Has twenty five years improved Windows?

Twenty five years ago, Microsoft introduced Windows 1.0, an ugly duckling of an operating system that few people loved, and even fewer used. I'm one of the few who actually had my hands on it, and have also used just about every version of the operating system since then. Here's my own personal history of the ups and downs of Windows over the last two and a half decades.

1983: Windows 1.0

As you can see from the screenshot below, this operating system was ugly as sin. Although the operating system was announced in 1983, it wasn't actually sold until two years later in 1985, ushering in the kind of lengthy delays that has since become a Microsoft tradition. According to Gizmodo, Gates claimed in 1983 at the Windows introduction that it would be running on 90% of all IBM-compatible PCs by 1984. Considering that Windows 1.0 wasn't even introduced until 1985, Gates' crystal-ball gazing was off by a bit --- ushering in yet another Microsoft tradition.


What could you do with Windows 1.0? Not much. Few applications ran on it, and it was slow and awkward. It primarily shipped as a run-time for the few applications that required it, such as Aldus PageMaker, which is when I began using it. To put it mildly, I did not fall in love.

1990: Windows 3.0

For most people, this was the real introduction of Windows. Windows 2.0 had already come and gone with no one noticing. But Windows 3.0 was, for PC users, revolutionary. The GUI, although crude by today's standards, let you actually do things without using a keyboard. You could click and make things happen! Finally, a real use for a mouse! You didn't have to spend tremendous amounts of time learning new applications; they all had a somewhat similar interface.

It let you multitask multiple applications, and you could run DOS-based programs in their own windows. A Program Manager made it easier to launch and manage applications. The Control Panel gave you a central place for customizing your system and for controlling system settings.

Of course, it also tended to crash almost as much as it ran, required that you understand how and when to use its three different modes (real mode, standard mode, and 386 enhanced mode) forced you to get more familiar than you wanted with PIF files (if you don't know about them, don't ask, because you don't want to know), had problems with multimedia...well, there were a lot more problems as well. But it completely changed the way that people used their PCs.

It wasn't the only piece of software that allowed you to run multiple applications at a time, by the way. There was also something out around the time called DESQview, from Quarterdeck Systems, that let you run multiple DOS programs simultaneously, but couldn't run Windows appliations. It beat Windows to market by several months. But as you may have noticed, it hasn't lasted quite as long.

1993: Windows NT 3.1

Here's when business finally began getting into the Windows act. Windows 3.0 was a pretty toy, but its utter lack of stability didn't endear itself to IT pros anywhere. Windows NT was Microsoft's attempt to crack the IT department. It was far more solid and stable than Windows 3.0. It was a 32-bit operating system. It was more secure than Windows 3.0. Better still, it brought client/server computing to Microsoft. It included a desktop version as well as the server version, Windows NT Advanced Server.

With NT, Microsoft created a bifurcated Windows product line --- the NT line for business, and the Windows line for consumers.

By the way, there was no Windows NT 3.0; the initial release was 3.1, ushering in yet another Microsoft tradition --- thoroughly incomprehensible numbering and naming conventions for the Windows operating system.

1993: Windows 3.11

Gasp! For the first time, Windows actually lets you connect your PC to other PCs on peer-to-peer networks and domains. Who knew such a thing was possible? Well, it now was. Not necessarily easily, but it was at least possible.

1995: Windows 95

Windows 95 gave Windows its first overall makeover since Windows 3.0, and it was long overdue. Windows 3.0 was looking old and kludgy, and needed a facelift, and Windows 95 did a very good job of it.

Underneath the hood, Windows 95 was designed to solve an even bigger problem: Windows 3.0 and 3.11 were 16-bit operating systems in a 32-bit world. So Windows 95 was designed to be a 32-bit operating system for improved speed, stability, and memory-handling. Windows 95 didn't quite get there, because part of it remained 16-bits. Still, it was a big improvement over Windows 3.x.

It was designed to address another problem as well --- Windows 3.x still ran on top of DOS, which caused no end of woes. Microsoft wanted to finally rid Windows of its DOS legacy. It only partially succeeded in Windows 95, because part of DOS loaded during bootup. But it was still a step forward.

A little-hyped, but extremely important feature was that 32-bit TCP/IP support was for the first time built into a consumer version of Windows. Previously, you had to install your own TCP/IP stack for surfing the Web and a number of other Internet tasks. (Remember Trumpet Winsock, anyone?)

1996: Windows NT Workstation 4.0

This version of the business version of Windows tacked the Windows 95 interface on top of the NT kernel, which was stabler and more secure than Windows 95. Security and networking were also improved.

1998: Windows 98

This release wasn't much of a big bang. It improved some on Windows 95, and overall I found it more stable and reliable, as did many other people. USB support was better, and it supported disk partitions over 2 GB.

Windows 98 also included one of the worst-thought-out and buggiest features I've ever encountered in an operating system, Active Desktop. The idea was that your desktop would consist of live Internet content that would be constantly updated from the Internet. Great idea; terrible implementation. I was one of the few people I knew who were brave (or stupid) enough to actually try it. I think I might have managed to get it to work a few times, but I couldn't be sure, because every time I did, it slowed my PC to an absolute crawl, and then crashed.

The most controversial part of Windows 98 though, was the way in which Internet Explorer was tied to directly to the operating system. For the first time, the browser shipped with the operating system itself. Ultimately, this led to the U.S. Justice Department launching an anti-trust suit against Microsoft, which tied up the company for years, and whose effects still haunt Microsoft.

2000: Windows 2000 Professional

This continued the business-oriented NT product line. So why wasn't it called NT 5.0? Well, how many chances do you get to roll out an operating system during a millenium? The biggest deal may have been the introduction of Active Directory, replacing the domain model used by NT 4.0 Windows Server.

It was great for many businesses, and you'll still find business users who swear by it rather than swearing at it. However, it had lots of hardware problems with consumer-oriented printers, scanners, and other hardware.

2000: Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me)

As a result of this release, Microsoft may have suffered one of the worst millenium party hangovers of all time. Windows Me was buggy and unstable, and many of its features were already available in Windows 98 SE released in 1999, and also available via Windows Update. Windows Me was widely reviled, and with good reason. Some people called it "Mistake Edition." I concur.

2001: Windows XP

With XP, Microsoft finally got around to merging its NT business line with its Windows consumer line. It used the Windows NT 5.1 kernel for stability and reliability, and thoroughly redid the entire interface. Windows XP was one of the best-received versions of Windows due to overall stability, slicker interface, much-improved multimedia, better networking, wireless support, and more.

There are multiple XP versions. First came Windows XP Professional and Windows XP Home Edition, then a year later came a Media Center and Tablet PC editions.

In some ways, Microsoft has been victimized by its own success with XP: With its stability and feature set, it's tough to get people to leave it behind.

2006: Windows Vista

Vista is undoubtably the most controversial Windows version of all time. I count myself one of its few die-hard fans, and welcome its improved networking and wireless support, redone Windows Explorer, built-in gadgets, much-improved search, nifty multimedia applications such as Windows Movie Maker, and well-done Aero interface with transparent windows.

I am, to put it mildly, in the minority. It has generally been savaged by many people, and enterprises have stayed away in droves. It's certainly had more than its share of problems, such as very poor hardware support when it launched, so much so that even Microsoft executives were unhappy with it. And it does require significantly better hardware than XP.

2009: Windows 7

Windows 7 will be an incremental upgrade to Windows Vista. In many ways, it will be what Vista should have been when Vista launched. I'll have a full review of Windows 7 in the next day or two, and when it's live, I'll point to it here.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld, and the author of more than 35 books.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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