The year was 1995. Microsoft Windows 3.11 was on business machines everywhere, and Windows 3.1 was on home machines worldwide. Program Manager and its groups were the UI paradigm, and 16-bit computing was the state of the art. Then, in one release, Microsoft reinvented personal computing. Every version of Windows since (except maybe Windows 8!) owes it success to what Windows 95 started, so on the 20th anniversary of the release of Windows 95, we thought it would be fun to look at all the things 95 brought to mainstream personal computing.
There were several versions of Windows 95, including to OEM service releases, and add-on packs included new functionality, such as the Plus! Pack. We won’t spend much time on detailing which version included which features, since none of us are going to go back and install 95, but we are going to look back fondly on what 95 brought to computing.
The Start Button and Taskbar
With the notorious exception of Windows 8, every subsequent version of Windows owes its GUI layout to Windows 95. The Start Button, the menu, the taskbar, and the system tray all date back to Windows 95’s GUI. They have been polished, rounded, given 3D functions, and enhanced with new visual effects, but if you took someone from 1995 and put them on a machine running Windows 10 today, they would recognize features and be able to get ‘Start’ed.
While Windows for Workgroups had some 32-bit core, especially networking, it was still considered a 16-bit OS and ran 16-bit programs. Windows 95 still had a lot of 16-bit code, but it was primarily a 32-bit operating system and could therefore run 32-bit programs. Using a swap file on the hard drive, programs could be provided with up to 2GB of virtual memory, greatly expanding the size of datasets that could be used.
Windows 3.x used cooperative multitasking, where a program would have to willingly pause itself so that another program could execute. To run multiple programs, each would have to be written to ‘share’ time with others. With Windows 95, preemptive multitasking made the switching from one program to another the responsibility of a scheduler, which would move processing from one program to another and enabled higher performance multitasking.
Virtual Machine Manager
The VMM offered compatibility amongst 8-bit DOS programs, legacy 16-bit cooperative multitasking programs, and true 32-bit programs, enabling Windows 95 to be all things to all users, to at least some extent. The VMM was, and still is, also responsible for memory management, event handling, interrupt handling, and loading and initializing virtual device drivers.
Before Windows 95, you would have to install a driver for any piece of hardware that was connected to a PC, whether that was a printer, or a modem, or a joystick, or a soundcard. You might also have had to set IRQs and I/O addresses using jumpers to get the hardware to work with your system, always having to be sure you did not configure resource conflicts. Windows 95 introduced the Plug-N-Play standard, enabling many standard pieces of hardware to be automatically detected and configured by the operating system.
Long file names
The long filenames we take for granted today started with Windows 95. Before 95, the 8.3 convention was the only way to go. With 95, you could have filenames of up to 255 characters in length, and you weren’t required to have 3 character extensions, though that particular convention is still strong today.
One of the most significant UI changes in Windows 95 was the introduction of profiles, where multiple users could log onto the same machine, and each have their own personal settings and customizations preserved.
With the Plus! Pack, Microsoft brought Internet Explorer to the desktop. Love it or hate it, much of the way people interact with the digital world was shaped by Internet Explorer back then.
The Universal Serial Bus standard got its start with Windows 95, enabling external peripherals to be connected to a standard interface, detected, configured, and enabled to work without a reboot, and often without the need to install external drivers.
One inadvertent legacy of Windows 95 manifests itself in the name of the latest operating system, Windows 10. Windows 95 and its updates through Windows 98 were often a requirement for applications, which checked for an operating system string of Windows 9*. Since Windows 9 would match that, Microsoft had to jump its naming from Windows 8.x straight to Windows 10 to avoid any version detection issues from legacy third-party apps.
Shaping the world of computing, the legacy of Windows 95 can still be felt 20 years after its release. So much of what we use every day comes from what Microsoft introduced to the world with Windows 95. It will be very interesting to look back on Windows 10 in another 20 years to see what it has passed on to the computing world. I hope I am around to write that article too!