Windows: the 20th anniversary

On 20 November 2005, Windows will be 20 years old. What started out as Interface Manager, a GUI front end for MS-DOS, has become the most successful operating system in the world, with a combined user base of over 330 million.

Inspired by the pioneering work at Xerox PARC on GUI interfaces using the Alto and Star computers – with perhaps a sideways glance at Apple’s interface for the Lisa and Macintosh computers – Windows has developed from a simple, menu-based operating environment to the fully graphic, icon-driven system we know today. It’s evolved from a 16-bit OS running on 5MHz 8086 PCs to a 64-bit OS running on dual-core 3.2GHz CPUs.

Along the way, it’s broken memory constraints, streamlined its processes, and introduced pre-emptive multitasking and multithreading. It’s moved from four-colour CGA displays to 32-bit colour screens running at ludicrously high resolutions. The Start button, the taskbar and the mouse right-click transformed the way people worked, while support for USB, FireWire, Wi-Fi and advanced 3D graphics have given us new ways to use our PCs.

As a result, Windows now has the broadest church of any OS, pulling in everyone from school children to rocket scientists. It started off facing tough competition – IBM’s TopView, VisiCorp’s VisiON and Digital Research’s GEM were all viable alternatives – yet Windows always managed to pull ahead when it came to user numbers.

Admittedly, Microsoft’s OS has never been perfect. Windows went through growing pains as it adjusted to cope with the Internet revolution, and at times it’s been clunky, patchy and unstable. Certain releases have felt like stopgaps and DOS took a lot longer to leave the scene than it should have. Yet despite all these things, Windows has become the most widely used, widely supported and versatile OS around.

With Vista’s revised architecture and polished graphics hardware-based GUI, Microsoft’s OS is now limbering up for the demands of a new computing age that’s unrecognisable from 1985.

To show you just how much, we’ve looked at Microsoft’s key desktop OSes from the past two decades, outlining which particular versions of Windows you have to thank for the various tools you take for granted today.

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