Founded in 1975, Microsoft is one of the world’s largest leading tech companies. It makes countless software programs that are used around the globe; the most notable of these is the Windows operating system (OS), which is currently installed on more than 1.6 billion devices.
Despite being the foremost OS, Windows wasn’t always popular. Many software iterations worked poorly, causing people to look for alternatives. However, constant evolutions spanning more than three decades have made the OS what it is today.
Before looking at the evolution of Windows, it would be remiss not to mention the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS). As the company’s first OS, the text-based system MS-DOS came onto the scene in 1981.
The OS completed specific tasks in response to commands that the user would type into the command portal. Despite falling away almost wholly as a main-use system, MS-DOS remained the backbone of many Windows OS versions.
The first edition of Windows was released in 1985. The launch was an almost non-event in the industry. Competing systems such as GEM Desktop, DESQview, and TopView made Windows just one of many attempts to create a viable graphical user interface (GUI) OS for the masses.
However, what did make the OS stand out slightly was the inclusion of applications such as Paint, Notepad, a calculator, Cardfile, and Write, a pre-runner of the infinitely popular MS Word.
Just two years after the launch of Windows 1.0, Microsoft released a new version of the OS. Featuring overlapping windows, minimizing and maximizing features, and icons to depict files and folders, it made PCs look more like Macs.
After the release of Windows 2.0, Apple took Microsoft to court for over 100 copyright violations, claiming the company was using its proprietary software. However, due to a clever user agreement drafted by Microsoft between Apple and IBM, the company was fully entitled to use Apple’s software, and the court threw the case out after four years. This dispute started a feud between the owners and companies that still continues today.
Windows 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2
In 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0. Offering clickable icons instead of a static list as in previous versions, the OS also came with an updated GUI. Two years later, Windows 3.1 launched and became massively popular among users.
Boasting support for increased RAM, the OS also introduced new applications like the Windows Media Player and Windows Registry and support for an integrated network. Windows 3.2 was released shortly after as the same OS but with support for simplified Chinese.
The first giant leap forward towards making Microsoft Windows a household name came in 1995 with the release of Windows 95. As the first OS edition to use the Start button, the system also introduced the taskbar, which has remained a part of every generation of the OS since then.
Windows 95 also featured plug-and-play technology, allowing users to install peripheral devices such as printers almost instantly. Support for the newly launched internet also made Windows 95 essential for many users internationally, and the company sold more than 40 million copies of this OS within the first year.
In 1998, the company again released a new version, this one titled Windows 98. Continuing the growth experienced due to the now iconic Start button, the new OS featured an updated Internet Explorer and allowed internet connection sharing.
Another milestone in the evolution of Windows took place in the 98 OS with the introduction of Windows Update—a built-in agent used to deliver critical security and software updates for the system. This edition also offered other enhancements like better driver support and DVD playback.
Windows 2000 and Windows ME
At the turn of the millennium, Windows introduced two new variants: Windows 2000 Professional (aimed exclusively at businesses) and Windows Millennium Edition (ME). Both versions introduced disability support, Windows Movie Maker, and a further updated internet browser (version 5.5).
However, both systems were considerable letdowns—with Windows ME often called Windows Mistake Edition—and were plagued by security issues that allowed hackers to gain access to computers easily.
In the evolution of Windows, XP is by far the most commonly agreed-upon turning point for Microsoft. Released in 2001, only a year after the dismal failure of ME, the OS sold more than 400 million copies in its first five years.
Featuring a wholly overhauled GUI, the OS also included increased speed and stability, hardware support, multimedia abilities, and security. Aside from being the longest-running OS in the company’s history, it was also the first Windows OS that did not run on an MS-DOS base.
Initially called Windows Longhorn, Windows Vista was released in 2007. Aimed at replacing XP, the OS offered unique GUI options, including transparent window frames and taskbars. A redesigned Start menu was also a prominent feature.
Despite the graphical offerings, Windows Vista fell flat. The OS was plagued by endless hardware and software capability issues and caused even the most high-end machines to grind to a halt. As such, many who upgraded quickly returned to XP and vowed never to trust a new release of Windows again.
Windows 7 and Windows Mobile
Seeking redemption for the Vista saga, Microsoft launched Windows 7 in 2009. In just six months, it sold over 100 million copies and became the most widely used OS in the world. It is still ranked as one of the best OSes ever released.
With the graphical improvements of Vista, Windows 7 featured the stability and reliability of XP. It also included support for virtual hard disks, multi-core processor performance boosts, touch recognition, and DirectAccess.
On the back of the success of Windows 7, Microsoft announced the launch of Windows Mobile in 2010. The mobile device OS was meant to revolutionize portable devices and provide access to more functionality and a wide range of software, like a slots app that has games you want to play. However, the OS was a disaster reminiscent of Vista and exited the market by 2017.
Windows 8 and 8.1
2012 saw the release of ‘Windows Reimagined.’ Windows 8 was a brave step that removed the iconic Start button and made the start menu the home of the PC—turning the desktop into nothing more than an app.
The OS was such a disaster that the company released an updated version, Windows 8.1, a year later. This OS restored the Start button and significantly improved the initial system, which was riddled with performance issues and bugs.
Bypassing Windows 9, Windows 10 launched in 2015. Codenamed Blue, Windows 10 took the best components from Windows XP and 7 and matched them with the few things that worked from Windows Vista and 8.
Focusing on security, this OS is widely believed to have been the safest version of Windows, as it included an impressive array of built-in security features. It also shipped with numerous performance and hardware compatibility tweaks, which made it incredibly satisfying to use.
Considered an update of Windows 10, Windows 11 was officially released in 2021. Taking a slightly less intense stance at reimagining Windows than Windows 8, the OS still made several GUI changes, including moving the Start button to the center of the taskbar.
Officially dropping support for Internet Explorer, this OS is also the first to use a trusted platform module, TPM, to run most programs in virtual spaces. This has led to the OS being incredibly secure and able to lock down the progress of any infection it may encounter.