Marc Hofer
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Vorlesung „Mensch-Maschine Interaktion“
Wintersemester 2004 / 2005
16. Dezember 2004

Windows™ to the world

- a brief history of this popular user interface -


Today, in a society where computers and digital media are playing an increasingly important role in day-to-day life, Bill Gates and Microsoft have long ago become household names. The Microsoft Corporation currently offers several operating systems ranging from the straightforward Windows XP and Windows 2000 for multimedia home or office computers to the robust server platform Windows 2003 Server. However, many users vaguely remember or even are too young too recall the “simple” beginnings when graphical user interfaces still were pretty uncommon. Thus, this essay aims to provide an insightful historical overview of Microsoft Windows and its graphical user interface.

Windows 1.0 - how it all began

Microsoft first presented its new development named Windows on 10 November 1983. Initially intended as an additional graphical user interface for their own MS-DOS operating system, the release date for Windows 1.0 was set for April 1984. However, due to various design modifications, the first boxes of Windows 1.01 eventually hit the stores in November 1985 and included interesting features.

For instance, moving away from the command-orientated MS-DOS, it allowed even less experienced PC users to navigate and execute in graphical “windows” that appeared tiled on their screen. Windows also allowed several programmes to run simultaneously, creating an early idea of multi-tasking. Actually, the passive programmes were only halted whilst the main application took control, but nevertheless unnecessary executions were prevented. Minimized programmes appeared as little icons at the bottom of the screen, almost resembling the current task bar.

The introduction of the mouse as main input device, however, helped revolutionize this user interface, allowing users to point and click on files and menues. Unlike today, the mouse button had to be kept pressed to display the selected menu. Furthermore, an emphasis was placed on the use of colours to enhance the appeal and user-friendliness. However, the window design was hampered by legal challenges coming from the Apple Corporation, who for example prevented the windows from overlapping like in its own operating system.

In January 1986, Microsoft then released Windows 1.02. This version was mainly created for the European market, seeing as it also provided non-English versions like one for the German language. Several months later, during August 1986, Windows 1.03 was introduced. The improvement list includes support for more computers, for example the AT & T 6300, as well as the use of an external IBM 3,5” disk drive. The last version of the series,Windows 1.04 of April 1987, shows further improvements and bug fixes and also supports the PS/2 family of equipment.

Although Windows 1.0x included helpful applications such as a MS-DOS file manager, a calendar, a notepad, a calculator and a clock, as well as a game called Reversi, it still rather remained a mere extension of DOS and did not prove too popular for business use.

Windows 2.x

Slightly more popularity was gained when Microsoft further improved Windows and eventually released three new versions: Windows 2.03 in November 1987, Windows 2.1 in August 1988 and Windows 2.11 in March 1989. An interesting fact to be noted is that Windows 2.03 was the last version to run solely on floppy disks.

These products, however, appeared in two different categories, the first being Windows/286 which was the normal Windows 2.x . Windows/386 provided support for the 386 CPU’s enhanced mode and could additionally address memory over 640 KB. Thus user interaction was improved by streamlining overall performance.

Another breakthrough was that the user finally was able to overlap and resize the windows, thereby creating more freedom and enabling the user to arrange items to his liking. For the first time, keyboard shortcuts helped the user interact faster, for example with [ALT]+[F4] to close an application. Windows also finally supported the VGA graphics standard, adding more colours to the available palette.

Seeing as Windows 2.x still lacked enough major applications, Microsoft released the new graphical Microsoft Word for Windows and Microsoft Excel to be used with Windows; however, the first major success was only achieved when releasing Windows 3.0 .

Windows 3.x

After being released in May 1990, two million copies of Microsoft Windows 3.0 were sold in the first six weeks. The reason for this boom can be found in the fact that Windows transformed itself into a new look with far-reaching improvements. Besides the introduction of an environment with new colour schemes (due to better VGA graphics) and a 3D looks of certain Windows icons, the focus shifted to the use of the central “Program Manager” with applications now being represented by icons too. The inclusion of “File Manager”, “Task Manager” and “Print Manager” as well as the online help and more explanative error messages helped speed up user performance and increase satisfaction.

For the first time, not only hard disks, but also the modern CD-ROM medium was supported in “File Manager”. Further multimedia improvements were included when a new version, Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions 1.0 , was released months later. New applications such as “Media Player” and “Sound Recorder” are products of the rise of multimedia PCs with sound cards and MIDI interfaces.

With Windows 3.00a appearing during October 1991, Microsoft sold around 10 million copies in total of Windows 3.0 before the release of Windows 3.1 in March/April 1992. This version proved to be even more stable and increasingly multimedia-friendly (it also provided the design basis for Windows NT). User interaction was improved by warning and event sounds, SVGA colours and a variety of screen savers. A Windows tutorial programme helped users fine-tune their skills of using the GUI.

A further important change occurred in “File Manager”. Here a split view was introduced, the left window showing the file structure and the right window showing the file contents as icons. In addition to this, files could now be moved to other locations using the drag-and-drop method. However, long filenames still were not allowed, hampering easy document identification. Also, users were poorly protected against misbehaving programmes.

During December 1993 the less known Windows 3.11 hit the market. Featuring slight improvements, the only difference to Windows 3.1 could be seen when explicitly asking for the version number. Supposedly the Chinese version of Windows 3.1 even was given its own number, adding Windows 3.2 to the product line.

Networking with Windows

A further major step in user interaction was made when Windows for Workgroups 3.1 was introduced in October 1992, allowing Windows to be used in a network environment with the NetBEUI protocol and bringing users together with file and / or device sharing. Otherwise, it fully resembled the normal Windows 3.1 . Windows for Workgroups 3.11 appeared during December 1993 and brought many network improvements. An example of this is the use of the TCP/IP protocol which now opened the door for users to access the Internet using a modem.This also was the last version of Windows that needed the DOS operating system, seeing as the follow-up, Windows 95, incorporated the operating system as well as a new graphical user interface.


All in all, Microsoft Windows underwent major changes and improvements over the past two decades and this historical overview shows how the company on one side aimed and managed to improve user interaction with the PC and on the other side were forced to update their products to include the latest trends on the market. The valuable information collected over the years helped created the latest Windows versions and it will be interesting to see how this process will carry on in future when the new Windows versions, codenamed “Longhorn” and “Blackcomb”, are released to the public.