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Windows 1.0 turning 25: First experiences recalled

25 years ago, Microsoft released Windows 1.0, but it wasn't an instant hit

By , Network World
November 08, 2010 07:06 AM ET

Network World - Do you remember Windows 1.0? Chances are, your answer is "no."

When Microsoft 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Windows 1.0 was a graphical front end for MS-DOS (Microsoft's version of DOS), but in some respects was out-of-date even by the standards of 1985.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.

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