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Windows Through The Years: A Retrospective


In the beginning, there was DOS.

The history of Windows begins with PC-DOS — later renamed MS-DOS — the operating system that Microsoft built for IBM’s then-brand new “Personal Computer” that launched in 1981. Microsoft didn’t build MS-DOS from scratch though. They actually bought an OS from Seattle Computer Products, and then proceeded to further develop it to IBM’s specifications. From today’s perspective, the first IBM PC and MS-DOS were primitive, with no hard disk drive, and a command line interface that would be familiar to anyone who has ever typed “RUN” in the Windows search bar.

Going GUI! Windows!

The graphical user interface and mouse were developed by scientists in Xerox’s Palo Alto, California research center (PARC). The concepts came to the attention of Steve Jobs at Apple, as well Microsoft. Both companies embraced this exciting new way of interacting with computers.

Apple launched their Lisa computer in 1983, followed by the first Macintosh in 1984 — both products were more advanced than the MS-DOS/IBM PC combination. Microsoft rushed to catch up, and in 1985 released the first version of the Windows graphical user interface that ran on top of MS-DOS. Although Microsoft had made MS-DOS mouse-compatible in 1983, Windows 1 required the use of a mouse. Windows 2, released two years later introduced overlapping windows, the ability to minimize and maximize windows, and the Control Panel concept that we know and love today! Microsoft Word and Excel also appeared with Windows 2.

Color Me Windows
Five years passed until Windows 3.0 was released in 1990. Windows 3 is acknowledged to be the Windows version that first enjoyed broad success! Unlike Apple, Microsoft was basically relying on other people’s hardware, so the availability of VGA video cards helped improve the graphics for Windows 3. The look and feel of the OS became more modern with 256 color support, and you could also run legacy MS-DOS apps in a window, enabling multi-tasking. The introduction of protected/enhanced mode also allowed Windows applications to take advantage of increased memory capacities.

A Network of PCs? Really?
It’s difficult to believe that the typical PC configuration in those early days was not networked and probably had a dedicated printer. File and printer sharing had to be done by “sneaker-net,” using floppy disks to transfer data between computers.

Into this void came a number of companies, but notably Novell with their NetWare network operating system. Netware allowed companies, even small businesses, to tie their Windows or MS-DOS desktop PCs into a local area network (LAN) and to share printers, as well data via file servers on the network. Another thing that Novell did REALLY well was to recruit a large network of resellers who would sell and maintain these NetWare LANs in customers around the world. Novell required these resellers to have Certified NetWare Engineers (CNE) on staff. These CNEs were trained at third party Novell Authorized Education Centers. A CNE was highly valued as a badge of networking competence! Sound familiar?

Reportedly, Novell had more than 70% market share by the time Windows 3 was released; their product had an enviable reputation for reliability and performance and they had a fiercely loyal set of resellers and CNEs.

Microsoft clearly saw the opportunity in local area networking, and in 1985 launched MS-NET (not to be confused with .NET), as a NetWare alternative. MS-NET failed, so Microsoft later introduced LAN Manager to counter Novell’s product. It, too, was unsuccessful. It was not until the 32-bit Windows NT Server came out in 1994, that Microsoft had an effective alternative to NetWare. Two years earlier they had launched their Microsoft Certified Solution Provider program to counter Novell’s network of Authorized Netware Resellers — and we know how that has turned out!

Enterprise Computing, UNIX Wars, and Windows NT Server
Up to this point, we’ve been talking about computing at the departmental level. Sure, PC LANs could get to be quite large, but at the time, few IT professionals would consider running mission critical applications on them. In the mid-1980s, minicomputers such as IBM’s System 38 were still a common choice for small businesses and for small locations of large organizations. However, many were looking toward the new, powerful UNIX-based RISC workstations and servers from companies like Sun Microsystems, IBM, HP and others.

