07:52 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

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.

PC Users' Secret Envy
Posturing aside, there were some things about the Mac that many PC users held in secret envy: For example, the Mac offered a simple, easy way to see on-screen how your documents would look when they were printed: It was called WYSIWYG computing--pronounced whizzy-wig, and meaning What You See Is What You Get.

For some users, especially those involved in graphic arts, WYSIWYG operation alone was worth every penny of the Mac's extra costs. For others, the ease of use of the Mac made the high prices worthwhile--instead of typing in a textual command to the operating system, all you had to do was point and click on whatever you wanted to work on.

Were it not for the Mac's high price, many more users would have left the DOS world without a backward glance.

But then three things happened. First, PC clone prices went into freefall when a number of Asian industries--notably in Taiwan--began churning out PC components en masse: Computer parts that had been rare and expensive suddenly became cheap commodities.

Second, Apple decided to actively prohibit any other hardware vendor from producing inexpensive clones of the Mac: If you wanted a Mac, you had to buy it from Apple, at the inflated prices Apple dictated. (This was referred to as Apple's "boutique pricing," and was in sharp contrast to the increasingly commodity pricing of PCs.) But Apple felt safe in pursuing this path because it had the only commercially successful GUI: It had a lock on the GUI market.

But then, in 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0. It wasn't as good as a Mac, not by a long shot. But it brought many of the best elements of the Mac's point-and-click, WYSIWYG interface and operation to a much less expensive, ubiquitous hardware platform. In short, it brought Mac-like capabilities out of the boutique and into the mainstream.

Windows 3.0's Feedback Loop
I was the editor in chief of BYTE magazine in 1990, and when Microsoft released Windows 3.0, I wrote an editorial stating that the new operating system was likely to change the face of computing: Users could take a generic PC that cost anywhere from 33% to 50% less than a Mac, install Windows 3.0 on it, and get most of what made a Mac special while still being able to run their older, pure-DOS software. (Windows 3.0 ran on top of DOS, without replacing it.) In short, Windows 3.0 was a way users could get the best of two worlds--a Mac-like GUI on cheap DOS PCs.

At the time, I got some strong criticism because only a single-digit percentage of PCs in the world were running any version of Windows, and Windows 1 and 2 had been like bad jokes. But the combination of a passable GUI on inexpensive PCs proved irresistible to millions, and sales of the new operating system took off. In fact, in 1990, Microsoft became the first software company in history to rack up a billion dollars in annual sales, with Windows 3.0 fueling a huge chunk of those sales.

A positive feedback loop began: Windows 3.0 helped drive PC sales. High sales volumes drove PC component prices down even further, letting vendors either offer more bang for the buck, or offer the same bang for fewer bucks. Thus, PCs became even more affordable, which helped drive further sales of new PCs equipped with Windows 3.0--and on and on and on. The result was plummeting prices for PC hardware, and rapid domination of the operating system market by Windows.

As PC prices dropped, the price/performance gap between PCs and Macs grew even wider. But Apple still did nothing, apparently feeling secure because Windows 3.0 was, at best, still only a rough approximation of the Mac.

While Apple idled, Microsoft began improving Windows. For example, Windows 3.0 gained what were then called multimedia extensions in 1991, bringing support for sound, video, and CD ROMs to the operating system. A year later, Windows 3.1 was released, addressing many of the worst shortcomings in Windows 3.0: It sold something like three million copies in its first eight weeks of availability. Six months later, in the fall of 1992, Windows For Workgroups 3.11 was released, bringing basic network support into the operating system and making Windows PCs natively network-aware.

Over the next two years, Microsoft patched and polished Win3x, and also refined and extended its GUI. (The Win3x GUI ended up grafted onto NT 3.1, for example.) But behind the scenes, Microsoft had an enormous programming effort under way to produce what we would come to know as Windows 95.

