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 »  Home  »  Vista Reviews  »  History of Windows
History of Windows
By  Super Admin  | Published  07/23/2005 | Vista Reviews | Rating:
History of Windows

Early history

The first independent version of Microsoft Windows, version 1.0, released in 1985, lacked a degree of functionality and achieved little popularity. Windows 1.0 did not provide a complete operating system, but rather extended MS-DOS and shared the latter's inherent flaws and problems. Moreover, the programs that shipped with the early version comprised "toy" applications with little or limited appeal to business users.

Furthermore, legal challenges by Apple limited its functionality. For example, windows could only appear 'tiled' on the screen; that is, they could not overlap or overlie one another. Also, there was no trash can (place to store files prior to deletion), since Apple believed they owned the rights to that paradigm. Microsoft later removed both of these limitations by means of signing a licensing agreement.

Microsoft Windows version 2 came out in 1987, and proved slightly more popular than its predecessor. Much of the popularity for Windows 2.0 came by way of its inclusion as a "run-time version" with Microsoft's new graphical applications, Excel and Word for Windows. They could be run from MS-DOS, executing Windows for the duration of their activity, and closing down Windows upon exit (rumor has it that Windows was intended as a platform to run Microsoft Office applications first, and only later as a general-use GUI system).

Microsoft Windows received a major boost around this time when Aldus Pagemaker appeared in a Windows version, having previously run only on Macintosh. Some computer historians date this, the first appearance of a significant and non-Microsoft application for Windows, as the beginning of the success of Windows.

Version 2 still used the real-mode memory model, which confined it to a maximum of 1 megabyte of memory. In such a configuration, it could run under another multitasker like DESQview, which used the 286 Protected Mode; alternatively Windows 2 could run in Protected Mode in its own right, which gave it access to up to 16 megabytes of memory. A provisional version then shipped, called Windows/386 (2.0 received the alternate name Windows/286), that included support for the 386 CPU's Enhanced Mode.

Version 2.03, and later 3.0, faced legal challenges from Apple over its overlapping windows and other features Apple charged mimicked the "look and feel" of its operating system and "embodie[d] and generate[d] a copy of the Macintosh" in its OS. Judge William Schwarzer dropped all but 10 of the 189 charges that Apple had sued Microsoft with on January 5, 1989.

Success with Windows 3.0

Microsoft Windows scored a serious success with Windows 3.0, released in 1990. In addition to improved capabilities given to native applications, Windows also allowed a user to better multitask older MS-DOS based software compared to Windows/386, thanks to the introduction of virtual memory and of loadable VxDs. It made PC compatibles serious competitors to the Apple Macintosh. This benefited from the improved graphics available on PCs by this time (by means of VGA video cards), and the Protected/Enhanced mode which allowed Windows applications to use more memory in a more painless manner than their DOS counterparts could. Windows 3.0 could run in any of Real, Standard or 386 Enhanced modes, and was compatible with any Intel processor from the 8086/8088 upto 80286 & 80386. Windows tried to auto detect which mode to run in, although it could be forced to run in a specific mode using the switches: /r (real), /s (standard) and /3 (386) respectively.

Due to this backwards compatibility, applications also had to be compiled in a 16-bit environment, without ever using the full 32-bit capabilities of the 386 CPU.

A limited multimedia version, Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions 1.0, was released several months after. This was bundled with the first sound card / CD-ROM multimedia kits e.g. Creative Labs Sound Blaster Pro along with titles such as MS Bookshelf. This version was the precursor to the multimedia features available in v3.1 later.

However, the features listed above, as well as the growing market support made Windows 3.0 wildly successful—selling around 10 million copies in the two years before the release of version 3.1, Windows 3.0 became a major source of income for Microsoft, and led the company to revise some of its earlier plans.

A step sideways: OS/2

During the mid to late 1980s, Microsoft and IBM had co-operatively been developing OS/2 as a successor to DOS, to take full advantage of the aforementioned Protected Mode of the Intel 80286 processor, to allow use of up to 16M of memory. OS/2 1.0, released in 1987, supported swapping and multitasking and allowed running of DOS executables.

A GUI, called the Presentation Manager (PM), was not available with OS/2 until version 1.1, released in 1988. Although some considered it to be in many ways superior to Windows, its API was incompatible with Windows. (Among other things, Presentation Manager placed X,Y coordinate 0,0 at the bottom left of the screen like Cartesian coordinates, while Windows put 0,0 at the top left of the screen like most other computer window systems.) Version 1.2, released in 1989, introduced a new file system, HPFS, to replace the DOS FAT file system used by Windows.