UNIX in its various forms (AIX, HP-UX, SunOS, Ultrix, etc.) looked like it would be the enterprise server of choice, while Microsoft owned the desktop, but had no comparable server offering! However, Microsoft was busy developing a brand new 32-bit operating system that would become Windows NT and, fortunately for them, the UNIX vendors went to war! This was before Linus Torvalds developed his UNIX clone, that we now know as Linux.

All the UNIX variants were based on source code licensed from AT&T’s UNIX Software Operation (later spun off as UNIX System Laboratories) and productized by the companies themselves. But when AT&T announced a collaboration to unify AT&T’s UNIX System V with Sun’s Berkeley version of UNIX, alarm bells went off among many of Sun’s competitors! The result was a war between one side led by AT&T and Sun, and the other led by IBM, HP, and others. So, while Microsoft was building Windows NT, the UNIX camps were fighting one another, shipping incompatible operating systems, and confusing customers!

Back to Windows!
Microsoft continued to improve Windows and in 1992 released Windows 3.1. This version introduced TrueType scalable fonts, which allowed for WYSIWYG desktop publishing applications. Multimedia features, including CD-ROM and sound card support, were also added to conform to the Microsoft-influenced Multimedia PC (MPC) standard.

With an eye to networked PCs, Microsoft later also introduced Windows for Workgroups (WfW) — both as a Windows 3.1 add-on and as an all-in-one package of base Windows, plus networking extensions including TCP/IP. As a result, Windows for Workgroups opened up the Internet for corporate Windows users.

At this point, every version of Windows had been MS-DOS based and designed to run on the 16-bit x86 chip set, but Intel’s new 32-bit architecture was calling!

Windows NT: Microsoft’s “UNIX-killer”

The Windows story started with Microsoft building MS-DOS for IBM’s original PC. While they were working on Windows, Microsoft also had an agreement with IBM to develop OS/2 as the DOS replacement for IBM’s next generation of PCs. IBM wanted OS/2 to be a general purpose 32-bit operating system that could match up against UNIX.

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s and IBM’s interests diverged and their OS/2 collaboration was terminated. IBM continued to develop OS/2, while Microsoft proceeded to build on their Windows franchise, with the 32-bit multitasking Windows NT operating system.

Windows NT 3.1 was introduced in 1993, and although it was designed from scratch with a new architecture, Microsoft named it Windows NT 3.1 as a brand extension of the very successful Windows 3.1. It was released in two variants — a workstation version called Windows NT 3.1, and a server version called Windows NT 3.1 Advanced Server.

Although Windows NT 3.1 was not a desktop success, it did make a dent in the LAN server market. It had advanced network connectivity options and the NT file system, that helped it make inroads into Novell’s NetWare market share.

Microsoft was now faced with two separate operating system architectures that shared the Windows name — the MS-DOS based 16-bit architecture represented by Windows 3.1, and the new 32-bit portable, multitasking NT architecture. Microsoft announced that they would first replace Windows 3.1 with a 32-bit version that became Windows 95, and then unify this version and NT into one operating system. Sounds easy, but it would take Microsoft until Windows 2000 and Windows XP to substantially unify Windows.

Breaking out of sequence for a little while, let’s follow the NT timeline. The NT OS went through a number of minor releases, until Windows NT 4.0 was released in 1996. As part of the ongoing visible unification of the OS, NT 4.0 used the same shell as Windows 95. Most of the changes in NT 4.0 were under the covers: Scalability, improvements to the kernel, remote procedure call (MRPC) mechanism, APIs for telephony and cryptography, and more. With an eye on the UNIX competition, NT 4.0 had four versions: Workstation, Server, Terminal Server and an Enterprise Server Edition, that supported 8-way SMP multiprocessing and clustering. NT 4.0 also introduced SysAdmins to the concept of Windows User Profiles and System Policies. Windows NT 4.0 was the last release to bear the ‘NT’ name. More on that later.

Standardized Windows API

With Microsoft’s dominance of corporate and consumer desktops, and their support for independent software developers, the Windows GUI and API was becoming the de-facto standard for business desktop software. Even though their architectures were radically different, Microsoft took great pains to maintain application compatibility between Windows 95 and NT.

