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History of the Microsoft Windows Desktop

I thought it would be fun to put together a historical collection of Microsoft’s operating system desktops; to give a perspective of just how far the PC desktop environment has evolved since Microsoft entered into the market and essentially took over the world’s share of the PC market. I am starting back when  Windows was in its infancy, to the early days of Microsoft DOS, and moving forward in time to the future to Microsoft’s Windows 8. Most of Microsoft’s operating systems have been a big success, and have changed the way the world uses and interfaces with desktop computers, and a few of Microsoft’s operating systems have been disappointing. But no one can deny that since 1980, that Microsoft has dominated the PC desktop environment, even with worthy competitors like Apple and Linux. Microsoft has managed to come out on top in providing the business world with powerful and reliable operating systems, and providing home computer users with operating systems that not only meet tough demands, but have also kept up with consumer trends in multimedia and personalization.

So let us begin our journey back to the 1980’s, back when Microsoft was an unknown company startup ran by a geeky little guy named Bill Gates and a partner named Paul Allen. Both brilliant and intelligent, both dreamers, both bold enough to strike a deal with a huge company like IBM and to make their footprint on the world of business and personal computers.

1980 – MS-DOS 1.0

In 1980, Microsoft introduced to IBM a new disk operating system called MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System) an operating system that would  manage and run the hardware on an IBM PC, and provide an operating interface for programs such as word processors and databases.  MS-DOS was effective, but also proved difficult to understand for many people. Still, IBM was very impressed, and signed on with Microsoft to make MS-DOS the interface on their PC computers.

MS-DOS did not natively provide mouse support or provide  a user-friendly graphical interface. It provided the essential basics in hardware support. But it allowed users a way to access programs and sub-systems in an on-screen environment by way of entering commands at a DOS prompt, and an environment where users could access and use programs like a word processor or a database, and to send data with relative ease to a printer.


Microsoft DOS 1.0


1985 – Microsoft Windows 1.0

Microsoft began working on a new interface to make MS-DOS easier to use and navigate. In November of 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0, which provided a graphical interface in which users could navigate and access programs by way of a mouse and drop down windows. Windows 1.0 also permitted multiple applications to be open at the same time and accessed simultaneously.  Windows 1.0 included a package of programs such as MS DOS file management, Paint, Windows Writer, Notepad, Calculator, and a calendar, card file, and a clock. Microsoft also included a game called Reversi with Windows 1.0

System requirements for Windows 1.01 constituted CGA/HGC/EGA (listed as “Monochrome or color monitor”), MS-DOS 2.0, 256 kB of memory or greater, and two double-sided disk drives or a hard drive.


Microsoft Windows 1.0


1987 – Microsoft Windows 2.0

Microsoft released Windows 2.0 in November 1987. Windows 2.0 provided desktop icons, expanded memory, improved graphic support, and allowed for over-lapping windows. Windows 2.0 also  introduced keyboard shortcuts and the Control Panel.

Windows 2.0 was designed for the Intel 286 processor. When IBM computers started shipping with the Intel 386 processor, Microsoft released an updated version of Windows 2.0 that supported the 386 architecture and took advantage of its extended memory capabilities, and provided improved usability and performance.


Microsoft Windows 2.0


1990 – Windows 3.0

Windows 3.0 was released in May 1990, and offered significant improvement to performance and graphic support, and introduced the Program Manger, File Manger, and Print Manager. Popularity for Windows 3.0 grew strong and it became a popular operating system /user interface in the United States.

System Requirements: Windows 3.0 required an 80286 or higher processor, 1 MB of memory, 6 MB of hard drive space, a 5 1/4 or 3 1/3 floppy drive, CGA, EGA, VGA or compatible graphic card, and MS-DOS 3.1 or PC DOS 3.1.

