I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on August 24, 1995, working on my Ph.D. research. I stopped into my advisor’s office to have a meeting about one of our research projects, and I noticed he was installing something on his Ambra 66MHz 486 PC, the computer that was the envy of everyone else in the department. It was Windows 95, the latest operating system from Microsoft, the software that was being touted all over TV and the news as the next big thing in computing. As this was a lot more exciting than the research we were doing, my advisor and I stared at the computer screen, waiting for the installation to complete.
After several minutes, the installation concluded, and my advisor and I started kicking its tires, seeing what all the hype was about. There was a task bar at the bottom of the screen that provided convenient access to all running applications. The very fact that that task bar showed more than one currently running application was an epiphany, as it promised the ability to multitask so that we didn’t have to wait around for something to finish before continuing with other work. That was an exciting change! The new operating system also provided a lot more eye candy. For example, copying a file brought up an animation that symbolized the file moving from one location to another. Connecting to remote machines was made a lot easier thanks to Network Neighborhood and the inclusion of remote machines in Windows Explorer, the application that used to be called File Manager. The web browser Internet Explorer took a more prominent role in the operating system, allowing users to access web resources in the same way they access local files. (Interestingly, Microsoft would later run into trouble anti-monopoly troubles for weaving Internet Explorer too tightly into the operating system.) We were amazed at how well Windows 95 recognized my advisor’s printer, thanks to its convenient Plug-n-Play feature. We also liked the minimize, maximize, and close buttons in the right corner of every window, the updated file open and save menus, and the ability to access everything from the new Start menu. It all seemed very convenient. And pretty.
Windows 95 made a great first impression on us. Of course, the more you use something, the less glorious it becomes, and we soon saw how buggy, slow, and confounding the system could become with heavy use and as more software was added. We then forgot about all the interesting changes Microsoft made in moving from Windows 3.11 to Windows 95. That happens with all software. Familiarity breeds meh. But that first introduction was a memorable one.
Here is an interesting video from August 23, 1995, about the introduction of Microsoft 95. One of the funniest quips calls Windows 95 the equivalent of Mac 87. That may be true, but we serious computing types couldn’t be bothered with those cute little Apple products back then. (Those were for the artists!) The video also includes a clip from a story about the future of computing, a look forward ten years to 2005 when people would carry computers with them wherever they went. There is also an interesting analysis of the design process behind Windows 95’s user interface that sheds some light on how the operating system was fine-tuned. It provides an inside look into the kinds of decisions and discussions that go into to designing attractive and convenient user interfaces.
We’ve come a long way since Windows 95, but it is still one of the most popular and influential operating systems of all time. Although today’s operating systems focus much more on transforming computing into a mobile experience, Windows 95 shaped the traditional sedentary experience more so than any other system. So this is a birthday worth noting.