Windows turns 25 tomorrow, and there have been a lot of highlights during that time. Here's my list of the best of Windows for last 25 years, in chronological order. For a more complete look at the history of Windows, check out my article Visual Tour: 25 Years of Windows. And for a look at the worst of Windows, check out my blog post The five worst Windows moments of the last 25 years.
This is the Windows version that set the operating system on the way to worldwide global dominance. Versions 1.0 and 2.0 were little-used, and more often than not primarily used as run-time environments for the few programs that required Windows to run.
Windows 3.0 featured multitasking DOS programs in resizable windows, VGA graphics, improved memory handling, TrueType fonts, and much more. With Windows 3.0, for the first time people began living in Windows full-time rather than jumping in and out depending on what program they were using.
This version was the next big change in Windows --- no longer did Windows install on top of DOS as a separate installation. Instead, you installed Windows 95, which included both. The interface got a drastic makeover, including enhancements that live until this day, including the taskbar and the Start menu. Plug-and-Play installation of hardware was introduced, and despite problems which led it to be called Plug-and-Pray by many, it made it much easier to get hardware to work with Windows.
This may well be the most loved version of Windows of all time -- so much so that even though it was introduced back in 2001, XP remains the dominant version of Windows on PCs, and will be so for quite some time.
In XP, Microsoft combined the consumer Windows line with the NT/2000 business line, and built a consumer-oriented operating system on top of the stable Windows NT kernel. XP also bid sayonara to DOS --- it was the first version of Windows that was not built on top of DOS or require DOS to run. It was far more stable than previous versions of Windows, as well as more secure. Microsoft also revamped the Windows interface, giving it a more contemporary look, and added features including animated windows and background themes.
Microsoft recovered from the fiasco of Windows Vista with Windows 7. Windows 7 fixed many of Vista's shortcomings, including hardware incompatibilities and upgrade problems. It enhanced the taskbar, and added useful navigation shortcuts known as Aero Peek, Aero Snap and Aero Shake. It's more stable than Vista. Some people believe that it's the operating system that Vista should have been.
Windows Phone 7
Strictly speaking, despite the "Windows" name in the title, this isn't really Windows. It's completely different code, and a completely different operating system. But it's been designed from the ground up to work with desktop Windows and extensions of Windows that Microsoft is moving to the cloud. So you can consider it, in a way, as an extension of Windows itself.
Microsoft's mobile attempts before Windows Phone 7 were not particularly successful, and it ceded the entire smartphone market to Apple and Android Phones. With Windows Phone 7, Microsoft finally has a competitor. Whether it can catch up remains to be seen. But at least now it's in the race.