Exceeding the Mac
Win95 went through a long, messy birth with hundreds of builds (test compilations of the software); Microsoft churned out some 30 semi-private beta CDs during a two-year gestation period, a major beta update pouring out of Redmond every three to four weeks for two solid years.

When Microsoft was done with Windows 95, it had finally matched the Mac point for point in most areas, and even exceeded it in others. Win95 was, in fact, the first consumerized 32-bit operating system available for general use. It included a form of pre-emptive multitasking (a superior way tasks can interrupt each other according to priority), advanced file systems, threading, networking, and a very useable interface. It did retain some 16-bit elements in its MS-DOS 7.0 subsystem, a point Mac fans harped on, but the reality was that Win95 left the Mac in the dust: It would be some seven long years before the Mac's core technology would catch up to what Microsoft delivered in Win95.

Microsoft refreshed and re-released the Win95 core on two major (and many minor) occasions: Win98, currently the world's most-used operating system, and Windows Millennium Edition are basically improved and enhanced versions of Win95. (That's one reason why you'll see this family of software referred to as Win9x; they're all similar at their cores.)

Whether you love or hate Microsoft, there's no escaping the fact that Windows 3x and 9x are among the most--and may simply be the most--important pieces of commercial software ever released. They introduced more people to computing than all other operating system platforms combined. In a very real way, Win3x and Win9x defined computing, for good or ill, for hundreds of millions of users.

Even non-Windows users benefited from Win3x and 9x. For example, take cheap hardware: The $2,200 that bought a 16-MHz PC with 2 megs of RAM in 1990 will today get you a box roughly 200 times as powerful, with a CPU running at more than 2 GHz and with 512 MB of RAM. Or, going the other way, you can get a complete low-end PC--everything but the monitor--for under $200. If you took away the sales of hundreds of millions of Windows-equipped PCs over the last 10+ years, we wouldn't have seen phenomenal price drops like this.

Look at the Internet, and especially the Web: These were mostly curious, little-trafficked academic byways in a world dominated by private dial-up services until the first Windows browsers became available and allowed millions of ordinary users to start surfing. Later, when Microsoft bundled a browser into Win98, the Internet and Web began to become part of the basic experience of computing. Today, an unconnected PC feels--and is--incomplete; that's a change that Windows enabled.

To be sure, the success of Windows 3x and 9x had a down side: Microsoft became hugely arrogant, and abused its power. But once public opinion and legal wrangling forced Microsoft to loosen its grip on the industry, a flood of non-Microsoft software options have sprung up to take advantage of the mass market, cheap hardware, and computer-savvy consumers that now exist, and that didn't exist in the pre-Windows 3.0 days. Today, users can choose from among some 100 different browser options, some 60-plus Linux flavors, and half a dozen major operating system alternatives, including a resurgent Apple. All these companies and their users directly or indirectly benefited from the market and computing environment created and shaped by Windows 3x and 9x.

But Now: Game Over
But now, it's the end of the line: On Dec 31, 2002, Microsoft will withdraw support for these seminal products. On that date, those operating systems (along with NT3.5x and all standalone versions of MS-DOS) will reach what Microsoft calls EOL, or end of life. (See "Windows Desktop Product Life-Cycle Policies" and "Microsoft's Product Support Life Cycle")

On balance, I think history will regard these operating systems the way we now look back on Model T and A automobiles: Not for their flaws or for the social and environmental problems they caused, but for the enormous good they occasioned in broadening the horizons of tens of millions of people; of creating whole new industries and ways of life; and in empowering ordinary people in extraordinary ways.

It's safe to say that no operating system has ever had a run like Windows 3x/9x has. And I bet we'll never see anything like it again. Windows 3.0 and Windows 95: Hail, and farewell.

What's your take? Is Fred overstating the importance of these operating systems? How might history have played out if Microsoft hadn't released Windows 3? Or, if Apple had allowed inexpensive Mac clones to be produced? Without an installed base of hundreds of millions of cheap PCs, would Linux have taken off as it has? What would the computing world look like today without Windows? Join in the discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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