There have been many articles written online this week about the 25th anniversary of the launch of Windows 95. I want to highlight two of them, along with my experience from the time.
First up, here is Anil Dash with some context about the world that Windows 95 entered:
...when Windows 95 was released in August of 1995, only about 30% of American homes had any computer at all. Less than 10% had any form of internet access — and virtually none had broadband. There were no smartphones, of course.
But more broadly, computers and software were basically not yet something one talked about in polite company. You might have had a friend who “worked in computers” (we didn’t say “work in tech” yet) or call IT for support for your printer at work. But software was not part of culture, and the term "apps" wouldn't come into wide usage for more than another decade. In those days, most job listings didn’t even yet ask for “familiarity with MS Office” (ask your parents what that meant) and the PlayStation hadn’t been released yet in the U.S. or Europe.
The broader business world had started paying a lot more attention to tech just a few weeks before Windows 95 arrived, when Netscape's milestone IPO in early August of 1995 shocked everyone with its extraordinary debut, and kicked off the dot com boom to come. But consumer marketing of PC technology was in its infancy; Intel had just named the Pentium not long before — before that, its chips were just referred to by their model numbers, which read like the licence plate on a car, not a brand name. And even the Pentium name really only became famous when a bug was found in the early chips. Jokes about that were as far as pop culture really engaged with tech.
Into that world, Microsoft did a mass consumer launch of… an operating system. A computer's operating system is software that lets other software do interesting things. It's perhaps most abstract product possible. And Microsoft famously put some real money into it — they did a big launch event in Redmond and got Jay Leno to host it, and even licensed the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” as a theme song, tied to the operating system's signature Start button feature.
I was using a cobbled-together PC with an Intel 486DX chip running at 66MHz, 8 GB of RAM, a CD-ROM drive and a Creative Labs SoundBlaster card. I'm pretty sure I was still using the graphics card that originally came with the PC, with no 3D capability at all. And I was definitely still on dial-up — we wouldn't get broadband until 2002. I spent roughly equal amounts of time on it between Windows 3.11 for Workgroups and MS-DOS 6.22, usually because the games on the time were DOS-based.
Windows 95 was a big deal in more ways than you might imagine. For starters, it came on a CD-ROM, alongside a set of floppy disks for those on older PCs without CD-ROM drives. Let that sink in for a moment. Most software I'd bought before that had only come on floppy disks, and installing software was a monumental Pain In The Posterior, even if all the disks were working. (Woe betide you if one should have a bad sector...)
The other big deal was that Windows 95 could hook up to the Internet by itself, provided you had a modem that it recognized. With all prior versions of Windows, you would have needed third-party software, and a lot of luck, to achieve that feat. I could connect to the Internet before Windows 95, but it was most definitely a belt-and-braces setup and liable to break at any moment. This, more than anything else, was what would power the first Dot-com boom.
I also want to mention something about that launch event. It, along with the marketing push by Microsoft, was on TV and in the papers here in the UK. And it worked. Even the guy who ran the bakery that I'd stop by in the morning to get lunchtime snacks was aware of Windows 95, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have a PC!
Of course, not everything was so different back then, as Anil Dash notes:
There were even the early hints of toxic fandom that we're wildly familiar with now. Windows enthusiasts were sometimes oddly exuberant advocates for their preferred operating system, diehard fans of Apple (which was then a small player in a very precarious position) felt the new operating system ripped off their favorite OS, and partisans of IBM's offering called OS/2 Warp were the bane of every tech writer of the time, complaining about their favorite software being overlooked with all the fervor and indignation of today's most angry online comic book movie fans.
The OS Holy Wars had been underway for many years by this point, but with the arrival of Windows 95, and the increased Internet access it ushered in, that kicked into high gear.
And that brings in the other article I wanted to highlight, with a view from the other side of the OS fence. Jason Snell, writing at Six Colors, recalls his time at MacUser magazine, and a particular front cover that they put out when Windows 95 launched:
The magazine I worked at back then, MacUser, decided to offer up as a rejoinder a cover that said “Windows 95: So What?” It was originally intended to feature the Windows logo instead of “Windows 95” in type inside a big yellow circle, but the corporate lawyers intervened and said we couldn’t use the logo on our cover. (I always figured that the lawyers were just an excuse, and that our owner didn’t want to overly antagonize Microsoft, since Ziff-Davis also published both PC Magazine and PC/Computing magazine.)
As Jason Snell points out, Windows 95 closed many of the gaps between PCs and Macs of the time, and in some cases pulling ahead of Mac OS:
Was Windows 95 better than the Mac? Any Mac user at the time will tell you it absolutely wasn’t. But Windows just being decent made it that much harder to justify buying a Mac in an increasingly Windows-centric environment. Windows 95 didn’t make Windows good, but it made it good enough.
And the technical underpinnings of Windows 95, most notably its support for pre-emptive multitasking, was a shot to the heart of Mac OS. This is a feature that every operating system today has, where the system arbitrates between different processes and doles out processor time. But the classic Mac OS did no such thing. Once an app grabbed control of the processor, it kept it until it relinquished control. If you were downloading a file in the background and then did something in the foreground, that download would just… stop. It was very bad.
At the time Apple was desperately trying to create a re-architected Mac OS called Copland, which would offer limited pre-emptive multitasking, with the promise to follow it up with a more robust OS version called Gershwin. A Copland developer preview appeared at WWDC one year—I got the t-shirt!—but was ultimately scrapped. Apple had to turn to outsiders to find a solution to its operating system problems, auditioning BeOS before finally purchasing NeXT Inc. and getting both the foundations of Mac OS X and Steve Jobs at once.
I'd used Macs during my university years, but those had been Mac Plus and Mac SE models — the colour Macs, and the one NeXT Cube, were not for general use. I didn't subsequently work with any Macs again until the early 2000s when my workplace got a PowerMac G4 running Mac OS 9.1 for graphic design work plus some CD authoring. It worked, but compared to Windows XP, which we'd just started upgrading to, it was a pain to use. I was very glad when we subsequently upgraded that machine to OS X 10.3, which at a stroke made it both more productive and more connected to the rest of the workplace.
These days, I'm primarily a Mac user, although I can use Windows 10 if I have to. Having said that, apart from perhaps playing some games, I don't really have much need to fire up Windows. And a recent experiment with Linux Mint 20 has confirmed that I may not even need Windows for that.
I'm not really a fanboy of either platform. Both are showing their age in places, in particular through a resurgence in bugs and glitches. Windows 8 left a sour taste in my mouth, and Windows 10, while it fixed most of the UI issues, is still more a chore to use than a delight. On the other side, macOS's advantages have been offset somewhat by the addition of extra hoops to jump through for 'security', plus a focus on adding new features over fixing bugs.
I mentioned that I've been trying out Linux Mint, and it has been very eye-opening. It cannot yet cover all of my needs, but that's no fault of its own, rather that most of the apps and tools I rely on are currently Mac-only. But it's 'good enough' for general use, and something I'll definitely consider for when Apple stops supporting macOS on my machine.