In-Depth

Windows 95 Reaches Its 15th Birthday

This week marks Windows 95's birthday, with the venerable operating system turning 15 years old.

On Aug. 24, 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95, which had a slightly more appealing graphical user interface (GUI) than its Windows predecessors. That's when Microsoft's GUI really seemed to take off. Microsoft made its Windows product more essential by improving the user experience, and arguably that effort began in earnest with the GUI in Windows 95.

It was Windows 95 that introduced the now-familiar "start" button, which is still seen in Windows 7 (as a blue sphere). In keeping with that start button theme, Microsoft promoted the new OS with the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" song.

The GUI in Windows 95 was an attraction, but Microsoft had first used a GUI menu system back when it launched Windows 1.0 in 1985. Apple later sued over Microsoft's use of GUI elements in subsequent Windows editions. However, Microsoft emerged unscathed, having successfully "stolen" the GUI from the Apple Lisa and Macintosh OSes through a legal clause, according to a Mac Observer history. Microsoft's other legal defense was that it had licensed some of the GUI elements from Xerox.

Windows 95 propelled Microsoft into being one of the most highly valued companies in the world, according to an article by the Business Insider's Henry Blodget. Microsoft's rise was such that in August of 1997, it even bailed out a faltering Apple with a $150 million investment.

The fortunes of the two companies have since started to reverse. In May of this year, Apple was found to have a market cap exceeding that of Microsoft.

All Windows editions were distributed on floppy disks (the bendable kind) up through the release on Windows 95, according to a Windows retrospective by Matt Farrington-Smith, an editor for Microsoft's MSN portal. He noted that Windows 95 originally was called "Windows 4.0" and code-named "Chicago." Windows 95 still had MSDOS as its basis. It took the release of Windows ME for MSDOS to finally disappear, according to Farrington-Smith.

Veteran Microsoft observer Mary-Jo Foley attended the original Windows 95 launch event, which featured comedian Jay Leno and "a full-sized Ferris wheel" on Microsoft's Redmond campus, she observed. At that time, people were lining up in retail stores at midnight to buy the new OS. Foley also noted that 1995 was the year that Microsoft released its infamous Bob user interface, the predecessor of the much maligned "Clippy" cartoon help GUI. Not everything was a success for Microsoft on the GUI front.

Certainly, Microsoft's GUI (or Windows "experience" in Microsoft's parlance) has grown more sophisticated with subsequent Windows releases over the years. Microsoft introduced its glass-like semitransparent Aero skin with Windows Vista. That led to a lawsuit when consumers found that not all "Vista-capable" computers could run Aero. Microsoft also introduced the "Aero-peek" function in Windows 7 that lets users quickly preview open windows from the Windows task bar.

Microsoft's latest advance in human-computer OS interaction is the "natural user interface," or "NUI." One such NUI is the touch screen, introduced in Windows 7 and Windows Surface. Microsoft's upcoming Xbox 360 game consoles, expected to arrive this holiday season, will feature "Project Natal," a NUI that relies on body movements to interact with games.

Microsoft has moved a long way from the DOS command-line interface. Early Windows users used to update their PCs' autoexec.bat files, but that approach seems somewhat obtuse today, at least for consumer users of Windows. However, for IT pros, Microsoft has come back full circle. The company currently touts its PowerShell command-line interface tool for controlling Windows operations.

PowerShell offers IT pros greater control over Windows operations than the GUI, in some cases.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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