Windows 95 Turns 25: When Windows Went Mainstream

The Windows 95 Start button.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95. This innovative and highly efficient PC operating system distracted PC users from the command lines. It also made Microsoft a household name. Here’s why Windows 95 was so special.

All the windows, all the time

One of the most notable features of Windows 95 was that for the first time it attempted to completely distract users from a command prompt. Unlike Windows 3.11, Windows 95 started directly in a GUI, despite having a enhanced MS-DOS kernel run under the hood.

Prior to Windows 95, PC owners had to purchase MS-DOS and Windows separately and then install one over the other. By default, most people would always boot into MS-DOS, then run Windows whenever they needed to.

Windows 95, however, encapsulated both the Windows and MS-DOS shell into one product and called it a complete operating system.

The Microsoft Windows 95 logo at startup.Microsoft

The biggest advantage of an MS-DOS lineage was that Windows 95 was widely backward compatible with thousands of programs written for MS-DOS and Windows 3.x out of the box. This made it a pretty painless upgrade for most people.

In contrast, being MS-DOS-based made Windows 95 prone to frustrating crashes (largely due to memory management conflicts), especially compared to something like Microsoft. Windows NT.

The Windows NT line has only started to bridge the professional / consumer divide with Windows 2000 five years later. It did not completely replace the Windows 9x series in DOS until the launch of Windows XP in 2001.

RELATED: Remembering Windows 2000, Microsoft’s Forgotten Masterpiece

The birth of the Start menu and the taskbar

If you’ve used Windows for the past 25 years, you’re familiar with the iconic Start menu and taskbar, both of which originated in Windows 95. The Start menu served as a concise and logical replacement for the Program Manager in Windows 3.x to organize and launch installed applications.

Microsoft has highlighted the Start button in much of its advertising and touted it as an easy way for anyone to “get started” using their Windows PC.

The Start button on a Microsoft Windows 95 desktop.Explore the Windows 95 Start menu.

The Start menu has also given rise to some comic confusion, as shown this review of the New York Times of August 1995, who lamented: “Where’s the shutdown option? On the Start button, of course! “

The Windows 95 taskbar extended across the bottom of the screen (as it does now), providing a compact yet sophisticated way to manage tasks across multiple application windows. Windows 3.x did not have such a feature, nor did the Macintosh at the time.

In fact, it could be argued that it was the Start button and taskbar that allowed Windows 95 to outperform Mac OS functionality for the first time. This was a big deal in 1995, as Apple fans had long derided Microsoft in the process of catching up with Macintosh. Mac OS did not get a launcher or task manager enabled by default until the OS X beta in 2000.

RELATED: Windows 3.0 Turns 30: Here’s What Made It Special

The origin of Windows Explorer (and more)

Windows 95 marked the first appearance of Windows Explorer (now called “File Explorer”), a file manager and an OS shell combined into one. Unlike Windows 3.x, which divided file and application management into two different programs, Explorer united them (similar to Searcher before that). It not only handled windows full of icons representing both files and applications, but also the Start menu and taskbar.

Other software innovations in Windows 95 include:

A contextual context menu for direct file operations.
A desktop area that could store files like a folder.
File shortcuts.
Trash.
Device Manager
“My Computer” on the desktop.
A system-wide “Find” utility.
Support for native 32-bit applications (via the Win32 API).
Support for the new DirectX API, which allowed full screen Windows games.

Windows 95 was a huge version designed to prevent people from relying on MS-DOS to get things done. All of these new features made this possible for the first time (at least on a Microsoft product).

Free cell

FreeCell first appeared as a demo program for the Win32 API (for Windows 3.x machines). However, he delivered with Windows 95 and quickly became a sensation on par with Windows Solitaire and Minesweeper before it (both of which were also included with Windows 95).

Its depth and complexity kept gamers hooked for over a decade as they tried to solve all of its 32,000 possible games.

Internet on the desktop

In its first retail version, Windows 95 did not include a web browser. Instead, people saw an icon for a new online service called The Microsoft Network (MSN) on the desktop. Microsoft designed MSN as a competitor for CompuServe and Prodigy.

However, even before MSN launched, Bill Gates recognized the inevitability of World Wide Web domination. As a result, MSN quickly evolved into more of a Internet service provider (FAI).

Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, started out as an optional add-on for Windows 95. However, in December 1995, new versions of Windows 95 (starting with OEM service version 1) included Internet Explorer by default.

Users accessed the browser through an icon on the desktop called “Internet”. Developers of competing web browsers, like Netscape, have found this to be a monopoly overtake by Microsoft. The inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows 95 led to the great American antitrust case against Microsoft in 1998.

After a first judgment that called for the dissolution of Microsoft, Microsoft prevailed in an appeal and walked away with a slap on the wrist. And Internet Explorer continued to be included in future versions of Windows.

New heights in marketing

To launch Windows 95, Microsoft rolled out a $ 300 million promotional campaign, cited at the time as, perhaps, the most expensive in American history. It was an unprecedented high level campaign for a software product. It was also complemented by friendly blue sky illustrations and a catchy name that seemed to distinguish Windows 95 from other more sterile software versions.

The box illustration on Microsoft MS-DOS 6.22 and Windows 95.Old illustration of Microsoft’s box (left) and the more user-friendly Windows 95 retail box (right). Microsoft

The company advertised everywhere: newspapers, magazines, radio, television and billboards. This too under license “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones for $ 3 million to use in a high-profile series of television commercials.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft organized a big press launch event at its campus in Redmond, Washington, hosted by Jay Leno. It was reportedly broadcast live via satellite for smaller Microsoft events around the world.

The effect was impressive. Windows 95 has garnered a lot of attention and brought Microsoft into the mainstream of culture as a symbol of business success. The company sold 1 million copies Windows 95 in its first week on the market, and 40 million in the first year. Windows 95 has been a real success.

Happy Birthday, Windows 95!

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