By the early 1990s, conflicts developed in the Microsoft/IBM relationship. They co-operated with each other in developing their PC operating systems, and had access to each other's code. Microsoft wanted to further develop Windows, while IBM desired for future work to be based on OS/2. In an attempt to resolve this tension, IBM and Microsoft agreed that IBM would develop OS/2 2.0, to replace OS/2 1.3 and Windows 3.0, while Microsoft would develop a new operating system, OS/2 3.0, to later succeed OS/2 2.0.

This agreement soon however fell apart, and the Microsoft/IBM relationship was terminated. IBM continued to develop OS/2, while Microsoft changed the name of its (as yet unreleased) OS/2 3.0 to Windows NT. Both retained the rights to use OS/2 and Windows technology developed up to the termination of the agreement; Windows NT, however, was to be written anew, mostly independently (see below).

After an interim 1.3 version to fix up many remaining problems with the 1.x series, IBM released OS/2 version 2.0 in 1992. This was a major improvement: it featured a new, object-oriented GUI, the Workplace Shell (WPS), that included a desktop and was considered by many to be OS/2's best feature. Microsoft would later imitate much of it in Windows 95. Version 2.0 also provided a full 32-bit API, offered smooth multitasking and could take advantage of the 4 gigabytes of address space provided by the Intel 80386. Still, much of the system still had 16-bit code internally which required, among other things, device drivers to be 16-bit code as well. This was one of the reasons for the almost chronic bad supply of OS/2 with up-to-date device support. Version 2.0 could also run DOS and Windows 3.0 programs, since IBM had retained the right to use the DOS and Windows code as a result of the breakup.

At the time, it was unclear who would win the so-called "Desktop wars". But in the end, OS/2 did not manage to gain enough market share, even though IBM released several improved versions subsequently (see below).

Windows 3.1 and NT

typical windows 3.11 desktop
typical windows 3.11 desktop

In response to the impending release of OS/2 2.0, Microsoft developed Windows 3.1, which included several minor improvements to Windows 3.0 (such as display of TrueType scalable fonts, developed jointly with Apple), but primarily consisted of bugfixes and multimedia support. It also removed support for Real mode, and would only run on a 80286 or better processor. Later Microsoft also released Windows 3.11 (marketed as Windows for Workgroups), which included improved network drivers and protocol stacks, and support for peer-to-peer networking. Windows 3.11 also only runs in 386 Enhanced mode, and requires at least an 80386SX processor. Both versions continued version 3.0's impressive sales pace. Even though the 3.1x series still lacked most of the important features of OS/2, such as long file names, a desktop, or protection of the system against misbehaving applications, Microsoft quickly took over the OS and GUI markets for the IBM_PC. The Windows API became the de-facto standard for consumer software.

Meanwhile Microsoft continued to develop Windows NT. Microsoft hired Dave Cutler, one of the chief architects of VMS at Digital Equipment Corporation (later purchased by Compaq, now part of Hewlett-Packard) to develop NT into a more capable operating system. Cutler had been developing a follow-on to VMS at DEC called Mica, and when DEC dropped the project he brought the expertise and some engineers with him to Microsoft. DEC also believed he brought Mica's code to Microsoft and sued. Microsoft eventually paid $150 million US and agreed to support DEC's Alpha CPU chip in NT.

Windows NT 3.1 (Microsoft marketing desired to make Windows NT appear to be a continuation of Windows 3.1) arrived in Beta form to developers at the July 1992 Professional Developers Conference in San Francisco. Microsoft announced at the conference its intentions to develop a successor to both Windows NT and Windows 3.1's replacement (code-named Chicago), which would unify the two into one operating system. This successor was codenamed Cairo. (In hindsight, Cairo was a much more difficult project than Microsoft had anticipated, and as a result, NT and Chicago would not be unified until Windows XP).

Driver support was lacking due to the increased programming difficulty in dealing with NT's superior hardware abstraction model. This problem plagued the NT line all the way through Windows 2000. Programmers complained that it was too hard to write drivers for NT, and hardware developers were not going to go through the trouble of developing drivers for a small segment of the market. Additionally, although allowing for good performance and fuller exploitation of system resources, it was also resource-intensive on limited hardware, and thus was only suitable for larger, more expensive machines. Windows NT would not work for private users because of its resource demands; moreover, its GUI was simply a copy of Windows 3.1's, which was inferior to the OS/2 Workplace Shell, so there was not a good reason to propose it as a replacement to Windows 3.1.

