Visual tour: 25 years of Windows

Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 20, 1985, Microsoft introduced its first version of Windows to the world. Not many people outside the technical press or the tech industry took notice. Product launch events that cost hundreds of millions of dollars were still years away.

What’s changed in Windows in the last 25 years? Plenty. In this image gallery, we take a look at the various faces of Windows over the past couple of decades and clue you in to what happened at every stage of the operating system’s development.

1985: Windows 1.0

Windows 1.0

Windows started in 1981 as a project called Interface Manager and experienced a series of delays getting out of the gate. When it was finally released in late 1985 as Windows 1.0, it made a ripple, not a splash. It had to be run on top of DOS, few applications were written for it, and application windows couldn’t be overlapped (they had to be tiled).

Still, the OS allowed for multitasking of Windows apps (not DOS ones) and, even though few knew it at the time, it would eventually become the foundation for the Microsoft empire.

Windows 1.0 shipped with a handful of apps, including the Notepad text editor, a rudimentary calendar and the long-lived graphics painting program Paint. The operating system required MS-DOS Version 2.0, 256KB of memory and a graphics adapter. It could be run either from a hard disk or on two floppy disks running simultaneously — in other words, you couldn’t swap the disks in and out of a single drive.


some Screenshots courtesy of Microsoft orĀ  GUIdebook!.

1987: Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0

Screenshot courtesy of Microsoft.

Windows 2.0 was released in the late fall of 1987, two years after the debut of Windows 1.0. New features in Version 2.0 included the ability to overlap application windows and improved memory use. Also new: Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE), which allowed Windows applications to automatically share and update data. For example, DDE allowed information in an Excel spreadsheet to be automatically updated when data in another Excel spreadsheet was changed.

Windows 2.0 also included expanded system requirements: It needed 512KB or more of memory and required DOS 3.0. A later version, Windows 2.11, would require the use of a hard disk for Windows for the first time.

With Version 2.0, more applications written for Windows began to appear, including Microsoft Excel and Word. Aldus’ PageMaker, originally written for the Mac, was also ported to Windows.

Windows 2.0 was notable for another reason as well — on March 17, 1988, Apple Computer sued Microsoft, claiming that the look and feel of the Macintosh operating system was covered by copyright, and that Windows 2.0 violated that copyright. (Several years later, the case was resolved in Microsoft’s favor.)

1990: Windows 3.0

Windows 3.0

Windows 3.0, released in 1990 — and its successor, Windows 3.1, released in 1992 — offered the first evidence that Windows might become the world’s dominant desktop operating system. The interface was revamped, and although it looks awkward and kludgy today, at the time it was widely considered clean and sleek.

Icons were redesigned to use the VGA graphics standard with 16 colors. Memory handling was improved, and enhanced mode was added, which sped up memory access and allowed DOS programs to run in individual virtual machines. Windows 3.0 also allowed Windows applications to use more memory than was available in RAM by swapping RAM temporarily to the hard disk.

Thanks to enhanced mode, DOS programs could be multitasked and run in their own resizable windows for the first time (previously, they had to run full-screen). Windows 3.0 required 640KB of what was called conventional memory and 256KB of extended memory. Version 3.00a of Windows was built to support multimedia, and it supported CD-ROMs for the first time.

Windows 3.0 also included what may be one of the greatest productivity-sappers in the history of computers — the game of Solitaire.

Windows 3.1 introduced TrueType fonts, for better on-screen reading and higher-quality print output, as well as Object Linking and Embedding, which improved upon DDE for exchanging data between applications. Version 3.11 added support for networking using the dominant networking standard of the time, NetWare.

1993: Windows NT 3.1

Windows NT 3.1

Windows NT 3.1, released in July 1993, was built for businesses rather than consumers and was designed to be more secure and stable. It used a 32-bit rather than a 16-bit architecture. Version 3.1 was the first release of the NT operating system; earlier version numbers were skipped so that the numbering for this business OS would match that of the consumer OS, Windows 3.1. NT required an 80386 CPU, 12MB of RAM (16MB was recommended) and 90MB of free hard disk space.

The enterprise-oriented operating system went through three more releases — Windows NT 3.5 in 1994, Windows NT 3.51 in 1995 and Windows NT 4.0 in 1996 — before moving to Microsoft’s year-based version numbering convention with Windows 2000.

1995: Windows 95

Windows 95

Windows 95, released in August 1995, combined DOS with Windows for the first time: Rather than installing Windows on top of DOS, you installed only Windows 95, which included both DOS and Windows. It was also the first consumer version of Windows that began moving away from a 16-bit architecture and toward a 32-bit one; in other words, it was a mix of 32-bit code and 16-bit code.

The operating system introduced many interface improvements, including several that live to this day, such as the taskbar and the Start menu. Support for file names longer than eight characters was added as well. It was far more stable than previous versions of Windows and was the first to support Intel’s Plug and Play standard, which was designed to make it easier to add hardware and peripherals to your PC; the idea was that Windows would automatically recognize and configure attached hardware. It was a step forward, but it didn’t always work — some people referred to it as “plug and pray.”

At a minimum, Windows 95 required an 80386 DX CPU, 4MB of system RAM and 120MB of hard drive space — although it was sluggish on a computer that just met those requirements. An 80486-based PC and 8MB of RAM made for a much better experience.

Windows 95 was notable for another reason as well — the massive marketing campaign that accompanied its launch was said to have cost $300 million and included purchasing the rights to the Rolling Stones song “Start Me Up” as the Windows 95 theme song; draping a 300-foot Windows 95 banner over Toronto’s CN Tower; lighting the Empire State Building with Microsoft’s corporate colors of yellow, red and green; and creating a promotional instructional video that featured Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry from the hit TV show Friends.

1998: Windows 98

Windows 98

Windows 98, released in June 1998, was as not as big a step forward over Windows 95 as Windows 95 had been over Windows 3.1. Rather, it made incremental changes to Windows, although there were a few significant additions.

The most notable had to do with Internet support. For the first time, the Winsock specification — which provides TCP/IP support for Windows — was built directly into the operating system, rather than having to be installed as an add-on. Also for the first time, Internet Explorer was included as part of the operating system, which eventually led to the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecution of Microsoft for antitrust violations.

Windows 98 offered considerably better USB support than Windows 95 did. A feature called Active Desktop was supposed to deliver live Internet content to the desktop, but it proved to be buggy and was dropped from subsequent versions of Windows.

Windows 98 required at least a 66-MHz 486DX2 processor, 16MB of RAM (24MB was recommended) and 500MB of hard disk space.

2000: Windows 2000

Windows 2000

Windows 2000, the successor to Windows NT 4.0, released in February 2000, was intended for business rather than home use, and it was available in several editions, including multiple server versions. It brought many features of Windows 98 into the NT line, including Internet Explorer and Plug and Play. Windows File Protection, which protected important system files, was introduced along with the Encrypting File System, which improved security by encrypting files automatically, and Active Directory, the enterprise technology used to provide network and domain services.

System requirements for Windows 2000 varied depending on whether the server or desktop version, called Windows 2000 Professional, was being installed. Windows 2000 Professional required at least a 133-MHz Pentium microprocessor (or the equivalent), 32MB of RAM (64MB was recommended) and a 2GB hard disk with 650MB of free space.

2000: Windows Me

Windows Me

Windows Me (also called Windows Millennium Edition) was released in September 2000 and quickly became one of Microsoft’s most criticized operating systems because of installation problems, bugs and hardware and software incompatibilities. It introduced Windows Movie Maker. Critics maintain that it was introduced only for marketing purposes, to give Microsoft something to sell for the 2000 holiday season.

Windows Me was the last version of Windows that included the DOS architecture. It lasted little more than a year, until Windows XP was introduced. Windows Me required a 150-MHz Pentium processor or the equivalent (a 300-MHz model was recommended), 32MB of RAM (64MB was recommended) and 320MB of free hard drive space (2GB was recommended).

