A Brief History of Microsoft Windows

Every Version, From 1.0 Through Windows 10

Microsoft has hinted that Windows 10, its next operating system (OS) due this summer, will be the final named version of Windows. Future updates will come, but they'll still carry the Windows 10 label. That means it can legitimately be called the last Windows version.

That makes it an opportune time to hop in our Windows Time Machine (strangely enough, it looks just like a DeLorean), and revisit each official version of Windows, leading up to Windows 10. 

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Windows 1.0

Windows 1.0
Windows 1.0.

Released: Nov. 20, 1985

Replaced: MS-DOS (shorthand for "Microsoft Disk Operating System")

Innovative/Notable: Windows! This was the first version of a Microsoft OS that you didn't have to type in commands to use. Instead, you could point and click in a box -- a window -- with a mouse. Bill Gates, then a young CEO, said  of Windows: “It is unique software designed for the serious PC user.” It took two years from the announcement to finally ship. As you can see, some things don't change.

Obscure Fact: What we call "Windows" today was almost called "Interface Manager". "Interface Manager" was the code name of the product, and was a finalist for the official name. Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

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Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0
Windows 2.0.

Released: Dec. 9, 1987

Replaced: Windows 1.0. Windows 1.0 wasn't warmly received by critics, who felt it was slow and too mouse-focused (the mouse was relatively new to computing at the time).

Innovative/Notable: Graphics were much improved, including the ability to overlap windows (in Windows 1.0, separate windows could only be tiled.) Desktop icons were also introduced, as were keyboard shortcuts.

Obscure Fact: Numerous applications made their debuts in Windows 2.0, including Control Panel, Paint, Notepad and two of the Office cornerstones: Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. 

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Windows 3.0/3.1

Windows 3.1
Windows 3.1.

Released: May 22, 1990. Windows 3.1: March 1, 1992

Replaced: Windows 2.0. It was more popular than Windows 1.0. Its overlapping Windows brought a lawsuit from Apple, which claimed that the new style infringed copyrights from its graphical user interface (GUI).

Innovative/Notable: Speed. Windows 3.0/3.1 ran faster than ever on new Intel 386 chips. The GUI improves with more colors and better icons. This version is also the first really big-selling Microsoft OS, with more than 10 million copies sold. It also included new management abilities like Print Manager, File Manager and Program Manager.

Obscure Fact: Windows 3.0 cost $149; upgrades from earlier versions were $50. 

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Windows 95

Windows 95
Windows 95.

Released: Aug. 24, 1995.

Replaced: Windows 3.1

Innovative/Notable: Windows 95 is what really cemented Microsoft's dominance in the computer industry. It had a huge marketing campaign, which captured the public's imagination in a way nothing before it had. Most important of all, it introduced the Start button, which ended up being so popular that its absence in Windows 8, some 17 years later, caused a major uproar among consumers. It also had Internet support, Plug and Play capabilities that made it easier to install software and hardware.

Windows 95 was an enormous hit right out of the gate, selling a staggering 7 million copies in its first five weeks on sale.

Obscure Fact: Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones $3 million for the rights to "Start Me Up," which was the theme at the unveiling. 

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Windows 98/Windows ME (Millennium Edition)/Windows 2000

Windows ME
Windows Millennium Edition (ME).

Released: These were released in a flurry between 1998 and 2000, and are lumped together because there wasn't much to distinguish them from Windows 95. They were essentially placeholders in Microsoft's lineup, and although popular, didn't approach the record-breaking success of Windows 95. They were built on MS-DOS, like Windows 95, offering basically incremental upgrades.

Obscure Fact: Windows ME was an unmitigated disaster. It was so bad that I called it "The Hindenburg of Microsoft operating systems" in another article. It remains unlamented to this day. 

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Windows XP

Windows XP
Windows XP.

Released: Oct. 25, 2001

Replaced: Windows 2000

Innovative/Notable: Windows XP is the superstar of this lineup -- the Michael Jordan of Microsoft OSes. Its most innovative feature is the fact that it refuses to die. Consider that it's nearly 14 years old right now; that's about 9 millennia in computer industry years. And, despite that age, it's still Microsoft's second-most popular OS, behind Windows 7. That is a hard-to-grasp statistic. Not only that, it actually gained in market share in March! How is that possible? Simple, really -- it works great, people know it, and people love it. It's a hard habit to break.

Obscure Fact: By one estimate, Windows XP has sold more than one billion copies over the years. Maybe it's more like a McDonald's hamburger than Michael Jordan. 

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Windows Vista

Windows Vista
Windows Vista.

Released: Jan. 30, 2007

Replaced: Tried, and spectacularly failed, to replace Windows XP

Innovative/Notable: Vista is the anti-XP. Its name is synonymous with failure and ineptitude. When released, Vista required much better hardware to run on than XP (which most people didn't have), and few devices like printers, monitors, etc. worked with it, due to the woeful lack of drivers available at launch. In reality, it wasn't a terrible OS, the way Windows ME was; but it tanked so hard that for most people, it was DOA, and they stayed on XP instead. So many of them are still there, too.

Obscure Fact: Vista is No. 2 on Info World's list of top all time tech flops. 

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Windows 7

Windows 7
Windows 7.

Released: Oct. 22, 2009

Replaced: Windows Vista, and not a moment too soon

Innovative/Notable: Windows 7 was a major hit with the public, and has a commanding market share of nearly 60 percent. It improved in every way on Vista, and helped the public eventually forget the OS version of the Titanic. It's stable, secure, graphically friendly and easy to use. In fact, it might be the current generation's Windows XP, with people hesitant to give it up for Windows 8.

Obscure Fact: In just eight hours, pre-orders of Windows 7 surpassed total sales of Vista after 17 weeks. You do the math. 

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Windows 8

Windows 8
Windows 8.

Released: Oct. 26, 2012

Replaced: See "Windows Vista" entry, and replace "Windows XP" with "Windows 7"

Innovative/Notable: Microsoft knew it had to gain a foothold in the mobile world, including phones and tablets, but didn't want to give up on users of traditional desktops and laptops. So it tried to create a hybrid OS, one that would work equally well on touch and non-touch devices. It hasn't worked out, for the most part. Users missed their Start button, and have consistently expressed confusion about using Windows 8.

Obscure Fact: Microsoft called Windows 8's user interface (UI) "Metro," but had to scrap that after threatened lawsuits from a European company. It then called the UI "Modern," but that hasn't been warmly received either. Your guess is as good as mine as to what it's called now.

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Windows 10

Windows 10
Windows 10.

Released: This summer, probably late July

Replaced: Windows 8, Microsoft hopes with all its might

Innovative/Notable: Two major things. First, the return of the Start Menu. Second, that this will allegedly be the last named version of Windows. Updates will probably get some kind of nickname.

Obscure Fact: The first update for the as-yet-unreleased Windows 10 is code-named "Redstone," a reference to the game "Minecraft." 

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