Thirty years ago, on November 20, 1985, Microsoft released version 1.0 of its new graphical shell called Windows. Much has been written about how Microsoft copied the Macintosh and Lisa, and how in turn Apple had copied from Xerox PARC — feel free to watch Pirates of Silicon Valley for a quick refresher, or read some of the excellent books written about these companies like Accidental Empires or Hackers for more accurate details than what the movie offered.
Here’s where we’d normally say something like “and the world was never the same,” except that for the first several years, the world remained exactly as it was, because Windows 1.0 sucked. For example, it didn’t even let you overlap windows — that didn’t come until Windows 2.0 (then known as Windows/286 and Windows/386). Instead, you just tiled them on the screen. And as anyone from the time remembers, Windows still required DOS to run underneath, as it was DOS that was the operating system for the IBM-PC and compatibles at the time. (This was also true of successive versions until Windows 95.)
Windows 1.0 required a minimum of 256K of memory, two double-sided floppy drives, and a graphics card, while Microsoft recommended a hard disk and 512K memory, especially for computers running DOS 3.0 or higher.
By that point, IBM PCs running Microsoft DOS were around for four years; owners were quite familiar with the C:\ prompt and setting up CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. Windows 1.0 was Microsoft’s attempt at a friendlier, mouse-based user interface, one that let you switch between several programs simultaneously, and without having to quit and restart each one. This amounted to what’s known as cooperative multitasking, where all programs running in memory would cooperate to schedule processor time. The interface contained drop-down menus, colorful icons, and scroll bars, while dialog boxes would pop up and tell you important information.
In day-to-day use, assuming you were willing to put up with it, Windows 1.0 centered around MS-DOS Executive, within which you ran a bunch of utilities designed to make your life easier, including a basic paint program and word processor (Write), a notepad, a calculator, a card file, and a calendar. It also came with Reversi; Solitaire didn’t show up until Windows 3.0. There was even a clock, because hey, it still cost $20 or $30 to put one of those on your desk or on your wrist, so why not have one for free? Nonetheless, there wasn’t much else you could do within Windows 1.0, as Microsoft Office had yet to be released and there were few other compatible programs available.
Anyway, Windows 1.0 was not successful, so Microsoft was hard at work on a new version that it released in December 1987 called Windows 2.0 (above). This one supported expanded memory on 386 processor-equipped machines, in addition to the aforementioned overlapping windows. The latter are what led Apple to sue Microsoft, alleging copyright infringement. Windows/286 was the first version I actually purchased, while I was in high school, and ran it on my 286 PC. This version was actually semi-usable, although many people still opted for DESQview or a Macintosh if they needed a graphical interface.
But it wasn’t until Windows 3.0’s release (above) in 1990 that Microsoft got serious — and 3.0 was the first version that truly took off in sales, especially with the release of Microsoft Office in November 1990 and the Windows 3.1 update in 1992. Microsoft says that Windows 3.0 sold 10 million copies in the first two years, thanks to its improved graphics, virtual memory, and restructured Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager that together made for a makeshift pseudo-OS you could work all day in without dropping back to the DOS prompt — unless you were a gamer, in which case you still saw the DOS prompt all day long and didn’t bother running Windows while doing so.
I still remember owning and reading the June 26, 1990 issue of PC Magazine, which had a huge spread on the debut of Windows 3.0, cover to cover. Between that and the upcoming MS-DOS 5.0, I was hooked on PCs.
From there, Windows 95, NT, and the rest is history. But it was this exact day 30 years ago that Microsoft’s step into graphical user interfaces began in earnest. And regardless of which company copied the other, together Windows and Macs revolutionized desktop computing, and to this day hundreds of millions of machines sit on people’s desks with what amounts to more or less the same windowed interface.
Thanks for your reading…