Windows at 30: How Microsoft Changed the Personal Computing World

NEWS ANALYSIS: Yes, people have plenty to gripe about with Microsoft Windows, but it's easy to forget that without it, the world of computers today would be vastly smaller.

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It's hard to remember how the world of computers was before the introduction of Microsoft Windows. On Nov. 20, 1985, Microsoft announced a new idea for MS-DOS computers, a graphical interface that would let people use computers without having to type in commands. That idea was Windows, but it wasn't much like the Windows you're used to today.

I'd actually heard about the advent of Windows a few days before. I was writing for Byte magazine in those days and occasionally freelancing for a new publication called PCWeek, and we'd had the heads-up from the Microsoft public relations staff. When Windows arrived, it came on two floppy disks.

In those days, there were several different flavors of MS-DOS computers. When you ran an application, one of the first things you did was tell an installation program what kind of computer you had so the program would work with your monitor and keyboard. Nobody had a mouse that worked with MS-DOS PCs.

So, of course, I tried to run the new Windows on the first MS-DOS computer I could find, which happened to be a Zenith Data Systems Z-100. It didn't work. Turns out that Windows would only run on MS-DOS computers that were compatible with the IBM PC. So I went to find one of those.

The first version of Windows wasn't really an operating system. Instead, it was what Microsoft called an MS-DOS Executive. This meant that it was basically an application that ran on top of MS-DOS, and would run programs with the click of a mouse—if you were one of the few PC users who had a mouse.

Eventually, software companies began to write applications that were designed specifically to work with Windows. It took years for Windows applications to show up in large numbers, but this proved to be the beginning of a significant change in the way users worked with software.

It was really Windows 3.0/3.1x, released in the early 1990s, that made PC users convert to the Windows graphical user interface and work with a mouse. By this time, Windows programs had a consistent look and a more-or-less consistent interface. While you could run native MS-DOS programs with Windows at times, Windows programs began to look alike.

Still, at this point, Windows was still what Microsoft called an Executive. This meant that it ran in place of the MS-DOS text interface, but it still used MS-DOS to run programs. And in some cases, you could still run those programs without first running Windows. But that changed with the advent of Windows NT, which was a real operating system, not a shell for running applications.

Windows NT was the direct predecessor of today's Windows 10. It was a stable 32-bit operating system that did not require MS-DOS to work. Instead, if you needed a DOS application, you could run it in a window. Interestingly, you can still do this by running a command called "CMD" in the run bar on your version of Windows. Those old MS-DOS commands are still there, and they still work.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...