The history of windows past present and future
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Most of us use windows every day, but where did it come from and what shaped its development. We reveal the whole story.


Happy birthday windows! 20 years and still looking great.  You might not realise it, but windows is a lot older than you might expect, and was first announced by Bill Gates at a conference in 1983.  that makes it over 20 years old, but the first did not go on sale until 1985.  windows is the oldest and most successful software application ever.  The number of windows users is measured in hundreds of millions and it has been a phenomenally successful program.  It has also made Bill Gates the richest man on the planet, don’t you wish you had the idea?, actually, it wasn’t even bill gates idea the concept was around for several years before windows came along.

            Windows is a graphical user interface or GUI for short and it consists of windows, icons and a mouse for input. Microsoft did not invent the GUI, it came from the research labs at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre).  In the late 1970s researchers developed an operating system based on a programming language called smalltalk. This used a graphical display featuring programs running in windows, icons to represent files and folders, and used a mouse for input.

            It never became a commercial product, but in 1983, apple launched a computer called Lisa that was radically different to anything else around at the time.  It had a GUI interface for starters.  That computer had limited success, but a year later the company introduced a much better computer called the Macintosh that was an instant hit.  Microsoft did not release windows until a year later and at the time it was technically inferior to the Macintosh.

            So when Microsoft was developing windows, it had lots of sources of inspiration.  If fact, there have even been legal battles over who invented the GUI, but now everyone agrees it was Xerox.  Lets take a look at Microsoft’s first attempt at producing a GUI for the pc.


It all started with Windows 1.01


The first version of windows is very different to what we are used to today, but even so, it is still recognisable.  It was released in1985 and was supplied on five 5.25in 360kb floppy disks. A typical installation was under 1MB, making it about 1,000 times smaller that windows xp.  You must remember that PC’s had 640k of memory and a hard disk of a few megabytes.  Windows had to run in what was called real mode because a limitation of processors at the time meant that memory above 640k could not be accessed.  Processors ran at around 4MHz, and a video card’s top resolution was EGA, which provided a screen display of 640x350 pixels in 16 colours.

            The hardware severely limited what windows could do, but at the time it seemed revolutionary.  The desktop was simple and MS-DOS executive displayed. A listing of the files on the disk drives.  The start menu, taskbar, icons and other items that we use today did not exist.  Windows was mouse driven though, and you could run several programs at the some time. Here’s what it said on the windows 1.01 box –


  • Work with several programs at the same time.
  • Switch between multiple applications without quitting them
  • Run more applications than can fit in memory at one time
  • Transfer data from applications and incorporate it into Microsoft windows desktop applications.
  • Get an easy to learn, easy to use interface. Select commands and options from drop-down menus, icons and dialog boxes.


it all sounds quite familiar doesn’t it?  The original concept behind windows has not changed and these words could just as easily appear on the windows XP box.  Bundled with this first version of windows was paint, which surprisingly has not changed much over the years. Notepad was also supplied and this has changed very little too.  You can count the number of new features in the XP version on your fingers.  Write was a few word processor that you could use to write letters and was in windows from 1985 to 1995, when it was finally replaced by wordpad.  Calculator and clock will also be familiar. 

            Networking was not available, although there was a primitive form of communication called terminal emulation.  Reversi provided the entertainment in 1985 and it is still in windows xp.  The control panel was used to configure windows and you could add fonts and printers, set the cursor blink rate, date, time, mouse double click speed and so on.  Of course, it was a lot simpler than todays control panel.

            Windows 1.0 did not sell very well. Most people used MS-DOS because it was fast, ran an everything and people quickly learnt the commands.  They did not need to run multiple programs or have a GUI.


Next came windows 2.03


In 1987 windows received a major upgrade and version 2.03 was released, it came on nine 360kb 5.25in floppy disks and a typical installation was about 1.5MB. by this time, pc hardware had advanced and we now had real overlapping windows that had a control button in the top-left corner, and maximise and minimise buttons at the top-right.  By 1989 intel’s 268 processor was becoming popular and this ran at 12MHz.  it could access more memory and the 640k memory barrier was broken.  Video cards could display 640x640 pixels in 64 colours.  The more powerful hardware enabled Microsoft to produce a better version of windows called 286.  it was able to access more that the standard 640k of ram by using extended or expanded memory.  There was support for Smartdrive, a hard disk cache utility designed to speed up the drive.

