the launch of Interlace Manager 7 this week. That was how it all began for Microsoft's projected in 1981 when Windows was first under development. Fortunately, by the time Windows 1.0 was released in 1985 someone clever soul had thought a slightly more consumer focused name might be better. They were right. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Windows 1.0 (1985)

Initially, Windows was little more than operating environment add-on for DOS. MS DOS Executive was another of its names that fell by the wayside but it more accurately described the user friendly GUI addition to computing. Microsoft had worked on the early Apple computers - prior to the Macs - on their desktop accessories and much of the Windows look was licensed from Apple. There could be no overlapping of windows, so tiling was used to put them side by side instead, and there was no trash can either, as implemented in the Apple OS. Despite the addition of some familiar faces in the shape of Calculator, Calendar, Cardfile, Clipboard Viewer, Clock, Control Panel, Notepad, Paint, Reversi, Terminal and the Word predecessor, Write, there was no great popularity for the system.

Windows 2.0 (1987)

Two years on, the second iteration was fundamentally about improvements to the memory management and the interface itself; two of the most important areas of any OS. Windows 2.0 opened up the expanded memory for programs to use which was normally saved for running peripherals. It meant greater ability to multi-task and it began to look more like the real picture with Microsoft sneaking overlapping windows into the design. The system introduced new keyboard shortcuts and the now famous Excel and Word applications. The real boost to the OS though was that the hugely popular desktop publishing software AldusPagemaker was released in a Windows variant. It was the first major piece of third party software to come in both Windows and Mac and is the moment many historians herald as the turning point for Microsoft. The system was now, on one level, an equal to Apple's.

Windows 3.0, 3.1 & 3.11 (1990)

Windows 3.0 was the first success for Microsoft in the commercial sense. The company had re-written critical operations in Assembly rather than C making them lighter and faster and the introduction of virtual memory and VGA cards meant a more efficient, more powerful and more graphic capable platform. Virtual memory was able to trick applications into thinking that they were using large blocks of address space when it was actually fragmented and often spilled into the storage disk rather than just using the RAM. It meant Windows could successfully run more programs at once. The system was also flexible at the same time, meaning that if you would rather offer applications the protection of running in one block them you could automatically assign specific space for that too. Windows 3.0 sold 2 million copies in its first six months rising to 10 million over the next 18.

3.1 was released in reaction to IBM's OS/2 2.0 operating system software that had initially been a joint venture with Microsoft. It contained the same bug fixes and multimedia support. By the time 3.11 came out Microsoft had made sure they'd seen off the threat from IBM and Windows had gone 32-bit.

Over the same period Microsoft had been added more and more Appley features to their OS until the former employer sued the company under 189 charges relating to the Apple "look and feel" of Windows. Of those, 179 were dismissed and the last 10 were deemed ideas that were simply non-copyrightable.

Windows 95 (1995)

10 years down the line and it was time for a serious facelift. Windows 95, originally codenamed Chicago, saw a significant step in the GUI as well as offering impressive under the hood improvements too. It introduced pre-emptive multi-tasking into the operating system which was a way to ensure that each application gets a fair chunk of the CPU while it's trying to run. It's possible because of an interrupt mechanism which can suspend apps already in execution and order their power resource demands. Every 32-bit program was now also given a separate address space meaning that one bad program wouldn't bring the whole system crashing down. Through these two advances Windows was now much more stable than before.

The great addition from the user end was Plug and Play which made the previous driver hunts a lot less important along with a lot of CD-ROMs that came with various bits of peripheral kit. The system allowed for automatic detection and installation of hardware with considerably less faff than ever before on PCs. File names could now be as ling as 250 characters and the supported RAM on Windows 95 was up to 512MB with a virtual effect of 2GB. DOS was pretty much altogether bypassed and now just used as a boot loading device.

Windows 98 (1998)

Despite better support fir the FAT-32 file system, new hardware drivers and allowances for disk partitions larger than 2GB, Windows 98 was heavily criticised for its slowness and unreliability compared to the previous release. Most of the problems were cleaned up by the second edition one year later but there was further controversy in the GUI with Internet Explorer's integration into the design and into Windows Explorer. It eventually lead to the accusation that Microsoft was abusing its position as the OS at the expense of the waning browser competition that was Netscape Navigator. Ultimately, the case has had little effect on the success of either company and eventually Windows 98 was appreciated by consumers the world over.

Windows ME (2000)

The Millennium Edition, on the other hand, never received a lot of love. Much like Windows Phone today, the turn of time OS was more of a stop gap than anything else while plans were afoot to merge the Windows business line, Windows NT, with the consumer stream. Essentially, it had the same core as Windows 98 but had adopted many of the features of the latest in the NT range - the very popular Windows 2000. It had enhanced multimedia and internet capabilities with the introduction of Windows Movie Maker as well as Universal Plug and Play which allowed for a far more seamless, automatic approach for connecting network devices. You could no longer boot the OS into DOS and it was the last version not to include the online Product Activation system. ME was lambasted for its instability and often referred to with alternative acronyms like Mistake Edition but perhaps its one moment in the sun was the introduction of System Restore which still exists today and works very well so long as you remember to use it.

Windows XP (2001)

Codenamed Whistler, XP was the Microsoft's messiah in the unification of their business and consumer OS products. Until now, Windows NT had been running very successfully alongside since 1994 and had been the company's answer when the OS/2 project with IBM had fallen apart. The problem was that NT's increasingly complex structure became harder and harder for developers to write for and eventually they stopped bothering as it was for a relatively small percentage of the market. Seeing as operating systems with no drivers aren't of much use, the new approach of one OS with several variants was added which is why we got Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. XP even inherited the NT5.2 kernel at its core and, after several service pack updates, became not only secure and stable but also the longest lasting Windows OS, selling from 2001-2007.

Windows Vista (2006)

Releasing the software to the commercial sector first was never going to be much of a hearts and minds campaign for what has become one of Microsoft's most contentious operating systems. When codename Longhorn was finally given to the public at the beginning of 2007 with a brand new GUI just to upset more people, it got on the end of some very harsh reviews indeed. As well as introducing the Windows AERO look with its more powerful, more efficient and aesthetic designs, Vista also had a strong focus on security. The administrator had always been the default user on a PC and that was now switched to a rather irritating system of passwords and user management that, although certainly safe, didn't really help matters.

There was a new version of IE, Windows Media Player, a new generation of games like Mahjong and despite all the troubles, it still outsold XP in its equivalent first month with 20 million copies leaving the shelves. However, in a survey of businesses, only 8% were satisfied with the product compared to the 41% that had been happy with XP. There were reports of many users downgrading back to Windows XP but the one group who were pleased with the new system was the gamers. Vista was the first to include DirectX 10 which offered them even better graphic fun than ever before.

Windows 7 (2009)

Curiously, the 8th consumer release of the Microsoft OS, Windows 7 is in fact very similar to its predecessor but with just enough refinements and some time to get used to the AERO GUI. It was codenamed both Blackcomb and Vienna, has none of the user account issues of Vista and predominantly comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. It has a significantly faster boot time, better power management options for notebook users and has also gone multi-touch. So far, throughout all the beta tests, and RC versions, there have been no real complaints. The only issue is perhaps the ever-growing number of variants, now standing at six.

Windows 8 (?)

Barely have we tasted 7 and already there is a smattering of rumours about Windows 8. There's only two things to go on but both should raise an eyebrow each - 128-bit computing and cloud-optimised operating system. Certainly should keep us talking.



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