Monday, 24 August 2015

Windows 95 - happy 20th birthday

Is it really 20 years since I spent what felt like a day feeding 13 floppy disks into a computer to nervously upgrade my trust 486 running Windows 3.11 to Windows 95. The new all fangled, all shiny brave new world of a "Start Menu" that replaced the classic "Program Manager" that we had all been used to in the past. Wow what a legacy it has produced.

Windows 95 also introduced the most distinctive change that I think stood the test of time even better than the Start menu, the Task Bar, often neglected and overlooked it sits there quietly at the bottom of the screen allowing a visual clue as to what is running and allowing easy application switching.

In my view I think it was this Task Bar that made Windows 95 the success it was, no more needing to press Alt-Tab to change applications or wondering if a program was running or remembering to minimize them out of the way down to icons that sat on this mystical desktop. Now all your running programs became visible switchable and managable. Later Windows versions introduced quick launch concepts, groupings, notifications, settings toggles and the like however the core essence of the Task Bar remained. And, unlike the "Start Menu", the Task Bar survived the chop through the Windows 8.x era, still there at the bottom ready and waiting to help.

The other great thing the Task Bar brought about was a proper desktop which wasn't a place where programs minimized onto when running - instead it became a quick access file location, a place for folders, and short cuts and a place to completely clutter up with icon's as seemed to be the early craze of getting as many on there as possible. Now at least most people try to keep their desktops clutter free!

The other huge change Windows 95 brought about (ignoring the Start Menu which is very useful way to launch programs but it doesn't do much else if you think about it...) was the shift to a 32-bit operating system at its core. This facilitated longer file names (although done as a bit of a cheat) far more addressable memory and CPU capabilities and allowed us developers back in the day to get far more out of the computer. Yes, Windows 3.11 had a "32-bit" add-on you could install but it didn't change the core, Windows 95 addressed that and allowed a lot of the applications we know so well today to become what they are.

Windows 95 in its day was quite a ground breaking new operating system, and quite a brave move in lots of regards - changing the look, feel and introducing "Start" were very significant shifts in how people had used Windows before, its interesting to see that Microsoft didn't manage the same trick when Windows 8 launched and removed "Start" - perhaps people were less open to change, perhaps "Start" just had become so ingrained into how people used computers - a topic for a later discussion?

Looking back 20 years on, Windows 95 really looks basic as an operating system now, however its amazing how much of it is still recognizable - and in some cases still there today lurking. And back to my opener - all this came on just 13 disks, that is quite impressive really and that it only needed just 4MB of RAM and a 386 to run on too! That is a good demonstration of how coding disciplines were developers created and optimised and tuned and stripped back their software to do the basics, but to do it well and fast. It wasn't long until the "second edition" started the bloat of add on's with it growing to I think 27 disks to install - thankfully CD's came along and sorted that out! However with Windows 10 now a 4GB download to install - the core operating system behind windows certainly has become a bit boated over the years!

For those feeling nostalgic - you can recreate Windows 95 here.

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