            Windows 386 was like 286, but was designed to run on intel’s new 386 processor.  This was available in faster speeds and had better memory handling. Windows was still not very popular though.


Then came windows 3.0


Microsoft completely redesigned windows from the ground up and in 1990, windows 3.0 became and instant hit.  Many people were at last convinced that the days of the DOS prompt and abscure commands were gone and the way forward was with microsoft’s slick GUI. Program manager was a great tool for organising your applications and you could create group windows to store you favourite programs.  Icons were used to represent the programs and these could be moved around by clicking and dragging.

            Windows controls, such as the maximise and minimise buttons, and control menu in the top left corner of each windows were given a makeover.  Dialogs were made simpler too.  Multiple programs could run simultaneously and it was easy to switch from one to another by pressing the Alt+Tab keys.  PC’s typically had 4MB of memory and windows used a swap file on the hard disk as additional virtual memory so that you could run lots of programs without any problems.

            Windows 3.0 was much easier to use than previous versions.  It had better memory handling and the number of applications and utilities was growing quickly.  Sales topped 10 million.


Then windows 3.1


Two years later come windows 3.1 which added multimedia features and it became possible to play music and video clips, and access CD-ROM drives using Media Player, CD player and sound recorder.  The PC was no longer simply a piece of office equipment, but a multimedia entertainment centre that was attractive to home users sales ran at a million a month.

            A typical installation was around 4MB, it ran on top of MS-DOS 6.2 and its native screen mode was 640x480 pixels in 16 colours.  However, a 256 colour mode enabled high quality graphics to be displayed.  If you wanted to play the latest games. You had to quit windows and use DOS.

            In 1993, windows was upgraded to version 3.11 and on the surface there was very little different to version 3.1. however it was called windows for workgroups because it had built in net-working capabilities and you could connect two or more PCs with network cards and cables. All the networking protocols you needed were included and networks became so simple that anyone could set them up, making it possible to share the resources of more powerful PCs with other computers on the network.  This was possible before windows 3.11, but it required additional software and a level of technical expertise that ordinary pc users didn’t have.


Next it was windows 95


In mid 1995 Microsoft released a completely rewritten version of windows that was a huge step forward and it contained all the elements that we are familiar with today.  Program manager was replaced by the start menu and it provided a simple text menu that was easier to navigate.  The taskbar first appeared in windows 95 and minimised programs were represented by buttons. The taskbar showed all the programs that were running and made it easy to switch from one to another.

            The system tray was new and this allowed programs that were running in the background to display an icon and provide access to pop-up menus. Windows controls, such as the maximise and minimise buttons were redesigned and the interface was more customisable.  The my computer icon provided access to disk drives and my documents held personal files and file manager was replaced by explorer.

            Windows 95b – improvements in the PC’s hardware lead to Microsoft producing an updated version of windows 95 called 95b or OSR2 in 1996.  this was never sold and it could only be obtained pre-installed on a new computer. One of the main new features was support for much larger hard disk drives and it was able to use the FAT32 filling system. Previously, FAT16 was used, which could only access 2GB of disk space and wasted space due to large cluster sizes.  FAT32 solved both problems and is still widely used today.


Next came windows 98


Windows 98 was the first version of windows that USB devices really worked with.  Windows 98 contained drivers for around 1,200 hardware devices and many of them were plug and play.  This was a big step on the road to ease of use and an improvement on earlier methods of adding hardware to PCs. System file checker was able t ensure that the windows files were OK and could restore damaged or missing ones from the installation CD.

            One of the big new features in windows 98 was internet explorer 4 and this was a big improvement for users of the internet.  It offered support for the latest internet technologies and also enabled you to browse webpages offline. Outlook express also made emailing easier and better too and the program replaced the archaic inbox that previously existed.  Windows 98 still ran on top of DOS and it is possible to boot up to the DOS prompt in order to fix problems and perform other tasks.

            Windows 98se was released a year after windows 98 and it is more of less the some operating system.  It contains support for more hardware devices and better handling of USB peripherals.  There were year 2000 bug fixes, an improved media player, internet explorer 5.0, netmeeting for video conferencing, internet connection sharing, and direct x 6.1 for better gaming.  Some people reckon that this is the best version of windows because it is simple, has plenty of features and works on all PCs.


