Windows is 30 years old, but do you remember every version? We look back on the major versions of Microsoft’s operating system
Starting today, users of Windows 7 and 8 in 190 countries can get their hands on Windows 10 as a free upgrade. The new version of Microsoft’s operating system aims to rectify many of the issues associated with its predecessor and create a unified platform for PCs, tablets, smartphones and connected devices.
It’s almost 30 years since the first version of Windows was made generally available and has since become essential to just about all types of business – those which don’t need fancy Mac computers that is.
But how has Windows developed over the past three decades? We take a trip down memory lane to see how the platform has transformed from a GUI shell for MS-DOS into the behemoth it is today, but no, we don’t know where Windows 9 is either.
Windows 1.0 (1985)
It all started in November 1985 when the first version of Windows was made available. It required two floppy disks and 192KB of RAM to install and was essentially a front-end for MS-DOS, creating a graphical environment for the platform and capable of summoning certain functions.
However despite the eventual success of the operating system, Windows 1.0 received some negative reviews – partly because of its reliance on the mouse, which hadn’t been widely adopted at the time
Windows 2x (1987)
Windows 2.0 built on its predecessor by adding more sophisticated keyboard shortcuts, overlapping windows and support for VGA graphics and introducing features that have become staples of the Windows experience.
These include the control panel, the terms ‘minimise’ and ‘maximise’ and support for the first Windows versions of Word and Excel. Windows 2.0 was also the last version not to need a hard disk to install.
Six months later, Windows 2.1 was released to take advantage of new Intel processors, while a further update in 1989 made minor changes to memory management, printing and drivers.
Windows 3.0 (1990)
The third major release of Windows was arguably the first successful one, with a revamped UI, better memory management, 256 colour VGA mode and enhanced multimedia options such as support for sound cards and CD-ROMS. Notably, Windows 3.0 also separated files and applications into a list-based manager for the former and an icon-based manager for the latter.
A new protected mode allowed Windows applications to use extra memory more easily than on MS-DOS, while the release was the first to come pre-loaded on some PCs.
Windows 3.1x (1992)
Two years later, Windows 3.1 built on the foundations of 3.0, most notably with publishing and networking features for businesses. It was the first version of Windows to be released on a CD-ROM and was considered more stable than its predecessor. It added ‘drag and drop’ functionality, multimedia options like Video for Windows, which introduced the .avi file, and an add-on for ‘pen computing’.
The Windows for Workgroups 3.11 extension allowed businesses to share resources without the need for a central server and the embedded version was so popular it was provided to manufacturers until 2008 – partly due to its use in cash tills and in-flight entertainment systems.
Windows NT (1993)
At this point, although Microsoft didn’t plan for it, the Windows line divided into the NT and 9x families. The business-focused NT 3.1 – the first in the line – was built from scratch as a 32-bit operating system made to have the same aesthetics as the 16-bit Windows 3.1.
It was released in July 1993 in workstation and server editions, and received an incremental update in the form of Windows NT 3.5. Windows NT 4.0 (right) followed three years later, boasting a similar interface to Windows 95, although NT 4.0 was considered much more stable than its consumer counterpart.
Windows 2000, originally labelled NT 5.0, followed at the turn of the millennium boasting some of the usability improvements of Windows 98 as well as new administration tools. It came in professional, server, advanced server and data center varieties and was the last version of Windows not to require product activation.
Windows 95 (1995)
Windows 95 was originally meant to be based on NT architecture but Microsoft abandoned these plans amid fears an NT-based consumer operating system wouldn’t run on low-end hardware and would take too long to develop, opening up a gap in the market that could be seized by others.
This need to reach the shelves quickly resulted in the Windows 9x family, the first entry of which was Windows 95. Backed by a huge marketing campaign, Windows 95 came with a significantly enhanced user interface which introduced the start button and taskbar.
It also added simpler plug and play features and although the kernel itself was 32-bit, much of the code remained 16-bit because it was recycled from 3.1.
Windows 98 (1998)
A follow-up was released three years later and was considered to be more stable than Windows 95, with easier support for plug and play devices, larger disk partitions, more robust USB functionality, networking improvements and new system tools.
