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Microsoft Windows became 35: From MS-DOS to Android



Microsoft Windows is 35 years old. On November 20, 1985, Windows 1.0 was released, giving IBM-compatible (what we now just call PCs) their first graphical user interface (GUI). At XDA, our relationship with Windows is a bit complicated and has ebbed and flowed with Microsoft’s mobile ambitions. One thing is for sure though. Without Windows, none of us would be here. So let’s take a potty look back at the operating system that shaped the others.

At the beginning…

Before there was Windows, Microsoft already had a good grip on the PC market, as the designers of MS-DOS, the command language, whose distant descendants can still be accessed via the CMD window today. Inspired by 1

973’s Xerox Alto, which came with an out-of-the-box GUI, and even earlier examples such as 1963’s CAD-based Sketchpad, in 1981, a young Bill Gates began designing a WIMP GUI (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) to make the novice PC market more accessible.

The development cycle was slow, and when it hit the market, several companies, including Apple, were already running GUIs, but Windows was something new. Apple had already demonstrated that using an operating system with a GUI was ‘democratizing’ – the famous Ridley Scott 1984 Mac ad provided it, and so for many, the benefits of Windows over MS-DOS were already sold.

In late 1987, Windows 2.0, which supports i286 processors, arrived, and with it a copyright lawsuit from Apple. In the end, Microsoft won, as most aspects of both operating systems came from the same influence. Windows 2.0 was the first version that allowed Windows to overlap, rather than being placed side by side in a dashboard formation. Windows 2.1 came in two versions – one for i186 / i286 and one for i386 processors.

Windows 3.0 era logo

Third time is the charm

Windows 3.0, released in 1990, was the breakthrough version and introduced virtual memory and allowed applications to reserve memory for specific tasks. Two years later, Windows 3.1 gave a new coat of paint and introduced us to “Windows for Workgroups”, the first edition aimed at allowing peer-to-peer networking in the office. (There was also a Windows 3.2, but it was only released in China).

The first version that most people remember was Windows 95, which was released in a promotional greeting and Rolling Stones approval. In addition to resembling “Windows of the Future”, it was also the first to allow you to run native 32-bit applications inside the GUI. It also brought plug-and-play the first time you could add a printer, mouse, etc. without installing the drivers yourself. But the most important change in Windows 95 was the addition of Internet Explorer. Yes, this was Windows for the Internet age.

Windows 98 followed, and in 2000 the latest MS-DOS version of Windows was released – Windows ME (Millennium Edition). It was universally dismissed and began Microsoft’s cycle of “a good release, a bad release” that served them for the next 15 years.

Core panic

At the same time, Microsoft had been working on Windows NT, a brand new version of Windows that did not run on DOS. It was aimed at companies where the DOS version continued to dominate. It was released simultaneously with MS-DOS versions and used the same numbering system until Windows 2000, which, as the name suggests, was released in 2000 along with Windows ME. So many people chose Windows 2000 that a rethink was required.

A year later, Windows XP arrived. It was the first complete version of Windows that offers variants rather than two different versions. This was a game-changer. By this time, most offices were online, and many homes were also baptized with the Internet. There were versions for servers, for tablets (long before the iPad and about 4 times the size), a media center version and an integrated version for special devices such as ATMs.

At the same time, a separate edition, called Windows CE, was designed for mini-PCs, and it ran on its own core. It is the version that also produced Windows Mobile that our longtime readers may remember. It’s the operating system that inspired us to start XDA developers. Of course, running different cores meant that the two systems were almost completely incompatible, something that would plague Microsoft until it completely abandoned mobile development.

Alter Vista

When Windows Vista arrived in 2006, Windows ruled the world. Almost every desktop had a PC, and every PC ran Windows XP. So when Vista intruded on the scene with its beautiful new design and increased security from Windows Access Control, it seemed at first glance like the operating system we had been waiting for. But remember how we said there was a good version and then a bad version? This was the bad version. It was huge in size and carried inflated code from the previous 15 years of Windows NT. Its memory footprint was massive, meaning many older machines could not run it. Drivers for Windows XP were almost completely incompatible with Vista, leaving many devices effectively unusable until the manufacturers rewrote them. Still, it was not bad. Vista is still the only version of Windows that allows .mpg files as desktop backgrounds. The only problem was that nothing else could run at the same time.