Next came windows Me


Windows me was hated by many people when It was released in 2000, basically because of hardware compatibly issues, but was windows me really that bad, when it was pre-install on a new computer it work very well.  Windows me had better multimedia features, including the best version of media player yet seen, me also included my pictures folder that enabled you to organise digital photos and other artwork more easily, and windows movie maker for editing videos.  System restore first made its appearance in windows me and this enabled users to recover from problems by restoring the system to a previously working state.  

            Windows me is a direct descendant of windows 1.01 that was first released in 1985.  it runs on top on MS-DOS although this fact is well hidden.  Once me had been released, Microsoft announced that it was the end of the line and no more upgrades were to be made.  Windows xp was to be an entirely new creation.


Windows NT 3.1


In the early 1990s when windows 3.1 became massively popular, one criticism of it was that it was that it was not good enough for businesses.  It was fine for home users, but it lacked the stability and security that was required by many corporations.  Business had a hard time adding extra software, utilities and drivers to windows 3.1 to make it suitable for their needs.

            Microsoft responded by creating a brand new operating system from scratch called windows NT  in 1993.  the NT stood for new technology and it was called and industrial strength operating system.  The version number was 3.1 simply to match the current version. Windows NT was designed to look like windows 3.1 and it had a similar desktop, windows, icons, menus, dialogs and so on.  Below the graphical user interface though, NT was completely different. It did not use DOS at all and it was designed with security in mind.  Users had to log on to the system and only those users that an administrator allowed to log in could actually access it.  Even then, they could be limited in what they could do.

            While one team of programmers at Microsoft were working on upgrading windows 3.1 to 95, another team was busy developing windows NT and in 1996, NT 4.0 was released, which included a large number of enhancements of business users.  There were workstation, sever and enterprise editions with the whole raft of the networking and security features.  The user interface was updates so that it looked just like windows 95.  the similarity was only skin deep though, and under the surface was a completely different operating system designed for security, reliability and networking in business applications.

            Microsoft realised that having two versions and two programming teams did not make sense and the decision was made to reduce this to one version of windows for everyone.  NT was the better of the two versions of windows and development of the 95/98/Me series stopped and all efforts were put into broadening the appeal of NT. The plan did not quite pan out as expected and when windows 2000 was released in 2000, it was still only for business users. There were professional server, advanced server and data center server editions. It is a great operating system, but it cannot cope with the variety of hardware and software that home users have.


Then come the wonderful Windows XP


With Windows XP, launched in October 2001, Microsoft finally got it right with one operating system suitable for everyone. Since it was based on NT.  It was very stable and hard to crash, offered good security features for business users, excellent multitasking and built-in networking. Yet it also had all the fun stuff home users want, like cool graphics, a customisable interface, the ability to play music and video, to play games and use add-ons like TV tuner cards. Scanners, joysticks and much more.  The latest version of DirectX enables games to be played, while media player handles the audio and video.

            There are several versions of windows xp such as home and professional.  The latter contains more security, networking and other features key to businesses.  There is one for tablet PCs that contains handwriting recognition, and a media center edition for PCs with TV cards, DVD players and other multimedia features.


The Future of Windows


The original aims of windows still apply today and most of the changes in the operating system have been added due to improvements in technology. Some components have hardly changed at all since version 1.01, like paint, notepad and calculator.  The GUI has become more customisable and easier to use and we can expect the next version of windows codenamed longhorn (vista) to contain even more usability features. For example, there is an enhanced start menu with many more features, providing quick access to files, folders, settings and programs.  A sidebar can be docked at the side of the screen providing additional features that improve usability.

            It is hard to predict how windows will be developed because we don’t know what the next big thing will be, it was multimedia in the early 1990s, the internet in the late 1990s. both had a big impact on windows.  Ever faster processors, bigger hard disks and larger memory will allow the operating system to perform tasks that are not possible now.

            Longhorn (vista) was first announced in 2001, but is unlikely to ship before 2006.  one that it should contain is WinFS (windows future storage), which is a new way of storing files making them easier to organise and access.  The filling system will have database-like features which facilitate finding information.  Photos, videos and music will be organised into libraries security will play a big part and Microsoft is working on a new system it calls Palladium to lock windows tighter than ever.  It is designed to protect you from hack attacks, viruses and other security problems.