Windows 10 is the latest version of Windows, the operating system from Microsoft that’s been driving personal computers since the late 1980s. It’s a considerable improvement over the previous version (Windows 8) and a worthwhile upgrade if you’re using any older version of Windows.
A Short History of Windows
If you’ve recently purchased a new PC, the version of Windows on your PC is probably Windows 10. Microsoft has released different versions of Windows over the years, and Windows 10 (released in July 2015) is just the latest in a 30-year run.
The history of Windows actually goes back further than 30 years. That’s because Windows wasn’t Microsoft’s first operating system. Windows evolved from Microsoft’s original DOS operating system, which was released in 1981. The DOS operating system was developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen to run the then-new IBM Personal Computer, and utilized a stark text-based interface and simple one-word user commands. It wasn’t what you would call user-friendly.
Microsoft believed, however, that for personal computers to become mainstream, they had to be easier to use, which argued for a graphical user interface (GUI) instead of DOS’s command-line interface. With that in mind, development on the inaugural version of Windows started in 1983, with the final product released to market in November, 1985.
Windows was originally going to be called Interface Manager and was nothing more than a graphical shell that sat on top of the existing DOS operating system. While DOS was a keyboard-driven, text-based operating system, Windows supported the click-and-drag operation of a mouse. That said, individual windows could be tiled only onscreen and could not be stacked or overlaid on top of each other.
Windows 1.0 didn’t gain a lot of users, but Microsoft kept at it, releasing the next version (Windows 2.0) in 1987. Windows 2.0 added overlapping windows and allowed minimized windows to be moved around the desktop with a mouse. Its big claim to fame, however, was that it came bundled with Microsoft’s Word and Excel applications. It still wasn’t a big success.
Windows Goes Mainstream
The first commercially successful version of Windows was Windows 3.0, released in 1990. This version of Windows sold more than 10 million copies. Windows 3.0 was the first version of Windows to incorporate true multitasking, thus providing a real alternative to the dominant DOS operating system of the time. In addition, the Windows 3.0 interface was a lot nicer looking, with 3D buttons and such, and users could, for the first time, change the color of the underlying desktop.
Two years later, in 1992, Microsoft released Windows 3.1. This version, more than a simple point upgrade, not only included the requisite bug fixes, but also it was the first version of Windows to display TrueType scalable fonts—which turned Windows into a serious platform for desktop publishing. Also new to Windows 3.1 were screensavers and drag-and-drop operation.
Starting It Up with Windows 95
The next version of Windows would be the biggest so far—and to date, for that matter. Windows 95 was released in 1995, and it was a genuine media event, with live television coverage and customers lined up outside stores waiting for the midnight release of the product. (I know, because I was there.) This was Windows hitting the big time, to the soundtrack of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.”
What was the big deal? Windows 95 looked better and worked better, both things for which users had been waiting for years. Windows 95 introduced the taskbar, which held buttons for all open windows. It was also the first version of Windows to use the Start button and Start menu (hence the tie-in to the Rolling Stones’ song); desktop shortcuts, right-clicking, and long filenames also debuted in this version.
Three years later, Microsoft introduced Windows 98, an evolutionary change to the previous version. It looked and felt pretty much like Windows 95, even though it did include some useful improvements under the hood. There was also a “Second Edition” of Windows 98 released in 1999, which was more of a bug fix release.
At the turn of the century, Microsoft released a “millennium edition” of Windows, dubbed Windows Me. This version was considered a failure that seemingly broke more things than it fixed. Although Windows Me upgraded the operating system’s multimedia and Internet features, added the Windows Movie Maker application, and introduced the System Restore utility—all good things—it was notably bug-ridden and prone to frequent freezes and crashes. This caused many users to skip the upgrade entirely.
Windows XP, Vista, and 7
All those bugs got fixed with the 2001 release of what Microsoft called Windows XP. This was the first version of Windows to bring corporate reliability to the consumer market—and consumer friendliness to the corporate market. From the end user’s standpoint, XP was a faster and better-looking version of Windows, and a lot more reliable than the failed Windows Me. It also supported a more modern animated interface, dubbed Luna.
Microsoft stuck with Windows XP for 6 years, not upgrading it until the 2007 release of Windows Vista. Vista added increased security and reliability, improved digital media functionality, and the dazzling Aero 3D user interface. Unfortunately, Vista proved every bit as buggy as the older Windows Me and had a lot of compatibility issues with older computer hardware. It was a bomb, pure and simple—which led Microsoft to replace it with the new and improved Windows 7, released in 2009, just 2 short years after the release of Windows Vista.
What changed in Windows 7? First, it fixed a lot of what people didn’t like about Windows Vista. Older hardware and software were more compatible, and there was even a Windows XP Mode that let you run XP-era apps in their native environment—actually a virtual PC running the real honest-to-goodness Windows XP operating system. There were also some subtle interface changes, including a revamping of how the taskbar looked and worked.
Then Came Windows 8
Users loved Windows 7. Even large companies, seemingly wedded to Windows XP, eventually migrated to the better user interface and increased performance of the newer operating system. Everybody was happy.
That wasn’t good enough for Microsoft, however. Microsoft was looking at the burgeoning sales of Apple’s iPad and feared that traditional notebook and desktop computers would soon be replaced by tablets—a form factor that Microsoft had virtually no presence with. So the brain trust in Seattle put their heads together and came up with a striking reimagining of their core operating system, designed for smaller touchscreen devices.
Windows 8 was released in 2012, and was met with immediate derision. Users took issue with having the new “touch first” interface forced on them, as the vast majority of users were running traditional nontouch notebook and desktop computers, and avoided upgrading to Windows 8.
What exactly was different about Windows 8? First, it didn’t boot to the traditional desktop; instead, users saw a new Start screen with clickable tiles for all their installed applications. This Start screen replaced the tried-and-true Start menu, which simply vanished from Windows. Users could no longer click the Start button to see a Start menu full of their installed apps. This was not only confusing to long-term users, but it was also less productive than using the old Start menu.
Many common operations previously done with the mouse or keyboard were translated into touch gestures, which were meaningless for the majority of users who didn’t have touchscreen computers. A new class of applications (variously called Metro or Modern or Windows Store apps) was also introduced, displayed solely in full-screen mode and designed to operate best on touchscreen devices.
In short, Microsoft abandoned its huge user base and forced them to learn a new way of doing things that they neither wanted nor needed. It’s not surprising that Windows 8 was so derisively received, nor that this move almost singlehandedly destroyed the entire personal computer industry. Users not only refused to upgrade their old PCs to Windows 8, but also refused to buy new PCs that were running the despised operating system. Microsoft couldn’t have done worse if it tried to.
The company tried to reverse some of the damage with the release of Windows 8.1 in 2013. Windows 8.1 returned the Start button to the taskbar (but tied it to the Start screen; still no Start menu), and let users boot directly to the desktop instead of the Start screen, but the changes were too few to make much of a difference. Microsoft had turned Windows into a joke—and an extremely disliked user experience.
Introducing Windows 10
Lets’ face it; Windows 8 was a disaster. Users avoided it like the plague, unless they were forced to buy a new PC with Windows 8 preloaded. Microsoft tried to force a new GUI and operational paradigm on its billions of users, even though users weren’t asking for or wanting to change the way they did things on their computers. The result? One of the biggest failures in technology history—a mistake that ranks right up with New Coke and the Edsel.
Fortunately for all those despondent Windows 8 users, that bomb of an operating system has been replaced by Windows 10. Windows 10 undoes pretty much everything that Windows 8 got wrong and is finally a worthy successor to the much-beloved Windows 7.