1992 – Windows 3.1 / Windows 3.11

Microsoft released Windows 3.1 which became very popular among home computer users.  3.11 provided some enhancements over Windows 3.0, and offered a few bells and whistles like Solitaire, Hearts, and Mine Sweeper. Windows 3.11 was also released, which added peer-to-peer network and domain network support.


Microsoft Windows 3.1


1993 – Windows NT 3.51

Microsoft released Windows NT (New Technology) 3.51 as a workstation for businesses with high demands on system stability. Windows NT 3.51 allowed 32 bit applications to run in a protected mode and provided up to 2 GB of virtual memory to be allocated to each application, and provided a bank of protected memory for the operating system to run in. Windows NT 3.51 supported up to two CPU’s and a maximum of 64 MB of physical memory, and supported the NTFS, HPFS, and FAT16 file systems. Windows NT 3.51 also had enhanced networking features making it possible to easily configure it for peer-to-peer or domain networks.

System Requirements: Windows NT 3.51 required a minimum of at least an Intel 386 microprocessor with 25 MHz, 12 MB of RAM and a hard drive with 75 MB of free disk space.


Microsoft Windows NT 3.51


1995 – Windows 95

Windows 95 was the next evolution of the Windows operating system. Windows 95 was a full 32 bit operating system, albeit, it still ran on top of DOS. It offered built-in internet support, enhanced multimedia capabilities, and enhanced support for mobile computing.  32 bit applications were fully supported in Windows 95, as were 16 bit applications. DOS-based applications are run virtually.Windows 95 introduced Plug-n-Play technology, but it didn’t work quite as well as Microsoft wanted due to hardware driver signing requirements with hardware vendors. one of the most important features of Windows 95 was the system registry, which was responsible system hardware and software configurations, file association, and user environments.


Microsoft Windows 95


1996 – Windows NT 4.0

Windows NT 4.0 was the last major release of Microsoft Windows to support the Alpha, MIPS or PowerPC CPU architectures. It remained in use by businesses as the number 1 operating system for a number of years, despite Microsoft’s many efforts to get customers to upgrade to Windows 2000 and newer versions. It was also the last release in the Windows NT line to be branded as Windows NT.

Windows NT 4.0 brought the user interface in line with Windows 95 and introduced the “My” element of the document folder that is still part of the Windows family today.


Microsoft Windows NT 4.0


1998 – Windows 98

Windows 98 was designed specifically with consumers in mind, and was very popular among home users, and even among small businesses. Improvements to Windows 98 made it easier to find data, and navigate the system. Improvements also made programs faster to open and close, and the boot time was notably faster than with Windows 95. There were some other features in Windows 98 that really made it stand out from Windows 95, such as support for reading DVD’s and USB devices, the introduction of the  Quick Launch bar which allowed users to open programs without having to go through the Start menu, and enhanced Plug-n-Play support. Windows 98 was also the last version of Windows to be based on MS-DOS


Microsoft Windows 98


 2000 – Windows ME (Millennium Edition)

Do you remember in my introduction when I said a few of Microsoft’s operating systems we disappointing? Windows ME was the crown jewel of disappointing for Microsoft. Windows ME was supposed to be the successor of Windows 98, but it never came close to taking over the market, even though it was shipped on all new Windows-based PC compatible computers when it was released. Most of the disappointment for Windows ME stemmed from the restricted real-mode DOS that Microsoft implemented in order to boost up the boot time, which prevented DOS-based utilities from running in Windows ME.  The work around was equally unpopular, in which you had to boot the computer into real-mode DOS by using a bootable Windows ME floppy disk.

Windows ME did introduce Windows Movie Maker, and a few other enhancements to the Windows 9x architecture. It also included Internet Explorer 5.5 and Windows Media player. Sadly, with all of Windows ME’s shortcomings, its shelf life was just over a year. Windows ME was the last of the Windows 9x architecture.