Windows 98 was wildly popular to the point Microsoft abandoned its original end of support date of 1 January 2004 until 11 July 2006 (sound familiar?). Indeed, 27 percent of all visits to Google in 2003 were from Windows 98 machines.
Windows Millennium Edition (ME) (2000)
Windows ME was intended as a stopgap release between 98 and XP and it showed. It became notorious for instability and unreliability, but at least it introduced the ‘system restore’ feature to give users a fighting chance of getting any work done.
Many of the new features had already been made available to Windows 95 and 98 users through updates and many enterprise functions were absent as Microsoft attempted to make a clear distinction between the consumer-facing ME and business-focused Windows 2000.
The much-maligned Windows ME had a limited shelf-life however as XP was released just a year later.
Windows XP (2001)
Once again backed by a major marketing push, this time sound-tracked by Madonna’s Ray of Light, Windows XP united the NT and 9x families into a single operating system. Available in two versions – home and professional – both featured a radically overhauled, very blue, user interface and a revamped start button that let you access folders and documents as well as applications.
However security was a major concern throughout its lifetime as Internet access became increasingly ubiquitous. Three major service packs were released to help address flaws and the company redirected resources away from any potential successor in order to secure the platform.
Other features added over XP’s lifetime included Windows Media Center and support for tablets – long before Steve Jobs wowed the world with the iPad in 2010.
Despite these problems, Windows XP was a hit, shifting over one billion copies and becoming firmly entrenched in the enterprise, many of which found out to their detriment when support ended last year – 13 years after launch. In fact Windows XP was so popular, 12 percent of all PCs connected to the Internet still use it.
Windows Vista (2007)
Where do we start? Windows Vista was a radical transformation from XP, but for an operating system six years in the making, it had a lot of problems. Microsoft shifted resources away from Vista’s development to secure XP, resulting in the longest gap between Windows releases ever.
When Vista arrived, it featured the ‘Aero’ GUI, which allowed for transparent window effects, new search and networking capabilities, new applications for email, calendar and photos, a mobility centre for laptops and the ability to use a USB flash drive to boost performance, It even had a sidebar that could mimic Mac OS’s popular widgets.
But, it was expensive and demanded significant hardware requirements. Reports emerged of businesses deliberately downgrading their systems to XP and many firms skipped Vista entirely because of the problems. Still, Vista peaked with a 19 percent market share at the time of Windows 7’s release.
Windows 7 (2009)
Windows 7 was an incremental release that in many ways delivered the original vision of Vista – mainly by not being terrible. It built on the Aero interface, allowed users to pin applications to the taskbar, added live thumbnails, file libraries and homegroup features. There was also some touch screen support and a starter edition made available for low-end PCs like netbooks.
It was well-received in terms of usability, security and speed and is currently present on 61 percent of all PCs connected to the Internet, boosted by the end of support to Windows XP, as businesses finally made the jump to a modern operating system.
When Microsoft released Windows 8 they probably thought the press reception couldn’t be as bad as Vista, but they were wrong. Windows 8 was designed to be a platform that could work just as well on a PC as a tablet.
It was intended to revive flagging sales in the PC market and allow Microsoft to carve out a share in the growing tablet sector.
But many users felt changes like touch-first Metro apps, cumbersome menus and, gasp, the removal of the Start Menu, were being forced upon them and made the operating system more difficult to use with traditional keyboard and mouse.
Windows RT, built for low power ARM processors used by the majority of smartphones and tablets, couldn’t support legacy apps and was restricted to the slim-picking of the Windows Store. Exacerbating this, was the fact Microsoft decided to launch its own tablet, the Surface, which alienated the manufacturers the company hoped to serve.
Windows 8.1 did much to repair the damage, improving keyboard and mouse support, extending OneDrive integration and re-introducing the Start Button, but not menu, however many enterprises have shied away from the platform, preferring to stick with Windows 7.
On the eve of Windows 10 launch, Windows 8 and 8.1 have a combined 16 percent share of the PC market – just four percent more than XP.
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