A Short History of Windows (for the Layman)

A Short History of Windows

The ubiquitous Windows operating system has been with us now for 20 years. For better or for worse, 99% of us use this on our PCs today. We will cover more on what an Operating System is for, and what it does, in a separate article. For our purposes here, we will describe how Windows rose to it’s place of importance on our machines.

Depending on when you starting using Windows, you may have a different perspective on what it is and what it does. Here’s our perspective on the lineage of the current-day operating system known generically as Windows.

DOS-Based Versions

Windows 1.0 – 3.0

Nobody really wants to talk anymore about these dark years of Windows computing, during which Microsoft struggled over seven years and three versions to get the world ready for Windows . . . . or was it Windows ready for the world???
Suffice to say, they performed badly; the earlier DOS (non graphical) applications continued their dominance, and the folks at Apple laughed and jeered.

All versions of Windows were not designed as a new operating system, but ran on top of the earlier character-based Disk Operating System (DOS). For the record:

  • Windows 1.0 appeared in November, 1985
  • Windows 2.0 appeared in December, 1987
  • Windows 3.0 followed three years later, in May, 1990

Windows 3.1

Windows 3.1 was released in August 1992, and became the first really successful version of Windows for Microsoft. This was primarily due to earlier performance issues being addressed, plus a readiness in the marketplace to accept a graphical user interface (GUI) as suitable for serious business usage.
Windows 3.1 was enhanced slightly over the next few years with additional utilities and workgroup functionality, culminating in the release of Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in November 1993. For nearly two years, this version proved a success with both individuals and corporate users.

Windows 95

Windows 95 was released in August 1995, and was a major change from earlier 16-bit versions of Windows 3.x. Windows 95 was the first quasi 32-bit operating system popularly available, and provided a completely new user interface (look and feel) along with major improvements in the underlying structure of the O/S and useability – this version introduced Plug’N’Play installation of new hardware devices. While being completely new it provided almost complete backward compatibility with older versions of DOS and Windows programs. All Windows 9x versions actually ran on top of the old, ugly, DOS operating system. Successive releases attempted to further conceal this heritage, but it remained in the background right through till the last (ME) version.
In reality, there were actually 4 complete releases of Windows 95 over the ensuing three years.

Windows 98

Microsoft Windows 98 was released in June, 1998. This was a minor version upgrade from the earlier Windows 95, and offered a few enhancements and additional options over the original 95 version. There was no real need to upgrade from the earlier version, unless some of the specific new features were required (such as support for the newly-released USB hardware). In reality, two versions of Windows 98 were released, but can more properly be considered as Windows 95 versions 5 & 6.

Windows Millenium Edition (ME)

Microsoft Windows ME was the last in a line of graphical user interface (GUI) operating systems based on the underlying 16-bit DOS platform. Again, based on the same quasi 32-bit operating system as the original Windows 95, it can be considered as Windows 95 version 7. Offering further useability improvements, plus a revised user interface and additional functionality specifically for home users, Windows ME was released in June, 2000. Interestingly, this was the first Microsoft operating system specifically *not* intended for business use.

NT Kernel-based Versions

Windows NT 3.1

Windows NT 3.1 saw the light of day in August 1993, and was built with the same user interface (look and feel) as Windows 3.1, but provided a completely new operating environment – no more “DOS Inside”. NT stood for ‘New Technology’, and provided a stable, robust and secure 32-bit computing environment. To the user, operation was almost identical to Windows 3.1, but the underlying structure was completely different. Due to the new architecture, backwards compatibility (the ability to run older DOS/Windows-based applications), was almost non-existant. Also, due to it’s resource-intensive requirements (it performed like a dog on anything but the most powerful hardware of the day) this version never gained any real acceptance except in high-end workstation environments, where stability and security were far more important than users frustrated with how long it took to accomplish tasks. It never crashed though!
What happened to Windows NT versions 1 through 3? Well, that’s yet another story we might tell in these pages if there is enough interest.

Windows NT 3.5x

To address some of the performance and compatibility issues with the initial release of the NT platform, Windows NT 3.5 was released in September 1994. Remember, at this time Windows 3.1x was enjoying significant popularity, and is why this version again looked exactly like it’s DOS-based relation. A maintenance release (version 3.51) was released in June 1995, and was used for quite a few years – even after the release of it’s successor.

Windows NT 4.0

Windows NT4, built with the same user interface (look and feel) as Windows95, provided a much-needed facelift to the NT series of operating systems. To the user, operation was almost identical to Windows9x, but the underlying structure was completely different. Due to the new architecture, backwards compatibility (the ability to run older DOS/Windows-based applications), was improved over the earlier versions, but still limited. Thus this was not the preferred platform for home users. Windows NT also did not support ‘Plug-N-Play’ as did Windows9x, and many add-on products, such as scanners, did not work with Windows NT. Performance was also significantly improved in this version, albeit at the expense of reliability. Windows NT4.0 was released in July, 1996 and remained the mainstay of corporate computing for nearly four years (with six major Service Packs during this period). Windows NT also was provided in both workstation and full server functionality editions, with many additional and optional components included in the server packaging. (We’ll cover the differences between servers and workstations in a separate article). Windows NT4 Server was so successful that it became the beginning of the end for the previously dominant Novell Netware Local Area Network (LAN) operating environment.

Windows 2000

Microsoft Windows 2000 was released in February 2000, and was targeted primarily at business users. While built on the same new technology as Windows NT 4.0, it brought together the WinME user interface plus the robustness of a full 32-bit operating system. Additionally, improved backwards compatibility plus support for Plug’N’Play hardware was finally offered in business environments. Again, this version was introduced in a workstation variant (the ‘Professional’ edition), as well as a server edition. Under the hood, Windows 2000 was actually Windows NT version 5.0.

