It's (still) Windows 95's world. We just live in it.

From the Start menu and Taskbar to device autodetection and free, bundled Web browsers, here’s a brief history of how Windows 95 became the operating system that time never forgot

Bill Gates and Jay Leno
REUTERS/Jeff Vinnick

In October of 2012, Microsoft released Windows 8, which promised to transform Redmond's storied operating system into one that would run across platforms, from desktop PCs to tablets to phones. It was a huge bet on the company's part, and it largely foundered in a user revolt against user interface changes.

Perhaps nothing symbolized the big, unpopular shifts more than Microsoft's decision to get rid of the beloved Start button. Most alpha and beta testers had assumed that the missing button would return in the final release; when it didn't, people immediately started coming up with replacements. Ordinary users hated its absence. Power users were still calling for its return two years later. When Windows 10 was released in 2015, the beloved menu was back.

Call it Windows 95's revenge.

[ In pictures: Windows through the ages ]

A pretty face

For all the fanfare that greeted its release, Windows 95 is somewhat notorious for not being a huge technical leap forward. Microsoft had originally planned the mid-'90s release of a definitively next-generation OS, code-named "Cairo," which they had been working on since 1991. But when it became clear that Cairo's technical underpinnings weren't going to be ready in time for Windows' needed refresh, much of the work that had already been done developing its user interace was brought over to the Windows 95 project.

Windows 95 did include the Win32 version of the Windows API, which was an important step towards unifying the consumer OS with Windows NT. It also included pre-emptive multi-tasking, which was a huge jump forward for a consumer OS but by no means revolutionary -- Unix had since its inception years before, as had Windows NT. And under the shiny new covers, the operating system was still layered over MS-DOS, just as its predecessor Windows 3.1 had been.

But those covers were not unimportant. And even though many techies tend to dismiss UI innovation as eye candy, the fact is that the changes made in Windows 95 were incredibly successful in making the the system more accessible to users -- so successful, in fact, that a surprising number of them have endured and even spread to other operating systems.

We still live in the world Windows 95 made. When I asked people on Twitter their thoughts about what aspects of Windows 95 have persisted, I think Aaron Webb said it best: "All of it? Put a 15 year old in front of 3.1 and they would be lost. In front of Windows 95 they would be able to do any task quickly."

Chimp-ready computing

Let's start with that Start button. Credit for it goes to Danny Oran, a behavioral psychologist who had studied with with the famous B.F. Skinner. Among the projects he worked on with Skinner was a doomed attempt to teach chimpanzees to talk, for which he ended up building a sort of keyboard-like wooden frame. In the process, he learned that it was easiest to grasp UI elements sequentially, with an obvious starting point, and after watching test subjects (including a literal rocket scientist) struggle to figure out how to access Windows' features, he came up with the idea of a single button that led them to everything. Originally labelled "System," it eventually got the more user-friendly "Start."

Windows 95 Start menu Microsoft

Windows 95 Start menu

Oran also came up with the idea that developed into the Taskbar along the bottom of the screen, though he originally envisioned it as a series of tabs along the top. This solved another fundamental problem of Windows 3.1: it was difficult to tell what programs were running at any given time, and users often would launch multiple instances of the same app.

A third important advance in the Windows 95 UI was a little less transformative, but important nonetheless. Windows 3.1 had featured a drop-down menu at the top left of each application window that provided a number of options as to what you could do with that windows; Windows 95 instead put three buttons at the top right, one for each of the most common actions: minimize, maximize, close. As with the Start button and the Taskbar, the goal was to make your options obvious, without you having to hunt for them. These three UI elements, all of which are still present in more or less identical form, may be Windows 95's greatest legacy to history.

The sincerest form of flattery

At this point, as I extol Windows 95's landmark UI, I know that a certain segment of you are growing increasingly irate. I mean, of course, the Mac faithful, who 20 years ago joked that Windows 95 was Macintosh 87. Apple may not have invented the desktop computing metaphor, but they certainly refined and popularized it, and in this regard Windows 95 was definitely closer to what Mac users had enjoyed for years than it was to Windows 3.1's clumsy implementation.

[ See also: The top 10 features Apple stole from Windows ]

1 2 3 Page 1
Page 1 of 3
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon