The evolution of Windows: 1985 to 2015

The history of operating systems with graphical user interfaces is filled with anecdotes of Silicon Valley copying one another’s ideas and getting incensed when their stuff gets ripped off.

Or, as Steve Jobs said in an interview in Triumph of the Nerds: “Picasso had a saying… good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Microsoft’s Windows operating system is often at the heart of such controversy, with history reflecting how Windows came about as a direct result of the company’s work with Apple on the Macintosh.

Apple’s nose isn’t clean either, as both it and Microsoft cribbed off the work done by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre.

However, hearing Larry Tesler tell the story, the Xerox PARC meetings were not quite the “pirate raid” they have been depicted to be in movies and TV shows.

Regardless of what the truth is behind the “Prometheus myth of modern computing”, Windows is now a fact of life.

From Windows 1.0 in 1985, to the launch of Windows 10 today, this is how the world’s most widely-used desktop OS has evolved.

Windows 1.0

Windows 1.0
Windows 1.0

While Microsoft originally promised that Windows would allow for overlapping windows, this feature didn’t make it to release.

Instead, all windows were tiled and only dialog boxes could appear over other windows.

The first few iterations of Windows were also not fully-fledged operating systems, but rather shells that ran atop MS-DOS.

Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0
Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0 added overlapping window functionality, and support for the Expanded Memory Specification.

The first versions of Microsoft Word and Excel ran on Windows 2.0.

It also ran as a shell on top of MS-DOS.

Windows 2.1x

Windows 2.1x
Windows 2.1x

Built to take advantage of the Intel 80286 and 80286 processors, Windows/286 and Windows/386 were released just 6 months after the launch of its predecessor.

Like its predecessors, Windows 2.1 required MS-DOS to run.

Windows 3.0

Windows 3.0
Windows 3.0

Launched on 22 May 1990, Windows 3.0 could run in three different memory modes:

  • Real mode, for computers with processors older than Intel 80286. Required 384KB of free base memory.
  • Standard mode, for 80286 PCs, which ran in protected mode and required 1MB memory.
  • 386 Enhanced mode, for newer PCs with an Intel 80386 CPU. Required 2MB memory (1MB free).

In October 1991 Microsoft launched multimedia extensions for Windows 3.0, which required an 80386 CPU, 2MB RAM, VGA, 30MB hard drive, CD-ROM, 2-button mouse, and audio hardware.

Windows 3.1

Windows 3.1
Windows 3.1

Released to manufacturing on 6 April 1992, Windows 3.1 dropped real mode support and some other older features.

Truetype font support, drag-and-drop, and the Windows Registry were first added in Windows 3.1.

Like its predecessors, it was a graphical environment for MS-DOS and not a fully-fledged operating system.

Windows NT 3.1

Windows NT 3.1
Windows NT 3.1

Windows NT 3.1 was the first version of Windows that didn’t run on a DOS-based operating system.

Instead it had its own 32-bit OS that combined elements of monolithic and microkernel architecture.

This laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the modern Windows.

Windows NT 3.51

Windows NT 3.5
Windows NT 3.5

Microsoft released Windows NT 3.51 just three months before the launch of Windows 95.

The third release of the Windows NT line, it offered client/server interoperability for Windows 95.

Windows NT 3.51 also added support for the Apple-IBM-Motorola alliance PowerPC processors.

Windows 95

Windows 95
Windows 95

Representing a major departure from previous versions of Windows, Microsoft launched the fourth major version of its graphical environment as Windows 95.

Windows 95 still came with MS-DOS, sparking some debate about whether it was really an operating system.

However, when the graphical user interface of Windows 95 was started, MS-DOS was effectively demoted to a compatibility layer for 16-bit device drivers.

Windows 95 was also not reliant on MS-DOS for filesystem access.

Windows NT 4.0

Windows NT 4.0
Windows NT 4.0

Microsoft’s next version of its NT line of operating systems incorporated the new visual elements of Windows 95.

It also continued to support non-Intel processors, including PowerPC.

While it offered greater stability than Windows 95, it had limited support for DirectX, meaning some 3D games would not run on Windows NT 4.0.

It also remained somewhat less user-friendly than Windows 95, launching without Plug-and-play support or a Device Manager.

Windows 98

Windows 98
Windows 98

The second major release in the Windows 9x line of operating systems, Windows 98 offered web integration into the desktop.

Like Windows 95, it was not dependent on MS-DOS, but still shipped with a version of Microsoft’s ageing operating system for compatibility reasons.

Windows 98 introduced the Windows Driver Model, but this only became more widely adopted under Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

Microsoft released an updated version, called Windows 98 Second Edition, on 23 April 1999.

Windows ME

Windows ME
Windows ME

The third and final release in the Windows 9x line, Windows ME may be one of the least fondly remembered versions of Microsoft’s graphical shell.

It removed support for real mode DOS, and was the last Windows to offer a 16-bit compatibility through MS-DOS.

Windows ME was soon succeeded by Windows 2000 and Windows XP, which launched within 13 months of its general availability.

Windows 2000

Windows 2000
Windows 2000

The last version of Windows to explicitly call itself an “NT” version of the operating system, Windows 2000 came in four editions: Professional, Server, Advanced Server, and Datacenter Server.

With Windows 2000, Microsoft dropped all support for RISC processors such as MIPS and PowerPC, and it would not support non-Intel (x86) architectures again until AMD’s 64-bit version of the x86 architecture became popular.

Along with Windows ME, Windows 2000 was the last version of Windows that lacked product activation.

Windows XP and Windows Server 2003

Windows XP
Windows XP

In 2001, Microsoft merged the Windows 9x and Windows NT branches, and stopped supporting 16-bit backwards compatibility through MS-DOS.

Windows XP also dropped support for Microsoft’s VxD driver model, forcing hardware makers to use the Windows Driver Model.

Consensus in the industry was that this decreased occurrences of the infamous “Blue Screen of Death” due to misbehaving drivers.

Although Windows XP is fondly remembered, Ars Technica notes that it wasn’t universally welcomed among techies when it launched.

Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008

Windows Vista
Windows Vista

Many technology professionals do not speak fondly of Windows Vista.

Microsoft revamped the graphical interface, dubbing its new theme capable of window transparency “Windows Aero”.

Vista introduced User Account Control, and programs that required security privileges caused a prompt to be displayed – letting an administrator account cancel or allow access.

It also introduced a new set of tools and libraries for driver developers: Windows Driver Frameworks.

Vista was set to launch with a new filesystem called WinFS, but the feature was dropped and little has been said about it since 2013 when Bill Gates said it was “before its time”.

Windows 7

Windows 7
Windows 7

Windows 7 was an incremental improvement on Vista, and featured a reworked taskbar and less invasive User Account Control (UAC).

As Ars Technica noted, UAC in Windows 7 was less secure at launch than in Vista, but its invasiveness caused some users to turn it off.

Windows 7 may have traded off security for usability, but the general response from users was positive.

Windows 8, 8.1, and Windows Server 2012

Windows 8
Windows 8

Windows 8 represented another shift in user interface design for Microsoft, with the company deciding to drop the Start Menu.

It also marked the return of support for RISC-based processors, specifically those using ARMv7 architecture.

Instead of a Start menu, Microsoft introduced the Start Screen – a grid of Live Tiles that showed content from the app they linked to.

Windows 8 also introduced Microsoft’s “Metro” design language, which was renamed to “Modern UI Style”.

Its simplified licensing model and various improvements to performance and security were generally welcomed, while its user interface changes were criticised.

Microsoft later offered Windows 8 users free upgrades to Windows 8.1. Much like a Service Pack, the upgrade extends the support window from 12 January 2016 to 2018 for mainstream support and 2023 for extended support.

Windows 8.1 brought back the Start button, but not the Start Menu, and also reverted back to the old licensing model with separate OEM and personal versions available at retail.

Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016

Windows 10
Windows 10

Called “The last version of Windows” by Microsoft, Windows 10 launched on 29 July 2015.

It is available as a free upgrade to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users.

Once a device is upgraded, Microsoft will provide free updates for Windows 10 for the lifetime of that device.

Windows 10 brings back a reworked Start Menu that also shows Live Tiles, and improves the way Modern UI Style apps are handled on desktop PCs.

It also introduces a number of new features, such as virtual desktops, a built-in screen recorder, a new framework for biometric authentication called Windows Hello, and the Cortana voice-assisted intelligent search.

This article was republished with permission from MyBroadband.

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The evolution of Windows: 1985 to 2015