Microsoft Windows ME


2000 – Windows 2000

Windows 2000 was released to the public in February 2000, seven months before Windows ME was released, and was a family of Windows 2000 operating systems for desktops, laptops, and servers. The desktop environment was designed for both home and business users. Windows 2000 offered a greatly enhanced Windows Management console and administration tools, and supported the Windows NTFS file system which provided file recovery and security and better disk management than the FAT file system. As Windows operating systems go, the Windows 2000 family enjoyed great popularity and a long life, until Microsoft finally retired it in 2010.


Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional

 2001 – Windows XP

Windows XP was the most celebrated and popular version of the Windows operating system, although it took three full service packs to make it so. Windows XP had a rough start with hardware support, and it was discovered to have a lot of security issues. Non the less, once it was patched, Windows XP  is now a stable and excellent operating system that can be found in the majority of  homes and businesses around the world.

XP originally came in two flavors, XP Home for the home user market, and XP Professional for the business market. XP Professional offers additional features such as support for domains and up to two physical CPU’s.  Later on, Microsoft released the Windows XP Media Center Edition which has additional features to record and watch TV, DVD’s, and play and manage music. Also from the XP line, is the Windows XP Tablet PC edition, which touch-screen and stylus support.

Windows XP was also released to support the 64 bit architecture.


Microsoft Windows XP


2007 – Windows Vista

Windows Vista is another Microsoft operating system that failed to live up to consumer expectations. Microsoft developed Windows Vista on the premise that consumers would buy Vista with new computers, or with new and supported hardware. Vista’s backward compatibility support for older hardware was a big disappointment  and a major source of consumer frustration for the new operating system.

Microsoft released several versions of Windows Vista for use on personal and business computers. Scaled down versions like Home Basic a minimal compliment of features and provided minimal network support, while the considerably more expensive versions like Windows Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate provided features that would have made Vista a desirable operating system.


Microsoft Windows Vista


2009 – Windows 7

Windows 7 is the current Windows operating system on the market. Windows 7 was designed on the Vista architecture, but without the flaws that made Windows Vista a failure. Microsoft seems to have focused their development of Windows 7 around  providing exceptional performance and stability and compatibility with applications and hardware, and backwards  compatibility for applications that were written for Windows XP.

All versions of Windows 7 offer support for Bluetooth technology, the ability to create or join a HomeGroup (except for Windows 7 Starter edition, which only provides the ability to join a HomeGroup), which allows users to easily and securely connect multiple Windows 7 computers and share resources. All versions, except Starter edition provide Windows Media Center, Internet TV capability, remote streaming,and 64-bit support. Windows 7 also offers the built-in capability to create system images and restore DVD’s, a feature that no previous version of Windows offers.


Microsoft Windows 7


2012 – Windows 8

And now we step into the future to Windows 8, which isn’t scheduled to be released to the public until late in 2012. Windows 8 will offer a completely new user interface, or rather, two interfaces. The first interface (first below) is called the Metro style interface, which is designed to be a Touch-First User Interface. This Metro interface may work well on a tablet PC or on a system with a touch screen, but I am skeptical about its functionality on a desktop system.  At this time, it is not known if the Metro interface can be turned off in a desktop environment.


Windows 8 Metro Interface

Windows 8 is built on the same architecture as Windows 7 and provides the same support for 32-bit and 64-bit systems. Windows 8 will offer the ability to sync data between devices through a cloud service, and will work seamlessly with Microsoft’s SkyDrive service. As for performance, Windows 8 uses a reduced memory footprint, freeing up more memory for other things, and according to Microsoft, will boot faster than any previous Windows operating system.


Microsoft Windows 8


Well, thank you for joining me on this journey through the history of the Windows desktop. This article may be updated from time to time as I see relevant, or as new information becomes available. In the meantime, I hope this article was relevant to you.

I used a number of sources for this article in order to insure accuracy. Among the sources I used were Microsoft.com, wikipedia.org,  and operating-system.org, along with my own insight and long history and experience with the Windows operating systems.



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