The good, the bad, the kludgy: A brief history of Microsoft OSes

With Windows 7 set for its much-anticipated release next month, we decided to take a quick look back through the history of Microsoft operating systems, which have been a part of so many lives for more than a quarter century.

In this report:

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Released in 1982 as MS-DOS 1.0

Pros: Introduced a lot of people to the wonders of personal computing. Fast boot time.

Cons: Could not run more than one program at a time. No GUI support for individual programs. Networking was pretty much nonexistent. Limited command line command set. Directory structures built on backslashes, despite the rest of the industry’s use of forward slashes.

Windows 1.0 – 3x

Released first in 1985; caught on in 1990 with release of 3.0

Pros: Microsoft’s first graphical interface. Windows for Workgroups could do local-area networking. Made the computer mouse useful in the operating system and not just inside certain programs.

Cons: Until 3.0, pretty much unusable. Could not do true multitasking. To get the most out of it, users had to manually configure the system memory to juggle between XMS and EMS, depending on the application needed.

Windows NT

Released 1993

Pros: Stable, built by seasoned VAX engineers. NT 4.0 and above featured Windows 95 look and feel.

Cons: Only used for servers. Great if you had code that could run on NT. Limited driver support.

Windows 95

Released 1995

Pros: Took the Windows GUI to a new level. Supported earlier versions of Microsoft operating systems. Featured pre-emptive multitasking, meaning one program did not crash the entire system — for the most part. Could run 32-bit applications.

Cons: Required a significant boost in hardware power and capacity. Was known to crash frequently. Not built for the Internet.

Windows 98

Released 1998

Pros: A dramatic improvement over 95 in terms of stability. First to allow full user customization in desktop windows, cursors and sounds.

Cons: Still could be buggy, at least until Win 98 SE. All that customization came at a heavy price in system performance.

Windows Me

Released 2000

Pros: None.

Cons: Lack of stability. Most of its features were already available in Win 98. Prompted speculation that “Me” (for "Millennium Edition”) actually stood for “Mistake Edition.”

Windows 2000

Released 2000

Pros: Updated Windows NT. Active Directory paved the way for enterprise access management. Brought the security of NT to client systems.

Cons: None, really. It was a pretty solid operating system, if you had apps that would run on it, although the security levels sometimes made it difficult to run certain programs.

Windows XP

Released 2001

Pros: The first desktop Microsoft operating system based on the NT kernel. Offers speed, improved stability and networking capabilities. Fairly resource-sensitive. Arguably the best version of the Windows operating system yet released.

Cons: Susceptible to malware; despite much improvement in security, still had many holes. Somewhat cluttered screen.

Windows Vista

Released 2007

Pros: Better security than XP, new search features, attractive interface.

Cons: Resource hog. Lack of support for older programs. Not particularly intuitive for users of previous Microsoft OSes.

Windows 7: To be released October 2009

About the Author

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