Skip navigation

Windows @ 25

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Microsoft Windows, since the first version of the product was launched on this day in 1985. (To put this in perspective, I graduated from high school in 1985.) Like most people, I never used Windows 1.0, which was by all accounts nothing more than a slightly graphical shell that sat on top of MS-DOS. In fact, the original code-name for Windows--Interface Manager--says everything you need to know about Microsoft's early intentions for the product.

The original Windows was nothing more than an attempt to capitalize on the then-nascent move away from command line interfaces towards graphical user interfaces (GUIs), as popularized by Apple's Mac. In fact, it originally competed not with the Mac, per se, but with DOS shells we've all forgotten, like TopView and GEM.

It's hard to remember how different the industry was 25 years ago. PC clones were born, but were not yet the dominant standard. For consumers, Commodore offered far more compelling--and best-selling--systems, Apple was making inroads in education and with the well-heeled (well, that hasn't changed much), and a variety of upstarts--including Microsoft--were vying in the PC-based OS space. I was a Commodore user, and proud of it.

Microsoft's offering at the time wasn't Windows. It was MS-DOS. Windows 1.0 was marketed as an "operating environment," not a true OS, and was an "extension" to MS-DOS that ran MS-DOS programs. The key advantages of Windows over plain DOS were simple multitasking--the ability to run multiple programs at the same time--and the graphical environment itself, which could be manipulated with a mouse. You could "cut and paste" information between running applications using a clipboard, utilize several handy built-in programs (shades of the Mac), and access Expanded Memory. (If you don't remember what that was, just move on. This is a painful, ahem, memory.)

Over time, of course, Windows evolved. Windows 2.0 arrived in 1987, adding support for overlapping windows--they were all tiled in 1.0--and better memory management. After that, Microsoft split Windows into two versions, one for Intel 80826-based PCs called Windows/286 and one for 386 systems called Windows/386; the latter version was more sophisticated because it took advantage of unique features of the 386, including its flat, 32-bit memory address space and virtual real mode. (This division may seem odd, but even today it continues with separate 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows 7.)

In the 1980's, and through the mid-1990's, I was no fan of Microsoft. I was an early Commodore user and used various Commodore 64 systems through the late 1980s, mostly due to my age and lack of financial resources. Even then, it was obvious that graphic user interfaces were the future, and like many I was fascinated by the Mac, but also by less expensive GUI systems like the Atari ST and Amiga. I could afford none of these things, however. But I do recall thinking that Microsoft's products of the day were sub-standard.

No-one was more shocked than I when Windows took off. Others have written about the skunkworks internal project that turned Windows from a circus sideshow into the main driver behind Microsoft's growth, but suffice to say that Microsoft briefly intended to collaborate with IBM on something called OS/2 (i.e. the second PC OS, after MS-DOS) but then shifted gears when an internal project to modernize Windows actually bore fruit. Microsoft left IBM at the altar, and forever changed the PC landscape, turning Windows from a joke into a powerhouse.

The first public rumblings of this change occurred when the company delivered Windows 3.0 in 1990. At that time, I had just become married and was an Amiga 500 users, haven given up on Apple after a disastrous but brief run with an incredibly expensive but underpowered Apple IIGS. (Why the IIGS? It was the same price as a Mac SE--$3000, way more than I could afford--but had color.) My wife, already a writer, had a low-end IBM PS1 computer, so I checked out this product on her machine and was shocked by how bad it was.

But Windows 3.0, and even more so its 3.1 successor, was a huge hit, leaving Apple, Commodore, and every other company in the industry in its dust. This, too, was disturbing to me. Windows was horrible.

Of course, Commodore declared bankruptcy, the Amiga intellectual property was traded around like a cheap rug, and the PC industry entered a time of consolidation around one major standard--PCs running Windows--and one minor player, Apple's Mac.

By the mid-1990's, I was living in Phoenix, and though I was trying to make my then-current Amiga (a 600) work, PC compatibility was becoming an issue. I had gone back to school for computer science after several years in banking, and I had to move into the PC space. My first PC was a home-built 386SX clone, utilizing a cheap AMD processor. It had a 200 MB hard drive (yes, MB), 2 MB of RAM, and no optical drive, though that eventually happened, if painfully.

