A Brief History of Microsoft Windows

Every version, from 1.0 through Windows 11

From its initial release in 1985 through its ongoing active development in 2021 and beyond, Windows has been a major player in the consumer and corporate PC ecosystem. Here's a brief overview of every version of Windows.

Windows 1.0

Windows 1.0 screenshot

Released: Nov. 20, 1985

Replaced:MS-DOS (Microsoft Disk Operating System), although until Windows 95, Windows actually ran on top of MS-DOS instead of completely replacing it.

Innovative/Notable: Windows. This was the first version of a Microsoft OS that you didn't have to enter commands to use. Instead, you could point and click in a box—a window—with a mouse. Bill Gates, then a young CEO, said of Windows: “It is unique software designed for the serious PC user.” It took two years from the announcement to finally ship. 

Obscure Fact: What we call Windows today was almost called "Interface Manager." Interface Manager was the code name of the product and was a finalist for the official name. Doesn't have quite the same ring as "Windows," does it?

Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0 screenshot

Released: Dec. 9, 1987

Replaced: Windows 1.0. Windows 1.0 wasn't warmly received by critics, who felt it was slow and too mouse-focused. The mouse was relatively new to computing at the time.

Innovative/Notable: Graphics were much improved, including the ability to overlap windows (in Windows 1.0, separate windows could only be tiled). Desktop icons were also introduced, as were keyboard shortcuts.

Obscure Fact: Numerous applications made their debuts in Windows 2.0, including the Control Panel, Paint, Notepad, and two Microsoft Office cornerstones: Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. 

Windows 3.0/3.1

Windows 3.1 screenshot

Released: May 22, 1990. Windows 3.1: March 1, 1992.

Replaced: Windows 2.0. It was more popular than Windows 1.0. Its overlapping Windows brought a lawsuit from Apple, which claimed that the new style infringed copyrights from the Apple GUI (Graphical User Interface).

Innovative/Notable: Speed. Windows 3.0/3.1 ran faster than ever on new Intel 386 chips. The GUI improved with more colors and better icons. This version is also the first really big-selling Microsoft operating system, with more than 10 million copies sold. It also included new management abilities like Print Manager, File Manager, and Program Manager.

Obscure Fact: Windows 3.0 cost $149; upgrades from earlier versions were $50. 

Windows 95

Windows 95 screenshot

Released: Aug. 24, 1995

Replaced: Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS

Innovative/Notable: Windows 95 is what really cemented Microsoft's dominance in the computer industry. It boasted a huge marketing campaign that captured the public's imagination in a way nothing computer-related ever had. More importantly, it introduced the Start menu, which ended up being so popular that its absence in Windows 8, some 17 years later, caused a major uproar among consumers. It also had internet support and plug-and-play capabilities that made it easier to install software and hardware.

Windows 95 was an enormous hit right out of the gate, selling a staggering seven million copies in its first five weeks on sale.

Obscure Fact: Microsoft paid the Rolling Stones $3 million for the rights to Start Me Up, which was the theme at the unveiling. 

Windows 98/Windows ME (Millennium Edition)/Windows 2000

Windows Millennium Edition (ME) logo


Released: These were released in a flurry between 1998 and 2000 and are lumped together because there wasn't much to distinguish them from Windows 95. They were essentially placeholders in Microsoft's lineup, and although popular, they didn't approach the record-breaking success of Windows 95. They were built on Windows 95, offering basically incremental upgrades.

Obscure Fact: Windows ME was an unmitigated disaster. However, Windows 2000—despite not being terribly popular with home consumers—reflected an important behind-the-scenes change in technology that aligned it more with Microsoft's server solutions. Parts of Windows 2000 technology remain in active use more than 20 years later.

Windows XP

Windows XP screenshot


Released: Oct. 25, 2001

Replaced: Windows 2000

Innovative/Notable: Windows XP is the superstar of this lineup—the Michael Jordan of Microsoft operating systems. Its most innovative feature is that it refuses to die, remaining on a non-trivial number of PCs even several years after its official end-of-life sunset from Microsoft. Despite its age, it's still Microsoft's second-most-popular OS, behind Windows 7. That is a hard-to-grasp statistic.

