Windows 1.0 turning 25: First experiences recalled

Do you remember Windows 1.0? Chances are, your answer is “no.”

When Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) released the very first version of Windows nearly 25 years ago, on Nov. 20, 1985, it was late to the game and little used. Apple had already brought graphical user interfaces to computers with Macintosh more than a year earlier, while DOS systems dominated the market for IBM and IBM-compatible PCs.

Windows 1.0 was a graphical front end for MS-DOS (Microsoft’s version of DOS), but in some respects was out-of-date even by the standards of 1985. Windows 1.0, for example, didn’t allow overlapping windows, a feature offered with Macintosh.

Microsoft Windows after 25 years: A visual history

No one who used this first version was likely to have predicted that Windows would completely dominate the PC market 25 years later.

Shortly after Windows 1.0 was released, Nathaniel Borenstein was working at the Carnegie Mellon University IT Center when Microsoft representatives stopped by to demonstrate their new operating system.

“What’s interesting in retrospect was we laughed, just laughed them out of the place,” Borenstein says. “Because we had a vastly superior window manager of our own, and these guys came in with this pathetic and naïve system. We just knew they were never going to accomplish anything.”

Borenstein went on to create MIME, the Internet standard for sending and receiving multimedia data. The lesson here is that even the most accomplished technology experts can be wrong. “Never underestimate the value of persistence,” Borenstein says.

Although Windows 1.0 wasn’t widely used, Microsoft did sell the OS at retail preloaded on PCs and in the box, adorned with the words “Microsoft Windows Operating Environment For IBM and COMPAQ Personal Computers.”

Today, 25 years later, more than nine out of 10 desktop computers run some version of Windows. Windows XP, released nearly a decade ago, is still the most widely used. But XP is starting to give way to Windows 7, which has sold a whopping 240 million licenses in its first year of availability.

Although Borenstein remembers Windows 1.0, Bill Gates’s claim to fame didn’t really take off until version 3.0 and Windows 95. Computer users who tried out the second and third versions were intrigued, but not necessarily blown away.

In Windows 2.0, “You knew you were in DOS,” because you still had to deal with command prompts, says Chris Hewitt, a developer at Readify, an app development consulting company in Australia. “Really, they should have called Windows 3 ‘Windows 1’. Windows 3 was really the first one that was taking over all of the machine and being an operating system.”

Hewitt remembers there being major excitement over the Windows 3.0 graphical user interface, saying the company he worked for at the time bought 30,000 licenses.

Hewitt was recently attending Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference at the company headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Another PDC attendee, software developer Julian Easterling of Marriott International in Bethesda, Maryland, also remembers using Windows 2.0.

“Windows 2 was, I believe, still in DOS,” Easterling says. “Windows 3 was the first GUI one that I remember seeing.”

Windows 2.0 was released in 1988 and Windows 3.0 in 1990, but at that time Easterling was a bigger fan of IBM’s OS/2.

“I preferred OS/2 back then. I thought it was a much better operating system. I think it was better technically,” he says.

“Although it didn’t have a nice graphical user interface, from a programming standpoint I think [OS/2] was a lot better,” Easterling continues. “Of course, Microsoft had marketing behind it and really took over.”

At PDC, some Microsoft executives also recalled their first impressions of Windows, which occurred many years before they started working for the company.

When asked if he remembers the first time he saw Windows, Microsoft official Paul Bryan says with a laugh, “Probably, but I don’t know if I want to remember.”

Bryan’s been with Microsoft for 12 years, now serving as a Windows Phone product manager.

Bryan says he thinks Windows 3.1 provided his first Windows experience, while he was an undergraduate in computer engineering. Bryan had used mainframes and workstations, but Windows provided a new type of usability.

“Just the whole graphical user interface was a very different experience,” he says. “That was the first one I had used. I had not used Macs, and I’d used other text-input interfaces.”

Guy Gilbert, a Microsoft group product manager, first encountered Windows in the early 1990s, and used it to run Excel and some presentation software.

Switching between Windows and more rudimentary systems was frustrating, Gilbert says.

“It was still a world where you did part of your work in Windows and there was still a good chunk of your work you were doing on the mainframe,” he says. “I was an analyst at Exxon Mobil in the early ’90s, spending a lot of time with Excel, which was great, and then you had to go back to their proprietary e-mail system which was on a mainframe, which was really horrible. Things like attaching a document were so horrible compared to the graphical user interface [of Windows],” he says.

Despite joking about his first encounter with Windows, Bryan says he was impressed.

“I was impressed because I had been using all text interfaces. It’s a pretty big change, to go from having to type everything in to point and click,” he says. “It was a metaphor change, it was a way of interacting with computers in a much different way.”

Windows was particularly helpful to those who might be called computer-illiterate.

“It made it accessible for a lot more people,” Bryan says. “I remember buying a [DOS] computer with my family for the small business they had. … I was excited and telling them about what they could do with the PC and then we turned it on and it comes up with a flashing A prompt. Well what do we do now?

“It’s so intimidating to start off at a command prompt, with just like a blank screen and a blinking cursor with an A, and people have no idea what to do. They’re just like ‘I guess we turn it off now.’

“But with Windows you click over here and you’re in the program. … It definitely was a revolutionary change in terms of the experiences people had and the accessibility it brought to so many more people.”

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