For Microsoft, its users and fans, Windows 95 is a high water mark that will never be duplicated, and for good reason: the personal computing industry has never seen such excitement over an OS upgrade, before or after Windows 95. For me, Windows 95 is the dividing line between a product I openly derided and one I could use and recommend to others. And the year of its release was also the moment I knew that this is what I would do for the rest of my life.
20 years in, I look back on Windows 95—or, more important, the year leading up to the release of Windows 95—with a sense of nostalgia. I started writing professionally a bit over 20 years ago, first with books and Visual Basic—for which I was the primary author, on my first book no less—and Excel. But it was Windows 95, and my Windows 95 book, which like the others was written for the education market, that cemented things for me.
I received my first beta milestone build of Windows 95 in October 1994. On CD. Forcing me to buy a CD-ROM drive for my PC so I could install it. My original co-author, Gary Brent, and I had a few other books to finish first, but we knew Windows 4.0, as it was then still called, was going to be a big deal. A really big deal. And it was the key focus for the next year.
So 1995 in many ways parallels what’s happening this year. We received the first Windows 10 build in October of last year, and while I have other things to work on—including other books—it is Windows 10, and the Windows 10 book, Windows 10 Field Guide—that is the focus this year. Interesting.
Anyway. Windows 95.
From a technical perspective, Windows 95 wasn’t really all that different from the stealth release of 32-bit disk and RAM access in Windows 3.1x earlier, and it of course was built on top of MS-DOS, but Microsoft promoted the system as the start of mainstream 32-bit computing. (Just as today’s “One Windows” sales pitch is really just an evolution of the work that came before.) But boy, was it so much more than that.
Windows 95 was the start of a single application programming interface, called Win32, that worked with Windows NT as well, and was the first step towards unifying those two systems. But it still ran all of the MS-DOS and 16-bit Windows applications users expected as well.
Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to sport the desktop user interface we’re literally still using today, with a Start button, Start menu, taskbar, and system tray. It supported long file names with no extensions, shortcuts, and had true preemptive multitasking capabilities. It was more visually consistent, and included all new controls throughout the system, and new File Open/Save dialogs. And so much more.
So let’s look at some key features of the Windows 95 user experience, using the language Microsoft used at the time to describe what we’re seeing.
Start button. The goal of the Start button and its menu was to improve the speed at which users could find and launch applications, and access documents and system tools. And it succeeded greatly: Microsoft said that the average speed at which users could accomplish these tasks improved by up to 9x between Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.
Start menu. The Start menu “is much more than a super-efficient application launcher,” Microsoft noted. It provided access to recent documents, settings, Find (search), help, and “easily accessible and safe shutdown, restart and logoff.”
Taskbar. Microsoft described the taskbar as “home base,” and its objective is pretty funny in retrospect: “to make switching among multiple applications as simple as changing channels on a television set … switching applications is a simple matter of selecting the desired ‘channel’ on the taskbar. No more minimized program icons; no more disappearing windows.” The taskbar was the “TV Guide of Windows.”
My Computer. Seeking to end the non-intuitive file management and browsing tasks in Windows 3.1, Microsoft introduced My Computer in Windows 95. (It also kept the legacy File Manager application in the box, too, and had a separate Windows Explorer application, confusing matters somewhat.) My Computer fixed what was wrong with File Manager—intimidating and unintuitive folder hierarchies and dual-pane views, uncomfortable list views—while adding an “object-oriented UI, large icon views, and an improved browsing experience.” “Efficiency and speed are less important” to novice users, the firm noted. I will note this: in Windows 95, every time you clicked on a folder, a new window would open, like the Mac of that time. That didn’t last long.
Network Neighborhood. Working with NT Server, Novell Netware and its own native networking provider, Windows 95’s Network Neighborhood let you browse the local network. It supported drive mapping, remote access of other PCs, and integration with the system Open/Save/Save As dialogs.
Recycle Bin. Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to sport a Recycle Bin, which would store deleted files so you could “undelete” them and visually represent whether it contained any files.
Document-centricity. Windows 95 was the start of a grand but ultimately failed experiment at document-centricity. The theory was that instead of thinking of apps, you’d think of documents. For example, if you’re working on a project, you would think of the project documents, and find them in the Start menu, and click them, and the correct application would just launch. More dramatically, it was possible for a single window to host multiple applications—say Word and Excel—and as you selected the relevant bits, the window would change to reflect the commands of the right app. “In a document-centric environment, the application window changes and the document stays the same, so the software works the way people work, rather than vice-versa.” Sounds like science fiction, because it is, and this never took off with users.
Wizards. Windows 95 was the first version of Windows 95 to contain wizard applications, which would guide users through task completion step-by-step. There were wizards for setting up a printer, adding a new device, setting up remote access, creating a shortcut, installing a new application, and more.
Help. Windows 95 featured a then-new Help engine that looked and worked like a real reference book. Yep, over 20 years before iOS, a leading tech company was pioneering skeuomorphic user interfaces.
Properties. Because Windows 95 was allegedly an object-oriented system, and objects have properties, many items in Windows 95 had a corresponding property sheet that was typically accessed via a right-click menu. This properties interface let you customize features of the item. On a related note, those right-click menus were also context-sensitive, where each item would have its own list of commands, since each object is of course unique.
Control Panel. Windows 95’s Control Panel was the central, consolidated place for all Windows configuration functions, a big improvement over Windows 3.1, where this information was all over the place.
And Windows 95 didn’t stand alone. That summer, Microsoft also launched Plus! for Windows 95, codenamed Frosting, Office for Windows 95, and MSN, the Microsoft Network, which was originally envisioned as a CompuServe-like online service that integrated directly with the Windows 95 shell. It was a busy, heady time, and Gary and I worked throughout the summer of 1995, and indeed on the day of the Windows 95 launch as well, to get our book completed.
Windows 95 is a big enough topic that this article only touches on the broad strokes. I’ll look into examining some related topics in more detail—I’m particularly intrigued by the aborted document-centric stuff, for example—in the future. But for now, it’s interesting to me that the basics haven’t changed in 20 years, and we’re still using the same basic user experience that Microsoft first launched with Windows 95. There are very few personal computing platforms that can claim that kind of consistency over such a long time period and such a huge customer base.
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