However, the same features made Windows NT perfect for the LAN server market (which in 1993 was experiencing a rapid boom, as office networking was becoming a commodity), as it enjoyed advanced network connectivity options, and the efficient NTFS file system. Windows NT version 3.51 was Microsoft's stake into this market, a large part of which would be won over from Novell in the following years.

One of Microsoft's biggest advances initially developed for Windows NT was new 32-bit API, to replace the legacy 16-bit Windows API. This API was called Win32, and from then on Microsoft referred to the older 16-bit API as Win16. Win32 API had three main implementations: one for Windows NT, one for Win32s (which was a subset of Win32 which could be used on Windows 3.1 systems), and one for Chicago. Thus Microsoft sought to ensure some degree of compatibility between the Chicago design and Windows NT, even though the two systems had radically different internal architectures.

Windows NT 4.0

Originally developed as a part of its effort to introduce Windows NT to the workstation market, Microsoft released Windows NT 4.0, which featured the new Windows 95 interface on top of the Windows NT kernel (a patch was available for developers to make NT 3.5.1 use the new UI, but it was quite buggy; the new UI was first developed on NT but Windows 95 was released before NT 4.0).

Windows NT 4.0 came in four flavors:

  • Windows NT 4.0 Workstation
  • Windows NT 4.0 Server
  • Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise Server
  • Windows NT 4.0 Terminal Server

Windows 98

Windows 98SE with the "Jungle" theme, and a couple of the programs from Microsoft Office 4.3 running.
Windows 98SE with the "Jungle" theme, and a couple of the programs from Microsoft Office 4.3 running.

On June 25, 1998, Microsoft released Windows 98, which was widely regarded as a minor revision of Windows 95. It included new hardware drivers and the FAT32 file system to support disk partitions larger than the 2 GB allowed by Windows 95. It also controversially integrated the Internet Explorer browser into the Windows GUI and Windows Explorer file manager, prompting the opening of the United States v. Microsoft case, dealing with the question whether Microsoft was abusing its hold on the IBM PC operating system market to push its products in other areas.

In 1999, Microsoft released Windows 98 Second Edition, whose most notable feature was the addition of Internet Connection Sharing (a brand name for a form of network address translation), which allowed several machines on a LAN to share an internet connection. Hardware support through device drivers was increased, most notably support for the Universal Serial Bus (USB). It also aimed to solve stability problems induced by the addition of the Internet Explorer browser software to Windows 98.

Windows 2000

Windows 2000 Desktop
Windows 2000 Desktop

Microsoft introduced Windows 2000 (known earlier as NT 5.0), which was successfully deployed both on the server and the workstation markets. Windows 2000, claimed by some to be the best Windows version to date, borrowed a number of features, in particular the user interface from Windows 98, which made it almost as user-friendly and much more stable, preparing the ground for the next version, codenamed 'Odyssey'. This was cancelled, and work moved to Windows XP. A home consumer edition of Windows 2000 was also attempted (codenamed 'Neptune'), but later was scrapped and Windows Me (which was based on the lesser-stable kernel that Windows 95 and 98 were based on) took its shelf place.

Windows 2000 came in four flavors:

  • Windows 2000 Professional
  • Windows 2000 Server
  • Windows 2000 Advanced Server
  • Windows 2000 Datacenter Server

Windows Millennium Edition (Me)

In 2000, Microsoft introduced Windows Me (Millennium Edition), which upgraded Windows 98 with enhanced multimedia and Internet features. It also introduced the first version of System Restore, which allowed users to revert their system state to a previous good point in the case of system failure. System Restore was a notable feature that made its way into Windows XP.

Windows Me was conceived as a quick one-year project that served as a stopgap release between Windows 98 and the upcoming Windows XP due to the cancellation of the home consumer edition of Windows 2000. As a result, Windows Me was not acknowledged as a unique OS along the lines of 95 or 98. Windows Me was also widely criticised for serious stability issues and for lacking real mode DOS support.

Windows XP: Merging the product lines

A typical Windows XP desktop.
A typical Windows XP desktop.

