ARCHIVED: What is the history of Microsoft Windows?

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Microsoft first began development of the Interface Manager (subsequently renamed Microsoft Windows) in September 1981. Although the first prototypes used Multiplan and Word-like menus at the bottom of the screen, the interface was changed in 1982 to use drop-down menus and dialog boxes, as used on the Xerox Star.

Versions of Microsoft Windows discussed in this document:

Windows 1.0

Microsoft finally announced Windows in November 1983, with pressure from just-released VisiOn and impending TopView. This was after the release of the Apple Lisa (but prior to the Macintosh), and before Digital Research announced GEM, another competing graphical environment. Windows promised a simple graphical interface, device-independent graphics, and multitasking support. The development was delayed several times, however, and the first version was available to the consumer market (after 55 programmer years of development) in November 1985. The selection of applications was sparse, however, and Windows sales were modest. These were the major features of Windows 1.0:

  • Graphical user interface (GUI) with drop-down menus, tiled windows, and mouse support
  • Device-independent screen and printer graphics
  • Cooperative multitasking of Windows applications

Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0, introduced in the fall of 1987, provided significant usability improvements to Windows. With the addition of icons and overlapping windows, Windows became a viable environment for development of major applications (such as Excel, Word for Windows, Corel Draw!, Ami, PageMaker, and Micrografx Designer). Sales were spurred by the runtime (Single Application Environment) versions supplied by the independent software vendors. When Windows/386 (see next section) was released, Microsoft renamed Windows 2.0 to Windows/286 for consistency. These were the major changes from earlier versions of Windows:

  • Overlapping windows
  • PIF files for DOS applications


In late 1987, Microsoft released Windows/386. While it was functionally equivalent to Windows/286, it could run multiple DOS applications simultaneously in the extended memory. Multiple DOS virtual machines with preemptive multitasking was a new feature in Windows from its earlier versions.

Windows 3.0

Microsoft Windows 3.0, released in May 1990, was a complete overhaul of the Windows environment. It could address memory beyond 640KB, and it had a much more powerful user interface; independent software vendors started developing Windows applications with vigor. The powerful new applications helped Microsoft sell more than 10 million copies of Windows, making it the best selling GUI in the history of computing. These were the major changes from earlier versions of Windows:

  • Standard (286) mode, with large memory support
  • 386 Enhanced mode, with large memory and multiple preemptive DOS session support
  • No runtime versions available
  • Program Manager and File Manager added
  • Network support
  • Support for more than 16 colors
  • Application Programming Interface (API) support for combo boxes, hierarchical menus, and private .ini files

Windows 3.1

Microsoft Windows 3.1, released in April 1992, provided significant improvements to Windows 3.0. In its first two months on the market, it sold over three million copies, including upgrades from Windows 3.0. These were the major changes from Windows 3.0:

  • No Real (8086) mode support
  • TrueType scalable font support
  • Multimedia capability
  • Object Linking and Embedding (OLE)
  • Application reboot capability
  • Mouse Trails for easier mouse use with LCD display devices
  • Better interapplication protection and better error diagnostics
  • API multimedia and networking support
  • Source level API compatibility with Windows NT

Windows 95

Windows 95 was released in August 1995. Aimed at the desktop market, it was very different from Windows 3.1 and no longer required a separate DOS. Designed to coexist with Windows NT, it offered a greater degree of backward compatibility with older drivers and software, at the expense of the greater stability and security of Windows NT. These were the new features:

  • A new, more object-oriented GUI
  • The new WIN32 API
  • Preemptive multitasking of Win32 applications
  • 32-bit flat memory model
  • Protected memory
  • Built-in networking support, including dial-up support
  • New 32-bit driver model

Windows 98

Windows 98 was released as an upgrade to Windows 95. It had the same interface and features of Windows 95, but also included the following updates:

  • 32-bit file allocation system (FAT32) allowing for hard disk drives larger than 2GB and efficient use of disk space, and allowing files to load more quickly and take up less space on disk; FAT32 can read hard disk drives as big as 2TB (2000GB)
  • Support for Universal Serial Bus (USB) peripherals
  • Support for WebTV (which became MSN TV)
  • Support for more than one monitor
  • Microsoft Web Server
  • Microsoft Task Scheduler

Many of these features were also available in a later version of Windows 95 (known as OSR2) distributed with new PCs in 1998. OSR2 was never available for retail sale.

In 1999, Microsoft released Windows 98SE (Second Edition), which improved Windows greatly and also added the following features:

  • Support for DVD-ROM
  • Internet Connection Sharing (ICS)
  • Improved startup time for programs
  • Improved USB support

Windows Me

Windows Me, or Millenium Edition, was released in 2000 as an upgrade to Windows 98SE. Very similar to its predecessor, Windows Me included new home networking capabilities, video capture and editing, and a new mechanism for system restoration in case of emergency.

Microsoft replaced Windows Me with Windows XP, described below.

Windows NT

Note: For security and support reasons, UITS recommends using Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional, rather than NT Workstation 4.0, on Indiana University's network. Microsoft retired both mainstream and extended support for this version in June 2004, which means security updates are no longer being developed. For more information, see Microsoft's Windows Desktop Product Lifecycle Guidelines page at:

Windows NT was a separate product from Windows 3.x, Windows 95, and Windows 98. It was aimed at the enterprise market, for use on high-end workstations and servers. The first version, 3.1, and versions 3.5 and 3.51, used the same interface as Windows 3.1. Version 4.0 used the interface first introduced with Windows 95.

