Jan 21, 2020
Windows 95 Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us to innovate (and sometimes cope with) the future! Today’s episode is the third installment of our Microsoft Windows series, covering Windows 95. Windows 1 was released in 1985 and Windows 3 came along a few years later. At the time, Windows 95 was huge. I can remember non-technical people talking about how it was 32-bit. There was a huge media event. Microsoft paid massive amounts to bring the press in from all over the world. They promised a lot. They made a huge bet. And it paid off. After all this time, no single OS has come with as much fanfare or acclaim. Codenamed Chicago, development began back in 1992 alongside Cairo, which would be NT 4. New processors and memory had continued getting faster, smaller, and cheaper trending along Moore’s law. The Intel 80486 was out now, and RAM was actually in the megabytes. Microsoft required a 386 and 4 megabytes of memory but recommended one of those 486 chips and 8 megabytes of memory. And the 32-bit OS promised to unlock all that speed for a better experience that was on par, if not better, than anything on the market at the time. And it showed in gaming. Suddenly DirectX and new video options unlocked an experience that has evolved into the modern era. Protected Mode programs also had preemptive multitasking, a coup at the time. Some of those were virtual device drivers or vxds. Windows 95 kinda’ sat on top of DOS but when Windows loaded, the virtual machine manager coordinated a lot of the low-level functions of the machine for The New Shell as they called it at the time. And that new GUI was pretty fantastic. It introduced the world to that little row of icons known as the Taskbar. It introduced the Start menu, so we could find the tools we needed more easily. That Start Menu triggered an ad campaign that heavily used the Start Me Up hit from The Rolling Stones. Jennifer Anniston and Matthew Perry showcased a $300 million dollar ad campaign. There were stories on the news of people waiting in lines that wrapped around computer stores. They had the Empire State Building fly the Microsoft Windows colors. They sold 4 million copies in 4 days and within a couple of years held nearly 60% of the operating system market share. This sparked a run from computer manufacturers to ship devices that had Windows 95 OEM versions pre-installed. And they earned that market share, bringing massive advancements to desktop computing. We got the Graphics Device Interface, or GDI and user.exe, which managed the windows, menus, and buttons. The desktop metaphor was similar to the Mac but the underpinnings had become far more advanced at the time. And the Stones weren’t the only musicians involved in Windows 95. Brian Eno composed all 6 seconds of the startup sound, which was eventually called The Microsoft Sound. It was a threaded OS. Many of the internals were still based on 16-bit Windows 3.1 executables. In fact while many hardware components could use built-in or even custom 32-bit drivers, it could fallback to generic 16-but drivers, making it easier to get started and use. One was it was easier to use was the Plug and Play wizards that prompted you to install those drivers when new hardware was detected. At release time the file system still used FAT16 and so was limited to 2 gigabytes in drive sizes. But you could have 255 character file names. And we got Windows Briefcase to sync files to disks so we could sneakernet them between computers. The program manager was no longer necessary. You could interact with the explorer desktop and have a seamless experience interacting with files and applications. Windows 95 was made for networking. It shipped with TCP/IP which by then was the way most people connected to the Internet. It also came with IPX/SPX so you could access the Netware file servers it seemed everyone had at the time. These features and how simple they suddenly were as impactful to the rise of the Internet as were the AOL disks floating around all over the place. Microsoft also released MSN alongside Windows 95, offering users a dial-up service to compete with those AOL disks. And Windows 95 brought us Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser by installing Windows 95's Plus! Installation pack, which also included themes. Unix had provided support for multiple users for awhile. But Windows 95 also gave us a multi-user operating system for consumers. Sure, the security paradigm wasn’t complete but it was a start. And importantly users started getting accustomed to working in these types of environments. Troubleshooting was a thing. Suddenly you had GUI-level control of IRQs and Windows 95 gave us Safe Mode, making it easy to bypass all those drivers and startup items, since most boot problems were their fault and all. I remember the first time I installed 95. We didn’t have machines that could use the CD-ROM that the OS came with so we had to use floppy disks. It took 13. We got CD-ROMs before installing 95 on more computers. It was the first time I saw people change desktop backgrounds just to mess with us. Normally there were inappropriate images involved. Windows 95 would receive a number of updates. These included Service Release 2 in 1996 which brought us FAT32, which which allowed for 2 terabyte partitions. It wasn’t an easy process to move from fat16 to fat32 so I remember a lot of people just installing another drive and mapping the d drive to it. The Internet Explorer 4 update even brought us into the Active Desktop era, giving way to many of the Bill Gates demands from his famous “The Internet Tidal Wave” memo. And the Internet certainly came. And Microsoft sat able to dominate the market for over 20 years. They built an acceptable operating system with Windows 1. They built a good operating system in Windows 3. They built a great operating system in Windows 95. The competition had been fierce. The Mac might have in some ways been better and in many ways, been the inspiration. But Microsoft out-maneuvered Apple. OS/2 3.0 or “OS/2 Warp” might have been a great OS. But Microsoft out-marketed the company sending them into a tailspin that resulted in layoffs. Hardware had to work with the new Microsoft plug and play paradigm, or it would die a fiery death in the market. Microsoft had paid careful attention in building DOS and all the other DOS makers were soon to be out of business, sending Gary Kildall of CP/M into alcoholism and by then, dead. Everyone standing in Microsoft’s way had been defeated. Not defeated, crushed, destroyed. If you’ve played Civilization it’s terribly difficult to win if you don’t destroy at least a couple of the other empires. And for a long time, Microsoft was able to give us a number of great innovations and push the market forward. This is all as impressive as it is sad. Following a lull in innovation, Microsoft left the door to the operating system market open for a resurgence of Apple and the new player, Google. They built sub-par mobile operating systems that just didn’t resonate. And the market was ready for a shift, anyway. And they got it. And so today, we have competition again, and so Microsoft has become innovative again. Their APIs are amongst the best in my opinion. I’ve worked with developers who built me a graph API endpoint and shipped it over a weekend. So they’re also inspired. Maybe market domination is good for a little while, to solidify the market. But as we’ve seen time and time again, markets need diversity. Otherwise vendors get complacent. And so think about this… What vendors are overly dominant and complacent today? Is it time. Maybe. That you disrupt them? If so, count me as an ally! So thank you for joining us for this episode and thank you for your innovations, I hope I get to do an episode on them soon! Have a great day.