Definition

Windows

Windows 1 logoWindows is Microsoft’s flagship operating system, the de facto standard for home and business computers. 

The GUI-based OS was introduced in1985 and has been released in many versions since then, as described below.

Microsoft got its start with the partnership of Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975. Gates and Allen co-developed Xenix (a version of Unix) and also collaborated on a BASIC interpreter for the Altair 8800. The company was incorporated in 1981.

Microsoft became famous with the release of MS DOS, a text-based command line-driven operating system. DOS was mostly based on a purchased intellectual property, QDOS. GUI-based operating systems of that time included Xerox's Alto, released in 1979, and Apple’s LISA and Macintosh systems, which came later. Microsoft’s die-hard fans referred to such systems derogatorily as WIMPs, which stood for “windows, icons, mouse and pull-down menus (or pointers).”

However, Bill Gates saw the potential in GUI-based systems as much as Steve Jobs had and thus began his idea for a project he called Interface Manager. Gates thought he could bring the graphical user interface to the masses at a lower cost than the $9,000 LISA. The rest of Microsoft supported this idea as well but weren’t satisfied with the name. Ironically, given their disparagement of WIMPs, the team selected Windows as the new system’s name.

With Windows development, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer had begun perhaps the single-most influential collaboration in computer software history. The Windows OS has always had competition, some of which has been free, and some of which has had an edge in style. However, no other operating system is as well known to so many computer users all over the world or so consistently dominant in market share. Microsoft has maintained this position with a steady roll-out of new versions over the years to support and exploit advances in hardware.

Before the system’s first release, however, Steve Jobs and Apple filed suit claiming that Windows stole from LISA. Microsoft claimed that both operating systems derived inspiration from Xerox’s Alto and that this was the source of their similarities. The matter was settled with an agreement that Windows 1.0 would not use the debated technologies, but the terms were left open for future versions.

 

Windows versions through the years

1985: Windows 1.0

Windows1.0 Like many early versions, Windows 1.0, was essentially a program that ran on top of DOS.  The system wasn’t released until two years after its first announcement, leading to suggestions that Windows was vaporware and would never actually appear. The release was a shaky start for the tech giant, as the software itself was found to be unstable. However, the point and click interface made computers more easily usable for computer novices -- which at that time described the vast majority of users. The user-friendly nature of the Windows environment also encouraged new users who might have been intimidated by a command line interface. Windows 1.0 offered many of the common graphical user interface bits, like scroll bars and “OK” buttons.

 

1987: Windows 2.0-2.11

Windows_2.0 Windows 2.0 was faster, more stable and had more in common still with both the LISA and future versions of Windows. The system introduced the control panel and ran the first versions of Excel and Word. Extended memory was supported and updated for the release of Intel’s 80386 processor. It was during this time that Microsoft became the largest software vendor in the world, just as computers themselves were becoming more commonplace. The fact that Windows systems were user-friendly and relatively affordable was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the growing PC market.

 

1990: Windows 3.0

Windows_3.0_workspace

Windows 3.0 was highly successful upon initial release. The system supported 16 colors, and with this adaptation the interface began to resemble more closely the versions of the future. Windows 3.0 was faster, being more fully optimized for the 386. The system also included the casual games familiar to most Windows users: Solitaire, Minesweeper and Hearts. However any heavier gaming was still run directly on MS DOS, rather than through Windows, which still ran on top of DOS. Exiting to DOS meant that the games had direct hardware access and also access to system resources that Windows would have tied up.

So popular was this version that Microsoft decided to release Windows 3.1 as a paid sub-release. Windows 3.1 features included support for TrueType fonts and peer-to-peer networking.

 

1993: Windows NT

Windows_NT_3.5 Windows NT’s release marked the completion of a side project to build a new, advanced OS. Standing for “new technology,” NT was 32-bit and had a hardware abstraction layer. DOS could be found separately through the command prompt but it was not running Windows itself. NT was a serious workstation OS rather than a version designed for home users. The system did include, however, the first appearance of the start button.

 

1995: Windows 95

win95

Windows 95 was a huge sales success, Microsoft’s breakthrough system and one that introduced huge numbers of people around the world to computers and the Internet. Advertising used the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up” to celebrate bringing the start button to the masses. 

Windows 95 facilitated hardware installation with plug and play. It also brought more colors, enhanced multimedia capabilities and TCP/IP network support. Direct X began to make Windows gaming possible for more demanding games.