2001: Windows XP

Windows XP

Windows XP, released in August 2001, was a breakthrough in several respects. It was the first version of Windows that did not use DOS as part of its underlying architecture, and the first to be offered in both 64-bit and 32-bit editions. XP combined the desktop version of the secure and stable enterprise-oriented Windows NT/2000 line with the consumer-focused Windows line. (The Windows Server OS line has continued separately from the desktop line.)

It was far more stable than previous versions of Windows and featured a significantly revamped interface that was brighter, more colorful and more contemporary-looking. Drop shadows were added to icon labels, windows were given a more rounded look and visual effects such as fading and sliding menus were added. Windows XP introduced a slew of new features, including background themes and remote desktop, which allows a PC to be controlled remotely via the Internet or a network.

Windows XP shipped in multiple versions, most notably Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. Even though it was introduced nine years ago, XP remains the most-used version of Windows, and it’s still available as a downgrade option on new PCs that run the Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate editions. Windows XP requires a Pentium 233-MHz processor or the equivalent (a 300-MHz model is recommended), at least 64MB of RAM (128MB is recommended) and at least 1.5GB of available space on the hard disk.

2006: Windows Vista

Windows Vista

Windows Vista, released at end of 2006, may well be the most criticized and disliked version of Windows of all time. Released more than five years after Windows XP, Vista faced widespread hardware incompatibilities upon launch and wouldn’t run on older hardware.

Vista’s interface was significantly different from XP’s interface. Most notably, it had a new feature called Windows Aero, a set of visual enhancements that included transparent windows and animations. There were also a variety of other new features, including the Windows Sidebar, Desktop Gadgets, the Windows Photo Gallery and improved search. Some people disliked Vista’s resource-hungry user interface, and those who did like it couldn’t always get it: Many PCs that were sold as “Vista-capable” couldn’t run the full version of Vista, leading to a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft.

Windows Vista was available in six different versions. Most PCs were sold with Windows Vista Home Premium. It required a 1-GHz processor (either 32- or 64-bit), 1GB of system memory, 15GB of free hard disk space and a graphics card that was able to support Windows Aero.

2009: Windows 7

Windows 7

Windows 7, released in October 2009, is Microsoft’s current desktop operating system. Many people feel it’s the OS that Windows Vista should have been. It retains the Aero interface and other enhancements from Vista, but rather than adding a slew of new features in Windows 7, Microsoft focused more on fixing the shortcomings of Vista. Windows 7 is generally considered more stable than Vista, and most users upgrading from Vista to Windows 7 did not experience the kinds of hardware problems that they encountered when they upgraded from XP to Vista.

Windows 7 did introduce a few new features — notably an enhanced taskbar, a slightly redesigned Start menu and a trio of nifty navigation shortcuts known as Aero Peek, Aero Snap and Aero Shake. Some features of Windows Vista were taken away, including the Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Mail.

Windows 7 comes in multiple versions, including Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate. It requires a 1-GHz processor (either 32- or 64-bit), 1GB of system memory, 16GB of free hard disk space (20GB for the 64-bit version) and a graphics card that’s able to support Windows Aero.

What’s next?

No one, including Microsoft, knows the shape that Windows will take in the next 25 years, because there’s simply no way to peer that deeply into the technology future. It’s a good bet, though, that the Windows of 25 years from now will be radically different from today’s version.

In fact, it’s reasonable to expect that there will be greater changes to Windows in the next 25 years than in its first 25 years. That’s the case because, despite all the changes in technology, for the past several decades the personal computer, whether desktop or laptop, has been people’s main computing device. It’s not clear that that will be true in the next 25 years, given the prevalence of smartphones and the increasing popularity of tablets.

Several questions spring to mind: How will Windows accommodate the increasing role of cloud-based software and services in computing? Will operating systems even matter in the future? Will Windows move to a modular model, with pick-and-choose components?

For now, Microsoft isn’t saying. In the meantime, we’ll have our first peek at the future of Windows when the first Windows 8 beta is released sometime next year.

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