How Microsoft 95 Became Microsoft 2005

Opinion: Ten years after Windows 95 and Internet Explorer, Microsoft's empire rests on some dated foundations.

In 1995, Microsoft was in trouble. Big trouble.

OS/2, despite its fans, was going nowhere. Windows 3.11 was, at best, a great GUI for running Microsoft Excel, but not a whole lot else. And then, as now, Apple owned the graphical desktop with the Mac.

If that wasnt bad enough for Bill Gates and his pals, the Internet was turning out to be a much, much bigger deal than they had ever dreamed it was going to be: Netscape was already riding its browser to becoming, albeit briefly, a billion-dollar company.

Many people today think that Microsoft led the way to the Web with Internet Explorer. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you can lay your hands on a copy of the first edition of Bill Gates 1995 book, "The Road Ahead," youll find that Bill didnt think that the Internet wasnt going to be that important at all.

It was only after seeing Netscape rocket to the top that Microsofts executives realized that they were missing the Internet bus.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead Contributing Editor David Courseys commentary here on the history and future of Internet Explorer.

Microsoft was already a powerful company, but at the time it looked like it might be heading for some real trouble. It certainly wasnt the dominant evil empire it was to become.

So, how did the company do it?

Three things.

The first was, ten years ago today, Aug. 24, 1995, Microsoft released both Windows 95 and Internet Explorer.

Windows 95 was not a great operating system. Everyone knew it. But, blue screens of death and all, it was better than its Intel-based competitors.

The only Unix competition worth speaking of was SCOs—yes, SCOs—Open Desktop. Its nickname "Open Deathtrap" tells you all need to know about it.

Windows 95 had a GUI that was just good enough and was just stable enough that Microsoft could persuade first ISVs and IHVs (independent hardware vendors) that they should get their products to work with Windows 95.

Second, Microsoft was giving away its first browser, Internet Explorer 1.0, based on Spyglass Mosaic. Netscape was, at the time, charging for its browser, which had over 80 percent of the market.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here for a retrospective of ten years of Windows worm attacks.

Like Windows 95, it wasnt that IE 1.0 was outstanding. Indeed, it was pretty awful, and when Netscape Navigator 2 appeared in March 1996 with features like frames, Java, JavaScript and plug-ins, the early versions of IE looked sickly in comparison.

But, again, both the operating system and the browser were good enough to be usable, and IE was free.

What really took these products over the top was a combination of Microsofts marketing and illegal business tactics that made it impossible for competitors to compete with Microsoft on a level playing field from the mid-90s through 2001.

While Microsoft finally had to make a deal with the Department of Justice over its many violations of the law, the Redmond, Wash.-based company dodged Judge Thomas Penfield Jacksons threatened penalty of being broken up.

Still, while Microsofts current market dominance was built on monopolistic practices, Windows 95 and IE 1.0 also played their parts.

Without Windows 95, Microsoft wouldnt have had a operating system decent enough to allow it to strong-arm IHVs into cooperating with it. And, without Internet Explorer, Microsoft would have completely missed the Internet revolution.

Only a few people run Windows 95 today, and only a masochist would use IE 1.0 for Web browsing, but on this tenth anniversary of those products release, Microsoft should have a party for them.

Without them, the Microsoft we know would simply not exist. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

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