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12/11/2002
07:52 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: It's Curtains For Windows 95

Fred Langa bids farewell to Win95 and Win 3x, two operating systems that literally changed the world but will no longer be supported by Microsoft.

On Dec. 31 this year, Windows 95 and Windows 3x will reach what Microsoft calls EOL, or end of life. In short, there'll be no further support, no further patches, updates, or online help available for these products from Microsoft.

It's noteworthy because these products shaped the computing landscape as we now know it. Love them or hate them, Win95 and Win3x had an enormous impact on us all--on everyone who has used any computer, including Macs and Linux boxes, in the last dozen years. In fact, I think Win95 and Win3x were arguably the most important commercial operating system releases ever; and that no future operating system release, ever, will match their impact. Here's why:

Sherman, Set The Wayback Machine ...
In 1990, a typical mainstream PC cost around $2,200 (equivalent to a hefty $3,100 in today's dollars) and was based on an i386 chip running at a blazing 16 MHz. The system came maxed out with 2 MB of RAM, a small hard drive, and a 12-inch or 14-inch monitor. The only sound capability was a tinny system speaker that could make primitive bleeps and bloops. There was no mouse: A typical system--indeed, most of the world's PCs--was based on MS-DOS, which let users run exactly one program at a time by typing text commands at a C:\> prompt.

It's not that PC users didn't know about mouse-driven "graphical user interfaces" (GUIs) and multitasking. In fact, by 1990, there already was an active group of hard-core PC users (like me!) who routinely rigged third-party (non-Microsoft) DOS task-switchers, simple multitaskers, memory managers, and colorful operating system "shells" to try to wring more from the primitive operating system; but we were a tiny minority. Most PC users stuck with DOS more or less as it was delivered.

Part of that was inertia and part of it was that Microsoft's own GUI products were so lame: Windows 1.0 had debuted way back in 1983, but was so poorly done and expensive that it was almost universally ignored. Windows 2.0 fared little better: It came out in 1987, but it, too, was barely noticed except by a handful of gamers and the tiny percentage of users who ran the limited office software available for Windows 2.0.

If you wanted an easy-to use, mouse-driven, point-and-click GUI, the Apple Mac was the only serious choice, offering elegance and sophistication light years ahead of everyone, except perhaps the Amiga. (Alas, the Amiga had its own problems, and was rapidly dropping out of sight.) But the Mac was very, very expensive: The Mac SE/30 had debuted in 1989 at $4,400 (about $6,500 in today's dollars). That was a lot of money for a personal computer then, and still is today.

So, in 1990, the PC world was firmly entrenched in the all-text command-line approach to computing, and many in the DOS world regarded any graphical interface as an unnecessary and expensive frill. Some even showed their disdain by coining the pejorative acronym WIMP to describe the use of Windows, Icons, Mice, and Pointers: People using a GUI, according to these wags, were WIMP users.

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