Windows NT 4.0 offered the following new features:

  • NTFS file system support
  • Security model
  • Remote Access Server (RAS)
  • OS/2 and POSIX subsystems
  • Ability to run on Intel, Alpha, MIPS, and Motorola processors

Windows NT 4.0 came in two versions: Advanced Server and Workstation. The Advanced Server version included additional software that allowed it to perform the role of the enterprise server. It had the following features in addition to those found on the Workstation version:

  • Software for controlling and managing domains
  • Internet Information Server (IIS)
  • Support for Microsoft BackOffice products
  • DHCP, DNS, and WINS server software

Windows 2000

Windows 2000 was released as an update to Windows NT 4.0. It was not an upgrade to Windows 98 or 98SE.

Windows 2000 built on Windows NT and offered the following improvements:

  • Full 32-bit operating system
  • Support for NTFS or FAT32, with support for hard disk drives as big as 32GB when running FAT32
  • Windows File Protection, which prevented installed applications from deleting necessary system files
  • Elimination of many reboot scenarios, including program installations that require a reboot to function correctly
  • Support for up to 4GB of Random Access Memory (RAM)
  • Microsoft Management Console (MMC)
  • Stronger Internet integration with Internet Explorer 5.0.1

Windows 2000 came in three varieties: Professional, Server, and Advanced Server. Professional was designed for desktop and laptop systems, both stand-alone and networked, for individual use. Server was designed to run file and printer servers. Advanced Server was designed to run more powerful servers; it had support for an additional 4GB of RAM (for a total of 8GB).

Windows XP

Released in late 2001, Windows XP was the replacement for both the 95/98 and NT families of Windows. Based on the same code used to create Windows 2000, XP came in two workstation versions at launch: Home and Professional. Both versions incorporate the features of Windows 2000. Since its original release, three new editions of Windows XP have been released. These include Media Center Edition, Tablet PC Edition, and XP Professional x64 (64-bit) Edition.

Note: If you want to upgrade an older version of Windows to XP, UITS recommends a clean install rather than a traditional upgrade, due to the strong underlying differences between the older family of operating systems and Windows XP. For instructions, see ARCHIVED: How do I install Windows XP?

Windows XP Home Edition

Windows XP Home Edition was the replacement for Windows 95, 98, and Me.

Some of the new features that Windows XP Home Edition offered include:

  • Fast, easy switching between users on the same computer without the need to close applications
  • Luna, a newly designed desktop, which puts frequently used features in the most easily found locations of the Start menu
  • An enhanced Windows Media Player, which integrates DVD playback, music organization, and CD burning
  • Windows Messenger, which offers built-in instant messaging over the Internet
  • Windows Movie Maker, which offers built-in video capture and editing
  • Internet Explorer 6, the latest version of the Microsoft web browser
  • Remote Assistance, which allows technicians to take temporary control of the computer to diagnose and fix problems, or to demonstrate features
  • System Restore, which allows the computer to restore itself to an earlier configuration if something goes wrong
  • Network Setup Wizard, which allows easier setup of home networks for file, printer, and Internet connection sharing

Windows XP Professional Edition

Windows XP Professional Edition was the replacement for Windows NT and 2000. In addition to the features of Home Edition, it added new features to improve networking and task efficiency:

  • Remote Desktop, which allows the creation of virtual sessions on one computer from another computer over the Internet
  • Encrypting File System, which offers better security by transparently key-encrypting files
  • Fast Resume from Hibernation, which allows work to resume faster and saves battery life in laptop computers
  • Support for 802.1x networking for more secure wireless networking

Windows XP Media Center Edition

Windows XP Media Center Edition extends many of the enhanced multimedia capabilities available in Windows XP Professional. Media Center Edition is a superset of Windows XP that incorporates a fully functional Windows XP computing environment and enhances the computer for home entertainment. Media Center Edition is not available for retail sale; instead, it is available only with the purchase of a new Media Center PC from a Microsoft computer manufacturer partner.

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition

Windows XP Tablet PC Edition offers enhanced computing capabilities in a mobile computing environment. It runs only on a Tablet PC and is not available for retail sale. Tablet PC Edition uses Windows XP Professional as a base, making it possible to run Windows XP-compatible applications.

Windows XP Professional x64 Edition

This Windows XP 64-bit edition was designed to address the needs of high-performance computing applications. It features:

  • Support for up to 16GB of RAM and 16TB of virtual memory
  • Integration for both 64-bit and 32-bit applications, allowing you to run 32-bit applications designed for other versions of Windows XP
  • Support for the same programming model as the 32-bit Windows environment, allowing programmers to develop applications for Windows XP Professional x64 Edition without learning a new environment

Windows Server 2003

Windows Server 2003 was released as an upgrade to Windows 2000 Server. Additional features in Windows Server 2003 include:

  • Increased dependability
  • Built-in support for web services
  • Common language runtime that reduces the number of bugs and security holes caused by common programming mistakes
  • Increased security for Internet connections
  • Support for both 32-bit and 64-bit processors (depending on the version)
  • Symmetric multi-processing support for up to 64 processors
  • Support for up to 512GB of RAM

Microsoft created several different versions of Windows 2003 Server: Standard Edition, Enterprise Edition, Datacenter Edition, Web Edition, and Small Business Server 2003.

Windows Vista

Released in 2007, Windows Vista is not an upgrade to Windows XP, but an entirely new operating system. Some of the many new features of Vista include:

  • Updated graphical user interface called Windows Aero
  • Improved search
  • Redesigned networking, audio, print, and display systems
  • New multimedia creation tools
  • Improvements in peer-to-peer technology
  • Security enhancements

Note: A portion of this information came originally from the May 3, 1993, Microsoft Windows FAQ maintained by Tom Haapanen and posted in the newsgroups (ASCII text format) and

This is document abwa in the Knowledge Base.
Last modified on 2018-01-18 08:48:53.