Microsoft tried to turn the tide in 2007 with what it called “The Mojave Project”, which offered a focus group that had decided not to upgrade to Vista, see “Windows Mojave”, which was to be released in 2008. Of course, it was just Windows Vista , and it was all like mashing vegetables together for a child’s dinner. Vista’s reputation remained in the mud and recording was limited.

Army of Seven Nations

In an attempt to turn the tide, Microsoft released Windows 7 in 2009, which brought back more of the Windows XP experience, but in the Vista shell and with large chunks of redundant code removed to make it smoother. Apps and drivers designed for Vista were more or less 100% compatible with Windows 7, and the combination meant that Windows 7 received rave reviews and continued to be the most popular version of Windows by market share long after it was replaced. It also brought multi-touch support and HomeGroup – a home user version of workgroups – that reflects the fact that the days of just one device in each home were long gone.

By this time, the market had changed without any recognition. Form factors had begun to spring up that had never been taken into account before – smartphones and tablets were becoming the norm, while widespread use of Wi-Fi brought us Netbooks and UMPCs. This in turn led to the advent of alternative operating systems. The iPhone and iPad, in turn, had brought more people to Apple’s Macs, while Google decided that a small Linux kernel-based mobile operating system called Android would be a good point.

The problem was that Microsoft was still denying this trend. It knew that people had choices beyond Windows, but assumed it could not do anything wrong. Windows Mobile has been followed by Windows Phone, which was based on the Windows NT kernel. Microsoft reasoned that by bringing desktop and mobile operating systems closer together, it could overcome the threat posed by Android and iOS. The problem with this claim was that it canceled the entire previous Windows CE Mobile platform and the hundreds of thousands of apps written for it. It started again in the mobile as a late blossom. After all – with its dominance on the desktop, what can go wrong?

Start / Stop

Then came one of the biggest mistakes of all. Windows 8 brought a change that no one had asked for and no one liked. It removed the iconic “Start” button, a feature of Windows since 1995. Windows 8 also brought in the “Metro” interface – a skin-on-skin designed to bring a commonality to all form factors. The problem is, it never worked. Windows Metro (now Universal Windows Platform or UWP) was another example of Microsoft’s strategy of cutting and burning much of what it had done before, and although the original desktop and Win32 compliance remained, it was all fiddly and felt great “Bolted on”.

Microsoft released an early update called Windows 8.1 that was offered as a free upgrade that returned much of the lost functionality, but the damage had already been done. The last remaining netbook users moved to Linux-based systems. Windows Phone 8 never captured the imagination and never achieved the promised interoperability with Windows 8. Android was now the dominant mobile OS, Mac usage grew, and people could see for the first time that “Computer” did not have to mean “Windows”.

Microsoft Windows 10 logo on a blue background

Someone for ten?

As we get closer today, a complete rethink was needed. Satya Nadella was now at the helm of Microsoft at a time when, for the first time in its history, it was no longer the dominant force it had always been.

Windows 10 was the biggest strategic change in Windows history. Windows 9 had been skipped, presumably with Windows 8.1 intended to serve instead. For the first time, Windows was to become “software-as-a-service” with upgrades offered as a free download. When launched in 2015, it was offered as a free upgrade to anyone running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 (Windows 8 users must upgrade to 8.1 first). But it came with its own dangers. This was a Microsoft with aggressive updates with nag screens, pop-ups and paralyzed functionality for those who ignored new versions.

The biggest disruption came when it was discovered that Windows 10 was downloading in the background on machines that had not requested it, causing people on metered connections to run huge, unexpected bills. Microsoft initially doubled its approach, but then calmed down with the pop-ups and added a shift to mark a connection as measured. It took another couple of years before it finally allowed users to postpone updates until they were ready for them.

Windows Phone was quietly flooded at this point with its staff, including thousands who had been brought over from Nokia when Microsoft bought it to make its branded handsets, relocated or cut down. Microsoft is now using Android as its mobile partner and released its first Android handset, the Surface Duo, just a few months ago.

And then, as Microsoft Windows runs towards the Middle Ages, it is no longer the only game in town. It has had to adopt changes in the way we work, play and live, while changing for us. Sometimes, just sometimes, it gets it wrong because it is still trying to lead the consumer instead of following its direction of travel. But still – Happy Birthday Windows. Because there is little doubt that without Windows there would be no Android. And without Android, there would be no XDA.


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