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It's (still) Windows 95's world. We just live in it.

Josh Fruhlinger | Sept. 1, 2015
From the Start menu and Taskbar to and device autodetection and free, bundled Web browsers, here’s a brief history of how Windows 95 became the operating system that time never forgot

In October of 2012, Microsoft released Windows 8, which promised to transform Redmond's storied operating system into one that would run across platforms, from desktop PCs to tablets to phones. It was a huge bet on the company's part, and it largely foundered in a user revolt against user interface changes.

Perhaps nothing symbolized the big, unpopular shifts more than Microsoft's decision to get rid of the beloved Start button. Most alpha and beta testers had assumed that the missing button would return in the final release; when it didn't, people immediately started coming up with replacements. Ordinary users hated its absence. Power users were still calling for its return two years later. When Windows 10 was released in 2015, the beloved menu was back.

Call it Windows 95's revenge.

A pretty face

For all the fanfare that greeted its release, Windows 95 is somewhat notorious for not being a huge technical leap forward. Microsoft had originally planned the mid-'90s release of a definitively next-generation OS, code-named "Cairo," which they had been working on since 1991. But when it became clear that Cairo's technical underpinnings weren't going to be ready in time for Windows' needed refresh, much of the work that had already been done developing its user interace was brought over to the Windows 95 project.

Windows 95 did include the Win32 version of the Windows API, which was an important step towards unifying the consumer OS with Windows NT. It also included pre-emptive multi-tasking, which was a huge jump forward for a consumer OS but by no means revolutionary -- Unix had since its inception years before, as had Windows NT. And under the shiny new covers, the operating system was still layered over MS-DOS, just as its predecessor Windows 3.1 had been.

Put a 15 year old in front of 3.1 and they would be lost. In front of Windows 95 they would be able to do any task quickly. - Aaron Webb

But those covers were not unimportant. And even though many techies tend to dismiss UI innovation as eye candy, the fact is that the changes made in Windows 95 were incredibly successful in making the the system more accessible to users -- so successful, in fact, that a surprising number of them have endured and even spread to other operating systems.

We still live in the world Windows 95 made. When I asked people on Twitter their thoughts about what aspects of Windows 95 have persisted, I think Aaron Webb said it best: "All of it? Put a 15 year old in front of 3.1 and they would be lost. In front of Windows 95 they would be able to do any task quickly."

Chimp-ready computing


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