The key was the Windows API! A new 32-bit API (Win32) had been developed for NT to replace the old 16-bit version, now known as Win16. Subset versions of the NT Win32 were implemented for Windows 95 and also for Windows 3.1. Thus, third party developers had a means of building applications that were upward compatible from Windows 3.1, to Windows 95, to Windows NT.

Windows 95 & Windows 98: Start Menu & More
Windows 95 was launched in 1995 as the modernized 32-bit replacement for Windows 3.1. Windows 95 introduced us to the Start Button and Start Menu, as well as the task bar — all of which were subsequently added to NT 4.0.

With technologies such as the Common Object Model (COM) and Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), drag-and-drop applications, and plug-and-play peripherals became standard for Windows. Also, new with Windows 95 was the Windows Explorer graphical file manager, launched from the My Computer icon, or the Start Menu. While not a standard part of the OS, Internet Explorer also was introduced with Windows 95, thus beginning the browser battle against Netscape Navigator and Mosaic. With the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft also introduced the Windows Update service.

Windows 98 followed three years later. Built on Windows 95, this release featured a bundled Internet Explorer (IE), which later resulted in an antitrust case against Microsoft for unfair practices. Windows 98 was well received. One significant “under the covers” change was the Windows Driver Model, which unified the driver models for the two architecture threads. In addition to IE, Windows 98 featured Outlook Express, Windows Address Book, Microsoft Chat and, in a later interim release, Windows Media Player 6.2.

And in the Best Forgotten Column
In 2000, Microsoft released Windows ME (Millennium Edition) to replace Windows 98. This was the last in the line of Windows 9x and MS-DOS systems. Although it was not well received, ME did at least bring us Windows Media Player 7 and Windows Movie Maker. Let’s move on to Windows 2000!

Windows 2000 & 2003

Introduced in early 2000, Windows 2000 had an internal designation of NT 5.0. It was released in desktop, server, and datacenter versions. One of Windows 2000’s most significant features was the Active Directory service, which replaced the NT 4.0 Windows Server domain model, and incorporated industry-standard technologies including DNS, LDAP, and Kerberos.

Three years later, we saw Windows Server 2003, an update to Windows 2000 Server that provided new security features, improved performance, and the “Manage Your Server” wizard. SysAdmins needed the wizard to simplify configuring machines for specific roles. For security reasons, Windows Server 2003’s default installation had no server components enabled, thus reducing the “attack surface” of new machines.

Windows Server 2003 also was the first with versions to run on 32-bit and 64-bit architectures. As with Windows 2000, Microsoft packaged Windows Server 2003 in functional editions for web, enterprise, datacenter, small business, and storage.

Windows XP

With Windows XP, Microsoft finally unified their consumer and business, desktop, and server operating systems on the NT architecture. Released in 2001, Windows XP incorporated the user-friendly features from the Windows 9x lineup. Incredibly popular, the product reportedly was running on more than 400 million computers when it was discontinued! The product had some serious security challenges, especially with Internet Explorer. It also did not help that the default setting for XP’s integrated firewall was OFF. Windows XP was available in numerous editions for consumers, home office, power professionals, media professionals, and tablet users.

Windows Vista … and then Windows 7
Windows XP was Microsoft’s longest-lived operating system product until it was replaced by Windows Vista (version NT 6.0). Launched in 2007, Vista was roundly criticized for its poor performance, its “bugginess,” and its annoying user dialog boxes for app permissions. For all its faults, however, Vista did replace the Start Button with the Start Orb! It also introduced the Windows Aero GUI, new apps including Windows Calendar and Windows Media Player 11, and the first version of Windows PowerShell. Vista was replaced in 2009 by Windows 7.

Windows 7 was intended to fix Vista’s problems, making minor changes to its look and feel and eliminating user dialog box overload. The product was faster and more stable than Vista and became the favored upgrade route for XP users.

