A brief history of Windows
Move over, MS-DOS. On November 20, 1985, Microsoft released version 1.0 of the graphical desktop operating system known as Windows, and the world of computing changed forever. Over the next 30 years, the industry would see 19 significant new versions of the now-ubiquitous OS released, and that's not even counting bizarre offshoots like Windows RT or Windows 10 for IoT devices.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on November 16, 2010, but was updated in 2015 to include Windows 8, 8.1, and 10.
Windows 1.01 (1985)
The first version of Windows was a primitive affair. To avoid legal issues with the Mac OS, Microsoft had to ensure that application windows did not overlap and that there was no trash can to be seen. However, Windows 1.x did include a taskbar across the bottom of the screen.
Windows 2.0 (1987)
Windows 2.0 introduced overlapping windows and slightly improved graphics, while nixing the taskbar of its predecessor. It included a suite of familiar, simple applications (Paint, Terminal, Clock) and a file manager called MS-DOS Executive. Soon after its release, Microsoft ported Word and Excel to Windows for the first time.
Windows 3.0 (1990)
Windows 3.0 introduced a host of new features: Program Manager, Solitaire, support for VGA and virtual memory, and a new "3D" look. Third-party support was stronger than ever, which (when combined with the new features) made Windows 3.0 the first widely used Windows release.
Windows 3.1 (1992)
Windows 3.1 improved significantly upon its predecessor with the inclusion of scalable TrueType fonts, turning Windows into a serious platform for desktop publishing. This version also improved drag-and-drop functionality and OLE (Object Linking and Embedding), and it introduced multimedia support for the first time. And then there's Minesweeper...
Windows for Workgroups 3.1 (1992)
This version of Windows took the standard Windows 3.1 base and added native networking support--especially for LANs, which were gaining popularity in businesses at the time. It included relatively sophisticated networking tools along with the usual complement of simple Windows applications.
Windows NT 3.1 (1993)
Windows NT sprang forth from work on OS/2. It represented an entirely new 32-bit OS (previous Windows editions were graphical shells for MS-DOS) that targeted high-end workstation and server applications. Its first version sported a look and feel similar to that of Windows 3.1, but its underpinnings were completely original.
Windows 95 (1995)
Microsoft continued development of its DOS-based consumer OS line with Windows 95, which didn't require a separate DOS install. It introduced the now famous taskbar and Start menu, along with dozens of other improvements that garnered strong sales and cemented Microsoft's domination of the desktop-OS marketplace.
Windows NT 4.0 (1996)
Windows NT 4.0 integrated Windows 95-like interface improvements with the very stable Windows NT kernel, further advancing the NT line to a point where it became Microsoft's most popular business release for the next few years.
Windows CE 1.0 (1996)
Here we're taking a slight detour from our survey of desktop Windows versions to consider the first pocket version, Windows CE. This completely independent OS appeared alongside the advent of a new generation of handheld computers in the mid- to late 1990s, and it lives on as part of Windows Mobile today.
Windows 98 (1998)
Microsoft’s Windows 98 made the Internet Explorer Web browser an inextricable part of Windows, allowing Web pages to render in Explorer windows or on the desktop. It also added the quick launch toolbar and native USB support, among other features. It proved to be a popular (albeit unstable) OS.
Windows 2000 (2000)
As a member of the NT line, Windows 2000 added Windows 98's Web integration to a stable, relatively secure OS designed for workstation and server environments. It also eliminated the need for many reboots when people installed software or changed system settings. It saw heavy use as a desktop OS.
Windows ME (2000)
As the last gasp of MS-DOS-based Windows, this long-in-the-tooth, highly unstable release was reviled by users and critics alike. Windows ME emphasized multimedia and user-friendliness above all, but reality veered far from Microsoft's intentions and proved how badly we needed XP.
Windows XP (2001)
At long last, Windows XP integrated Microsoft's stable and mature NT OS line with its 9x line of consumer OSs. The result was the company's most popular operating system to date--a release that provided a colorful new interface and security enhancements while retaining backward compatibility with previous versions of Windows.
Windows Server 2003 (2003)
Windows Server 2003 continued the tradition of NT-based server OSs while including interface improvements that had arrived with Windows XP two years earlier.
Windows Vista (2007)
By 2007, Microsoft was feeling the heat from Mac OS X, which made Windows XP look two decades out of date. The folks in Redmond answered with a new OS dubbed Windows Vista, cloaked in the flashy, translucent Aero interface and sporting larger icons, Gadgets, and a new Start menu. Critics weren't impressed.
Windows Server 2008 (2008)
Windows Server 2008 was essentially the server version of Windows Vista--minus the dizzyingly flashy Aero environment. Microsoft had long since learned that fancy, colorful graphics didn't go over well in business circles.
Windows 7 (2009)
With Microsoft getting a shellacking in the press for the Vista debacle, the OS giant rushed a successor to market that addressed many of Vista's problems. The result was Windows 7, which gained critical praise and renewed Windows' viability in the face of threats from both mobile platforms and Apple.
Windows 8 (2012)
Then there was Windows 8, which was nothing short of an epic flop after the stunning success of Windows 7. Windows ditched the Start menu in favor of a full-screen “Start screen” glittering with shifting Live Tiles tied to Windows apps—a new sort of software, delivered through the Windows Store, that consumed your entire screen and didn’t play nice with traditional desktop software. Many core settings were hidden behind invisible “hot corners,” and the Live Tile and desktop portions of the operating system had entirely separate settings in entirely separate areas.
The desktop-to-app dichotomy was jarring at best, and frustrating at worst. Despite Windows 8’s impressive under-the-hood tweaks and convenient cloud features, PCWorld officially recommended that happy Windows 7 users stick with Windows 7.
Windows 8.1 (2014)
Windows 8.1 wasn’t a full-fledged new release, but this free update smoothed over many of Windows 8’s most egregious sins. Users could opt to boot to the desktop rather than the Start screen, and the Start button made its return—though not the Start menu; clicking the Start button merely dropped you onto the Start screen. Microsoft also introduced helpful new tutorials with Windows 8.1 to help users become accustomed to the radical new Windows 8 experience.
Windows 10 (2015)
Finally, an operating system that Windows 7 users can happily upgrade to.
Windows 10 simultaneously re-embraced the desktop experience (by shoving Windows apps into desktop Windows, bringing the Start menu back, and introducing virtual desktop support) and pushed Windows into the future by embracing an “operating system as a service” ethos. Rather than being a mostly stationary release destined to be replaced by a major upgrade three years from now, Microsoft plans to constantly update Windows 10 with new features and services.