Microsoft has a long and distinguished record of producing PC operating systems. As we get ready for the Windows 8 launch, we take a look at the history of Windows.

With its dual interfaces, Windows 8 is unlike every other version that’s preceded it. Microsoft has already produced several touchscreen desktop operating systems, but this looks like being the first one that’s succeeded. Much of our Windows 8 Advisor looks at its touchscreen interactivity, but to acknowledge how far Microsoft has come, let’s take a look at the operating system’s early days.

Windows 3.1 is the starting point for many PC users. Launched in May 1990, it was the first Microsoft OS to reach a wide audience. It introduced us to the coloured wave logo, graphical user interface, dedicated sound and graphics cards, and the CD-ROM drive. Floppy disk drives (dating from the pre-Windows MS-DOS days) continued to be fitted in Windows 3.1, 95 and even 98 machines. Windows 3x was not geared up for high-resolution graphics, though, supporting only 256 colour displays. It was the first version to support more than 64K of memory and ran off a 640MB installation.

See also: Windows 8 review

Windows: Pushing the right buttons

Windows 95 took Microsoft’s desktop from highly successful to all-conquering. The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up was used for the US marketing campaign in tribute to the Start button, with its fly-out menu lists. A desktop search tool and a My Documents folder separating user content from the desktop, drives and network debuted, and Microsoft also added support for 32bit computing and x386 architecture. The first Windows version to have the web in mind – preview versions of 95 came with access to the soon-to-launch MSN, while Internet Explorer came installed as part of the first Windows 95 Service Pack. The second brought support for FAT32 and hard drives offering over 2GB capacities.

Windows 95

Windows 98 added more consumer-friendly features to the desktop under the Explorer umbrella. Multi-tasking in the sense of having several programs and windows open at once was big news. USB 2.0 become a standard method of transferring data, working directly with such peripherals as printers, scanners and digital cameras, plus keyboards and mice. DVD drives were first introduced during Windows 98’s lifetime, too. Disparate multimedia elements were repackaged in Windows Media Player with the second Service Pack in May 1999.

Windows Me, a home user OS, offered scant improvements (other than NTFS support for larger file structures) and was widely regarded to be less stable than both 95 and 98, so didn’t garner widespread support. It did, however, come with Windows Movie Maker, so users could make something of their digital video footage or slide shows from their digital photos. The professional version was known as Windows 2000.

Around this time Microsoft started marketing separate Tablet Edition versions of Windows. Tablets came with the operating system pre-installed, along with support for digital note-taking via a sensitised screen and stylus. The device’s size, weight and cost limited its appeal outside vertical markets such as hospitals, legal organisations and engineering field work, though.

Windows: Top of the pops

Windows XP will probably go down in history as the most popular desktop OS of all time, attaining a peak market share of 76.1 per cent for desktop operating systems. Launched in 2001, its name was derived from the word ‘eXPerience’. Windows XP brought advances in the user interface that saw related tasks grouped together in a task bar, frequently-accessed items listed at the top of menus, and support for large visual thumbnails and filmstrip photo galleries – Windows 8 Photos app uses this very feature for its scrollable gallery.

Windows XP

Importantly, Windows XP was the first version of Windows that users could easily customise, with themes and backgrounds of their own. Installing updates and DIY upgrades was also easy to do under the enduringly popular XP.

Windows Vista, available from January 2006, was immediately derided for its heavy hardware demands and apparent incompatibility with existing peripherals and components. By the time drivers for many popular devices had been written, including families of graphics cards, the damage had been done and Vista declared a failure. When Microsoft started trailing Windows 7 in 2009, it insisted customers wanting to test-drive the new OS first upgrade to Vista.

Windows Vista

Windows 7 saw Microsoft back on track with drivers and support for legacy programs all sorted out well ahead of its launch (unlike Vista, which suffered the iniquity of having a special Compatibility Mode feature allowing users to run older programs, specifically those that ran under the rabidly popular Windows XP). By the time Windows 7 arrived, many users were ready for an upgrade to both their operating system and PC, mainly moving to laptops that were now so powerful there was negligible performance difference from the standard desktop PC. Windows XP fans, meantime, were given netbooks as a sop.

Windows 7 has proved a dependable, stable OS that doesn’t try to entice users with its fancy interface frills – another criticism levelled at Vista with its resource-sapping Aero 3D screens and desktop widgets. (See also: Windows 8: the complete guide.)

Nonetheless, it’s time for a new Windows that reflects our preference for portable computing, constant connectivity and customisation. The fact that it looks and feels the same across devices, loses the legendary Windows bloat and allows Microsoft and its loyal followers back in the cool camp are happy side effects. And who doesn’t want to be part of the in-crowd? 

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