I tried every PC-compatible OS there was. OS/2 was a natural draw for Amiga users, and while there were some technical advantages, it was clear to me that IBM's system was a dead-end, and I ultimately gave up on it, suggesting that others do the same. Windows was crap, but was probably the future, and I used it because I had to, and with no enthusiasm. I saw something sophisticated in Windows for Workgroups 3.11, however--some hidden 32-bit features, TCP/IP technologies, and other features that we'd later associate, incorrectly, with Windows 95--and stuck with that until Windows 95 arrived. But I was no fan.

While my own history with Windows is somewhat convoluted, the short version is that I began working on PC books for the education market, starting with titles on Visual Basic and Excel. But when the first Windows 4.0 beta arrived, I finally saw something from Microsoft that was truly excellent. Eventually renamed to Windows 95, this OS featured the first truly usable Windows UI, native 32-bit support (which, again, appeared first in WfW, though few knew that), long filename support, and more. Windows 95 was important, and was good. I evangelized it to friends and coworkers long before it shipped. And I recall my first disconnect with other beta testers, which were then meeting on the expensive CompuServe service: As was the case for many Microsoft betas down the road, these people were always trying to get Microsoft to hold off on releasing products, and I always suspected it was because they enjoyed having exclusive access to something that wasn't publicly available. But I wanted the world to know about Windows 95, of course, but also to use it. I just wanted everyone to use it.

And eventually they did, of course. Windows 95 was a smash success, the biggest still in PC history. People lined up at midnight, pretty much for the last time ever, to purchase Windows 95 in both floppy and CD-based versions. The day Windows 95 launched, I was hard at work with Gary Brent (at left), my co-author and dear friend, putting the finishing touches on our Windows 95 book. And this, really, is where the story of the SuperSite for Windows kicks in, albeit in very early form. In February 1995, I wrote my first article about Windows 95, aimed at the education market. And that article is still available on this site, the earliest example of my writing about Windows.

The rest of the Windows story, of course, is available elsewhere, here, through my WinInfo newsletter, and in other writings. But for me, that first ten years was about transition, the transition of Windows from a poorly-made graphical shell to a full-fledged OS, and my own transition from the fringes of computing to the computing mainstream. But I made this transition for the right reasons. Windows started out as a joke and was easily dismissed. But as Windows matured, my interest rose. And when Windows became excellent, as it did with Windows 95, I became an advocate.

There have been ups and downs since then, too. Microsoft transitioned Windows from its humble DOS past to the NT future, and did so in a pragmatic way over time. There were major releases and minor releases, and even some releases that were well-intentioned but horribly misguided. With Windows 7, there has even been redemption and the closest thing yet to partial return to the heady days of Windows 95.

Me, I've written books, lots of them. I've managed computer networks running on Novell and Microsoft technologies. I worked for a San Francisco-based startup. I started the WinInfo newsletter and then the Internet Nexus web site, which had a section called "the future of computing" that eventually morphed into the SuperSite for Windows, the site you're now reading. My sites and newsletters were purchased by Duke Publishing, which was itself purchased later by Penton Media, after which I eventually went from a contractor of sorts to an actual employee, after almost 15 years of self-employment. (I've been associated with Windows IT Pro for 11 years now.) I do podcasts, and occasionally speak at public events, though I'm more comfortable in front of a computer than I am in front of a crowd. It's been a wild ride, no matter how you look at it.

But looking back on these early days of Windows, I'm reminded of how terrible this product was, even given the limited computing resources of the day. That Microsoft has turned such a thing into a global empire is amazing, and something that few could have predicted back in 1985. I certainly didn't see it coming.

And I certainly can't see what coming next. Windows faces interesting new challenges, from many quarters. There's Google, with its deep pockets and emphasis on the web and cloud services. A suddenly resurgent Apple. A trend away from traditional computing models to a future that is highly mobile and highly connected. Yes, Windows is still dominant, but there are no guarantees and this product's history so far suggests that the outcome will be something that none of us can yet imagine. I can't wait.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.