Windows XP

With the release of Microsoft Windows XP in October 2001, Microsoft finally merged the consumer Win9x series of operating systems with the business NT line – giving all users access to the power and solidarity of the business line while at the same time providing backwards compatibility for legacy applications. A more streamlined version of the user interface was introduced, and two separate editions became available: Home & Professional. Mostly indistinguishable to the user, the home version is essentially a feature–reduced version of the Professional edition. Windows XP is also known as Windows NT version 5.1. Note that no equivalent server variant was produced, as the server components would have been indistinguishable from Windows 2000. Why was it named the ‘XP’ version? You had to eXPerience it to find out!

Windows 2003

Indicating mainly a repackaging with different default options, this version – released in May, 2003, is in fact Windows NT version 5.2. Where the XP version introduced virtually no improvements worthy of a server, the 2003 version comes in a server-only edition, with many of the default options reset to provide a far more stable and secure server environment than that provided by the 2000 or XP earlier versions.

Windows 2005 (a.k.a. Windows 2003 Release 2)

This version of Windows Server was released in December, 2005 – but why was it not called ‘Windows 2005’? By this time large businesses are effectively moving away in droves from Novell Netware, and replacing it with Windows Servers. However, large businesses made it clear to Microsoft that they wanted to see more stability in the platform – and not have new server releases every two years.

So, how does Microsoft respond – with a marketing change that now still introduces a new version of Windows Server after two years, but calls it ‘R2’ instead! We can all be happy!

Under the hood, this version is still Windows NT 5.2, but how do we know this is not simply a patch or Service Pack? Patches and Service Packs are always freely available provided you own the server version, but 2003 R2 was not – if you wanted to ‘upgrade’ from 2003 (R1) – a new license needed to be purchased.

Windows Vista

Considered by many to be Windows 7 pre-release version, this was released in January, 2007. At NT version 6.0 (same as the next server version), this version represents the first change in Microsoft’s desktop operating system since XP – 5.5 years ago – and effectively making Windows XP Microsoft’s most successful desktop operating system ever. We didn’t really need Vista  – as XP worked so well, but the marketers at Microsoft struck again – Manufacturers were not selling as many new PCs, plus Microsoft was not selling new operating systems, and so we got Vista. Pressure was also felt from the inroads Apple was making into the PC installed base, and so the need to freshen up the user interface was also part of the driving force behind Vista.

While many new user features were introduced with Vista, one of the most noticed changes was the introduction of User Access Control (UAC). Mostly hated by users – whom many of simply turned it off – UAC was intended to protect users from themselves (who generally configured their accounts with administrative (God) permissions – by requiring acknowledgment to be provided when system-level changes were attempted – such as by malicious code (malware), or virtually any form of software application change.

History now shows us that the vast majority of users simply stayed with XP, until the ‘real’ Windows 7 was released – designating Vista as simply an interim upgrade.

Windows 2008 Server

Released February 2008, and now at underlying NT version 6.0, this version provided the first useable virtualisation features – a technology now receiving a great degree of interest and prompted by the success of the VMWare products.

2008 server was the first version of Windows server to provide x64-only code – signifying the end of the road for 32-bit server-side implementations.

Windows 2010 Server (a.k.a. 2008 R2)

Microsoft marketing comes to the fore again with the release of Windows 2008 R2, released in July, 2009, and known as NT version 6.1. A quick release was necessary here because of continued advances in virtualisation – and Microsoft really wanted to address this before VMWare was generally adopted as the only ‘real’ virtualisation solution. History now shows that this was successful, and the level of virtualization features in this release provided a basis for many organisations to pursue a viable and alternative virtualisation strategy to the VMWare platform.

Windows 7

The ‘real’ successor to Windows XP was released in October, 2009. Now at NT version 6.1 (note same as server 2008 R2), users finally had a real reason to replace their aging XP machines. Most of the attempted changes introduced with Vista now actually worked well. We now also had a workable x64 version that was usable and effective, and now able to take advantage of now commercially viable x64 platforms with larger amounts of memory. Prior to this, it was simply not-cost-effective to implement x64 at the desktop level.

Windows Server 2012

Also known as Windows Server 8, and at NT version  6.2, this was released September 2012. This version introduced significant improvements in networking and virtualisation. Also significant was the release of the new ‘Windows 8’ interface .

Windows 8

Released almost along with Windows Server 2012 in October 2012, and also NT version 6.2, this version featured the first complete revision of the user interface – removing the Start Button we had come to know and love since 1995 – purportedly addressing the needs of touch-screen devices. Apple was also strongly promoting their interface over the very dated Start Button and Start Menu of Windows. Despite much negative feedback over the introduction of ‘Charms’ on the desktop, Microsoft told us this was good for us, and to simply grin and bear the loss of the Start Button. What was not considered was that most PC users still used ‘standard’ (non-touch) systems with mice and keyboards, and Windows and was often difficult to use.

Windows 8.1

Heads up for the marketing department listening to users – we got back our Start button in this release of October, 2013 – and which under the hood shows as NT version 6.3. Due to such negative market feedback to the prior release, Microsoft for the first time made this release freely available to all licensed users of Windows 8.

Windows Server 2012 Release 2

Equivalent to Desktop Windows 8.1, this R2 version was also released in October, 2013 – but not as a free upgrade for 2012 servers like the desktop edition – and also at NT version 6.3. ‘Charms’ were never suitable for server management (who ever heard of a server with a touch-screen?) and so we got our Start Button and Start Menu back as well. Major improvements were also made in the area of virtualisation, especially with the introduction of Generation 2 virtual machines – which finally permitted removal of the synthetic AT BIOS emulation – a legacy from the past 20 years gratefully now past.

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