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A brief history of Microsoft Windows

Elizabeth Barry 20 March 2015 NEWS

Does the success of Windows 10 lie in its past? Let's revisit Microsoft's victories... and failures.

Windows 10 appears set to repeat a common pattern in the history of the operating system: alternating between being widely loved and universally loathed. Windows 8 never recovered from its forced imposition of the Modern interface, which Windows 10 is aiming to reverse by reintroducing the Start button. But this isn't the first time Microsoft has had to bounce back from an embarrassing release — let’s take a look back at the torrid history of Windows and its many, many comebacks.

Windows 1.0

bill gates

On November 20 1985, Microsoft debuted Windows 1.0 at the Comdex Trade Show in Las Vegas -- almost two years later than originally planned. The much-hyped release was meant to rival Apple's Macintosh, released a year earlier, by giving users a window-based interface where they moved their mouse to click through screens rather than typing MS-DOS commands. With relatively lukewarm app support, Windows 1.0 was not a commercial success.

Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0

Launched in 1987, this was Microsoft's attempt at improving version 1.0. It was a more popular release, with the most noticeable improvement being that the windows on the user interface now overlapped. Despite this release not being a commercial success, the ongoing boom in PC sales and success with other apps meant Microsoft became the largest PC software company based on sales in 1988.

Windows 3.0

Windows 3.0

This version is where Windows hit its stride. The release of Windows 3.0 in 1990 saw Microsoft achieve its first success with the platform, selling two million copies within six months. This version saw a big improvement the user experience, with the Executive File Manager being replaced by an icon-based Program Manager, as well as a huge expansion on the games that are available. Solitaire, Hearts and Minesweeper for the win! A contemporary advertisement proclaimed: "Now you can use the incredible power of Microsoft 3.0 to goof off."

Windows 95

The mid-1990s is where the showmanship began for Microsoft. The ad campaign for Windows 95 featured 'Start Me Up' by the Rolling Stones. The US launch featured celebrity host Jay Leno (for Australians Dame Edna Everage did the honours) Windows 95 was a huge move away from previous versions of their software and was the first version to feature the Start button. This guy was more than just a little excited for the release...

Windows 95

Windows 98

Following on from the massive success of Windows 95, Microsoft released the next version three years later. Internet Explorer 4 and 5 were a part of this release. It offered more support for USB devices as well as upgrades to the Windows Media Player and was described by Microsoft as being the first real software for consumers.

Windows ME

Windows ME

Named by PC World as being the worst operating system ever released by Microsoft and slammed by other critics for being difficult to install, setup and use, Windows ME was released to coincide with the new millennium (hence the idiotic name). It was the last operating system to be based on the Windows 95 kernel and had a focus on multimedia and networking enhancements. Despite the criticism, it featured innovative features such as System Restore, which let you roll back your system image to an earlier version (handy when a game install sent everything haywire).

Windows XP


October 2001 saw the release of Windows XP, which would prove to be the most popular Windows release over the next decade. Windows XP was favourably received by critics and consumers alike -- to the point that it was 2014 before Microsoft was able to discontinue support for it. This was the release which introduced the iconic 'Bliss' wallpaper.

Windows Vista

Windows Vista

And after a rise comes another fall. Despite some minor improvements, the bug-ridden release of Vista saw a large percentage of the potential audience choose to stick with Windows XP instead. Vista was released in 2007 and claimed new features such as the Windows Aero interface, searchable photo galleries, parental controls and speech recognition. But what everyone remembers is that it just didn't work.

Windows 7

Described by The Guardian as "Like Vista, but good..." Windows 7 emerged three years after the release of Vista in 2009. Microsoft was hyper-cautious with this release, testing the beta version on eight million users before releasing it to the general public. The focus was squarely improving some of the problems Vista left in its wake, such as with performance and compatibility. This was also the version that debuted Windows Touch, adding touchscreen functionality (even though no-one wants touchscreen functionality on a laptop).

Windows 8

Windows 8

The development of Windows 8 started even before the release of Windows 7. The competition between Apple and Microsoft was at its peak and new technologies were important to keep both companies relevant. Consumers could purchase Windows 8 in October 2012. The big difference was the 'Modern' user interface — developed with a focus on touchscreen usability (at the expense of all those people with regular PCs). The decision to dump the Start button was particularly controversial, and with many people sticking to older PCs while upgrading their phones, Windows 8 is generally considered a flop.

Windows 10


Image from maximumpc.com

And so we reach Windows 10, which officially appears on June 29 2015 after an extensive beta testing period. You can learn all about Windows 10 in our comprehensive guide.

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