Obscure Fact: By one estimate, Windows XP has sold more than one billion copies over the years.  

Windows Vista

Windows Vista

Released: Jan. 30, 2007

Replaced: Tried, and spectacularly failed, to replace Windows XP.

Innovative/Notable: Vista is the anti-XP. Its name is synonymous with failure and ineptitude. When released, Vista required much better hardware to run than XP (which most people didn't have), and relatively few devices like printers and monitors worked with it because of the woeful lack of hardware drivers available at launch. It wasn't a terrible OS the way Windows ME was, but it tanked so hard that for most people, it was dead on arrival, and they stayed on XP instead. 

Obscure Fact: Vista is No. 2 on Info World's list of top all-time tech flops. 

Windows 7

Windows 7 screenshot

Released: Oct. 22, 2009

Replaced: Windows Vista, and not a moment too soon.

Innovative/Notable: Windows 7 was a major hit with the public and earned a commanding market share of nearly 60 percent. It improved in every way on Vista and helped the public eventually forget the OS version of the Titanic. It's stable, secure, graphically friendly, and easy to use. 

Obscure Fact: In just eight hours, pre-orders of Windows 7 surpassed the total sales of Vista after 17 weeks. 

Windows 8

Windows 8 screenshot

Released: Oct. 26, 2012

Replaced: Tried, and spectacularly failed, to replace Windows 7.

Innovative/Notable: Microsoft knew it had to gain a foothold in the mobile world, including phones and tablets, but didn't want to give up on users of traditional desktops and laptops. So it tried to create a hybrid OS, one that would work equally well on touch and non-touch devices. It didn't work, for the most part. Users missed their Start menu and consistently expressed confusion about using Windows 8.

Microsoft released a significant update for Windows 8, dubbed Windows 8.1, which addressed many consumer concerns about the desktop tiles—but for many users, the damage was done.

Obscure Fact: Microsoft called the Windows 8 user interface "Metro," but had to scrap that name after threatened lawsuits from a European company. Microsoft then named the user interface "Modern," but that wasn't warmly received either. 

Windows 10

Windows 10 screenshot

Released: July 28, 2015

Replaced: Windows 8, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, and Windows XP

Innovative/Notable: Two major things: first, the return of the Start menu. Second, Windows 10 will allegedly be the last-named version of Windows. Future updates will be delivered in semi-annual update packages, instead of distinct new versions.

Obscure Fact: Despite Microsoft's insistence that skipping Windows 9 was to emphasize that Windows 10 is the "last version of Windows," speculation runs rampant and had been indirectly confirmed by Microsoft engineers, that many old programs had been lazy in checking Windows versions, so these programs would have misconstrued Windows 9 as being much older than it would have been.

Windows 11

Windows 11 logo

Released: October 5, 2021

Replaced: Windows 10

Innovative/Notable: Windows 11 ushered in significant UI changes, including windows with rounded corners, an updated Start menu, and icons in the middle of the taskbar. You can also view battery usage statistics from the desktop, experience a more sophisticated right-click menu, and utilize Android apps. Also, in Windows 11, Edge takes over as the default browser.

Obscure Fact: On the surface, releasing Windows 11 seemed like an odd choice for Microsoft because of a pandemic-induced silicon shortage. Microsoft was concerned that they wouldn't be able to meet consumer demand for new hardware to run the OS. However, Microsoft was intent on improving security standards, and including high-level security protocols may have been the best way to up the baseline for security.

  • How do I tell which version of Windows I have?

    You can tell which version of Windows you have based on the interface. If you're still unsure, open the command prompt and enter winver to see your Windows version.

  • How do I upgrade to Windows 10 Pro?

    To upgrade from Windows 10 Home to Pro, select Start > Settings > Update & Security. Next, choose Activation > select Go to the Store or Change product key. Windows 10 Pro supports extra features such as the ability to access your desktop remotely from another device.

  • What operating systems came before Windows?

    MS-DOS was the first Microsoft operating system, and it technically remained part of Windows until the release of Windows 95. The very first operating system, called GMOS, was developed by General Motors for the IBM 701.

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