In 2001, Microsoft introduced Windows XP. The merging of the Windows NT/2000 and Windows 3.1/95/98/ME lines was achieved with Windows XP (codenamed "Whistler"; "Odyssey" was the codename for NT's Successor, which was cancelled, and merged with the Windows 9x successor at the time, "Neptune", and they became "Whistler"). Windows XP uses the Windows NT kernel; however, it finally marks the entrance of the Windows NT core to the consumer market, to replace the aging 16-bit branch.

Windows XP is available in a number of versions for the 32-bit platform:

Windows 2003 Server

On April 24th, 2003 Microsoft launched Windows 2003 Server.

Windows 2003 came in six flavors:

  • Small Business Server
  • Web Edition
  • Standard Edition
  • Enterprise Edition (32 and 64-bit)
  • Datacenter Edition
  • Storage Server

Looking to the Future: Windows Vista & Windows Blackcomb

The next version of Windows, Windows Vista, is expected in Fall 2006. This will feature new features such as enhanced security from a new restricted user mode, finally replacing the "administrator-by-default" philosophy in their former operating systems, and also a more abstract file system with instant searches and a greater use of metadata. Vista will also feature GUI graphics features similar to those found in Apple's Mac OS X, a revised, task-based user interface called "Aero" and a new and more secure version of Internet Explorer that will based on the browser's version 7. Palladium, Microsoft's integrated software and hardware approach to digital rights management will also form the security core of the Vista operating system.

The next Server version of Windows Server is known as Vista Server, and is sheduled for release in 2007. Blackcomb is the codename for the following major release.

XP 64-bit

The AMD Athlon 64 was the first CPU to successfully bring 64-bit computing to the consumer desktop while providing compatibility with the IA32 architecture. A 64-bit version of Windows XP for the Intel Itanium (IA64 architecture) had already been made available. Microsoft released on April 25, 2005 a new 64-bit version of Windows XP for the AMD-64 architecture (which includes AMD Athlon 64 and Opteron processors, and Intel Pentium 4 and Xeon processors with support for the EM64T extensions).

History of the Operating Systems

MS-DOS product progression:

  • MS-DOS
  • Windows 1.0, Windows 2.0
  • Windows 3.0 (and Windows for Workgroups), Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11
  • Windows 95 (Windows 4.0)
  • Windows 98
  • Windows 98 Second Edition
  • Windows Millennium Edition

OS/2 product progression:

  • 16-bit Versions: OS/2 1.0 (CLI only), 1.1, 1.2, 1.3
  • 32-bit Versions: OS/2 2.0, 2.1, 2.11, 2.11 SMP, Warp 3, Warp 4
  • Until 32 bit Versions : OS/2 Warp 5

Current NT-Line product progression:

  • Windows NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51
  • Windows NT 4.0
  • Windows 2000 (Windows NT 5.0)
  • Windows XP (Windows NT 5.1)
  • Windows Server 2003 (Windows NT 5.2)

Future NT-Line product progression:

  • Windows Vista (Windows NT 6.0)
  • Windows Blackcomb (Windows NT 6.1) (current code name of not yet released follow-on)


Date 16-bits 16/32-bits 32-bits 64-bits
November, 1985 Windows 1.0
1987 Windows 2.0
May, 1990 Windows 3.0
1992 Windows 3.1
1993 Windows for Workgroups 3.1
July, 1993 Windows NT 3.1
1994 Windows for Workgroups 3.11
September, 1994 Windows NT 3.5
May, 1995 Windows NT 3.51
August 24, 1995 Windows 95
July, 1996 Windows NT 4.0
June 25, 1998 Windows 98
February, 2000 Windows 2000
2000 Windows ME
August, 2001 Windows XP
April, 2003 Windows Server 2003 Windows Server 2003
2003 Windows XP Media Center Edition 2003
April, 2005 Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005
April 25, 2005 Windows XP Professional x64 Edition
2007 Windows Vista Windows Vista
2009 Windows Blackcomb Windows Blackcomb


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  • Comment #1 (Posted by an unknown user)
    Almost zero mention o fWindows 95 which was probably the most significant single version of Windows ever released. There were 3 distinct versions of Windows 95 two of which were only released as OEM products.
  • Comment #2 (Posted by an unknown user)
    "The AMD Athlon 64 was the first CPU to successfully bring 64-bit computing to the consumer desktop" is a false statement Apple had the 64 bit G5 out an entire year prior!
  • Comment #3 (Posted by an unknown user)
    this article is verry nice to reader
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