 

1998: Windows 98

win98desk

Windows 98 improved speed and plug-and-play hardware support. USB support and quick launch made their first appearance. DOS gaming began to disappear as Windows gaming improved. Towards the end, however, the system was increasingly plagued by malware, a trend that has grown in late stages of life Windows systems. 

Windows 98 expressed Microsoft's belief that users want and should have a global view of their potential resources and that Web technology should be an important part of the user interface. Although building Microsoft's own Web browser into the user desktop was one of the defining issues in the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust suit against Microsoft in the 1990s, Windows 98 was released as planned with its tightly integrated browser.

Fun fact: Bill Gates encountered the blue screen of death (BSOD) when he demonstrated Windows 98 at the Comdex trade show.

 

2000: Windows ME

windows me

Windows ME (Millennium Edition) was the last use of the Windows 95 code base. ME was poorly received. Its most notable new feature was system restore. As many found the OS’s overextended code and the resulting vulnerabilities made their computers unstable, system restore was needed. ME was commonly accepted as the worst-to-date version of Windows and acknowledged as a mistake by Steve Ballmer and Microsoft. According to some critics, ME stood for “mistake edition.”

However, in the same year the professional software Windows 2000 was released. This much more robust and updated software, based on Windows NT, provided a comparatively stable environment. Displeasure with ME saw some home users installing Windows 2000 for its greater reliability. Plug and play support was increased over NT, further facilitating the home use of Windows 2000.

 

2001: Windows XP

Windows_XP

Windows XP was released as the first NT-based system with a version aimed squarely at the home user. XP was rated highly by both users and critics. The system improved Windows’ appearance with themes, and offered a stable platform. XP was also the end of gaming in DOS, for all intents and purposes. Direct X enabled features in 3D gaming that OpenGL had trouble keeping up with at times. Future versions of Windows would be compared to XP for gaming performance for some time. XP offered the first Windows support for 64-bit computing. However, 64-bit computing was not very well supported in XP, and also lacked drivers or much software to run. 

As it turned out, Windows XP was one of the most popular versions. In combination with the unpopularity of the upcoming Vista system, that would eventually lead to update-related problems. 

 

2006: Windows Vista

Windows_Vista Windows Vista was a highly hyped release that spent a lot of developmental and computer resources on appearance. The dedication of resources might have resulted from the fact that XP was starting to look archaic in comparison to Mac OS. Vista had interesting visual effects but was slow to start and run. The 32-bit version in particular didn’t enable enough RAM for the memory-hungry OS to operate quickly. Users still timid to embrace 64-bit missed out on a marginally better experience, offered along with investment in more than 4GB of RAM. Gamers found the added exclusive features in Direct X 10 only mildly tempting compared to XP's speed. Licensing rights and Windows activation became stricter, while user control of internal workings became less accessible. Microsoft lost market share in this time to Apple and Linux variants alike. Vista’s flaws -- coupled with the fact that many older computers lacked the resources to run the system -- led to many home and business users staying with XP rather than updating. That situation was to become problematic when Microsoft announced that XP end of life would occur in April 2014.

 

2009: Windows 7

Windows 7

 

Windows 7 is built on the Vista kernel. Windows 7 had the visuals of Vista with better start up and program speed. It was easier on memory and more reliable. To many end users, the biggest changes between Vista and Windows 7 are faster boot times, new user interfaces and the addition of Internet Explorer 8. 

The system plays games almost as well as XP. With true 64-bit support and an increasing separation in Direct X features that were not implemented in XP, that small performance difference benefit was further eroded. Windows 7 became the most used operating system on the Internet and also the most used for PC gaming.



2012: Windows 8

windows-8-home Windows 8 was released with a number of enhancements and the new Metro UI. Windows 8 takes better advantage of multi-core processing, solid state drives (SSD), touch screens and other alternate input methods. However users found it awkward, like switching between an interface made for a touch screen and one made for a mouse -- with neither one entirely suited to the purpose. Generally Windows 7 retained market leadership. Even after Microsoft’s UI and other updates in 8.1, Windows 8 trailed not just 7 but XP in user numbers into 2014.

See a video presentation of Windows history:

Related glossary terms: mscorsvw.exe, memtest86, Windows Sysinternals
Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn
This was last updated in February 2014
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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