Windows Server 2008
Windows Server 2008 was released to replace Windows Server 2003. It shared the same code base as Windows Vista and built upon the technology introduced with Vista. Some of the many new Server 2008 features included the install-time Server Core option, Failover Clustering to provide high-availability for services and applications, a self-healing NT File System (NTFS), and Microsoft’s Hyper-V based virtualization software.

In 2009, Windows Server 2008 R2 was introduced for 64-bit x64 and Itanium hardware. It was actually the server variant of Windows 7, with enhancements including new Active Directory functionality, new management features, Microsoft IIS Web Server 7.5, and support for up to 256 logical processors!

Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012

Windows 8 and its server variant Windows Server 2012 were launched in late 2012. The Windows 8 user interface was redesigned to support touchscreens, including Microsoft’s Surface tablet. The Start Button and Start Menu were discarded in favor of a touch-friendly Start Screen with tiles, although users seeking a familiar interface could click down to a traditional Windows 7 desktop.

Reaction to the new interface was not universally positive and, apart from tablets, touchscreens were few and far between. Users needed and wanted their mouse and keyboard! This was fixed with Windows 8.1, as users had the option to start their machines in the new tile interface, or with the traditional desktop with the Start button.

Windows Server 2012 was actually released the month before Windows 8. The product was influenced by the industry move toward cloud computing, with features including an updated version of Hyper-V, an IP address management role for administering corporate network IP address spaces, and the new Resilient File System (ReFS). ReFS is said to have a maximum volume size of 1 yottabyte! Who knows how big that is? By the way, PowerShell in Windows Server 2012 had more than 2300 cmdlets, 10 times the number in Windows Server 2008 R2. Not ‘yotta-sized’, but still an impressive number.

Windows Server 2012 was followed by Windows Server 2012 R2, the server variant of Windows 8.1. Windows Server 2012 R2 had a raft of under-the-hood technology, including automated tiering of storage, deduplication of Virtual Hard Disks (VHD), and accelerated deployment of virtual machines. More visible, R2 included the Windows 8.1 user interface and with the returning Start button. PowerShell in this release also included the important new Desired State Configuration (DSC) capability that in a recent CBT Nuggets blog post we described as a “missing link for DevOps”!

And So Your Windows Tour Ends …

Which brings us to the present.

Windows 10 and Windows Server 16

It’s been a long journey from PC-DOS to these two most recent Microsoft Windows offerings. Who would have predicted the information age we live in today 35 years ago? Windows is light years away from where it started — now running on phones, tablets, desktops with more capabilities than a 1981 mainframe on physical servers, on virtual servers, in home offices, in corporate data centers, and in massive private and public cloud configurations! No question about it, Windows has certainly changed.

Microsoft’s current Windows offerings reflect a changed world. Windows 10 includes new features such the Cortana digital assistant and the Microsoft Edge lightweight web browser. And yes! The Start Menu officially has returned with Windows 10.

Windows Server 2016, Windows 10’s server variant, is due to be released later this year. Microsoft is calling it a cloud-ready operating system that makes it easy to transition work to the cloud! Server 2016 has a ton of interesting features, including enhancements to Active Directory, Windows Defender server antimalware, Remote Desktop Services support for the cross-platform OpenGL graphics and OpenCL programming standards, disaster recovery enhancements to Storage Services and Clustering, and rolling updates of Hyper-V clusters.

One new feature that’s worth mentioning separately is the Nano Server installation option. Nano Server is a ‘headless’ operating system — a stripped down version of Windows Server that excludes everything required to support a GUI. Nano Servers are tiny—less than a 10th of what a full Windows Server image requires. This means ops managers can squeeze many more virtual Windows Servers into their physical server boxes. In addition, the smaller footprint should make Nano Server less susceptible to ‘bad guy’ attacks.

Learn More

If you are interested in learning more about Windows, and perhaps in becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional, you should take a look at some of our recent blogs and our Windows certification training.

Read our recent blog post “Making a Career out of Windows” (linked to new blog posting) and consider signing up for our Windows 10 and Server 2016 training:

Finally, check out our blog posts on Windows Server 2016’s support of Nano Servers and Hyper-V containers:


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