Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the launch of Windows 95, by far the most high-profile and successful launch in personal computing history. But the date passed without any mention of the milestone from Microsoft, which is busy preparing the ever-delayed Windows Vista, the 4th major version of Windows it will ship in the wake of Windows 95.
"Windows 95 offers far more than just excellent DOS compatibility," I wrote in February 1995, in a Windows 95 preview for a newsletter aimed at educators. "A fully redesigned 'document-centric' user-interface is easy to use and understand. The conspicuous Start button on the standard task bar begs to he pressed, revealing cascading menus containing shortcuts to programs, recently used documents, configuration options, and help. The task bar has a button for each running program, offering a quick and easy way to switch between these programs."
Ah yes, it was all so new then. But after a decade of 32-bit, multithreaded operating systems, and a mind-numbing series of electronic attacks against Windows systems, PC users are starting to become a little more jaded towards technological advances. Today's Windows versions are based on a completely different code base than Windows 95, and are much more stable and reliable. They're arguably more secure as well, though the toll of constant hacker attention is felt by all who have purchased multiple antivirus and anti-spyware solutions over the years.
Ultimately, Windows 95 was more a marketing success than a technological breakthrough. Most of the advanced technology in Windows 95 was seen previously in the little-know release of Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Where Microsoft really succeeded with Windows 95 was in convincing a mass audience to get excited about software and dump their existing PCs and upgrade. The Windows 95 launch was accompanied by a $300 million marketing campaign that included local events around the globe and the licensing of the Rolling Stones' song "Start Me Up." (Fun trivia: Microsoft originally wanted to license R.E.M. song "It's the End of the World as We Know It," but the band refused.)
Despite the hoopla at the launch, the most lasting legacy of Windows 95, of course, is the near-constant legal battles Microsoft has suffered since that operating system was in development. After failing to halt the bundling of the MSN online service with Windows 95, US regulators eventually brought Microsoft to trial for illegally bundling versions of Internet Explorer (IE) and other middleware in Windows 95, Windows 98 and other Windows versions. Since then, Microsoft has definitely lost its groove: The company and its products are rarely seen as hip or trendy, and software releases since Windows 95 have passed with little excitement in the wider world. Microsoft stock, once the darling of Wall Street, has barely moved in several years.
Products such as Xbox 360 and XP Media Center Edition are attempting to change all that, but Apple's dominance in the digital media world and Sony's dominance in video games have shuttered Microsoft thus far. It's a brand new world, one in which the software giant is competing in many markets it does not dominate. In that light, the success of Windows 95--which entered a market it was guaranteed to win--is perhaps a bit diminished. But it should still be remembered fondly as the high-point in Microsoft's history thus far. Strange that the company doesn't see it that way.
For a fun look back at Windows 95 from the eyes of a beta tester, check out my Windows 95 Preview on the SuperSite for Windows.