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Whoa, it's all looking a bit disco with the first release of Windows!
Development of Windows 1 began back in 1981 and was announced in 1983, but wasn’t released until 1985. While there are a few superficial similarities with what we now recognize as Windows (a calculator, a disk manager, a word processor and a grid-based game) the early versions of Windows weren’t operating systems, but rather just simple graphical user interfaces that could be installed on the existing MS-DOS just like any other software. This would remain the case until Windows 2000 was released.
As you can see, the conventions of window management are in place here, with scroll bars, control buttons in each corner and of course the drop-down menus.
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Released in November 1987, the second version of Windows introduced new software and features, such as Notepad and Paint. Both of these tools are included in Windows to this day, and many of the features remain the same!
Most interestingly, Windows 2 introduced the Control Panel, another Windows stable that remains in later versions. This was the first chance that users had to configure their experience of Windows, although at this stage the Control Panel was limited to managing the mouse, cursor and date/time settings.
Around this time third party developers started creating applications that would run in Windows as well as MS-DOS versions. A 2.1 version was released in 1988.
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While earlier versions of Windows offered just eight colors for running applications, Windows 3.0 provided support for the 16 color mode of VGA monitors. This resulted in a much more vibrant experience, with icons now featuring more colors, although tools such as File Manager and Control Panel were still presented in the usual monochrome styling.
It was with Windows 3.0 that one of the world’s most popular computer games was introduced. Solitaire has been the cause of countless lost man-hours around the world since its introduction in Windows 3.0. This version of Windows required just 6 MB of free space and 384 Kb of RAM!
Windows 3.1 followed in 1992, delivering some multimedia support.
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Windows 95 (v4)
With Windows 95 came a revolution in business computing as Microsoft began building the operating system that we know today. The majority of tools and features available in Windows 95 mirrored those available in MS-DOS, which reduced the requirement for users to access the old command-line tools. MS-DOS was still present, however – the computer could be booted into MS-DOS, or the environment could even be accessed from Windows itself.
Released on August 24th, 1995, Windows 95 is the first version of the Microsoft operating system that made installing new hardware easy with the introduction of the “plug and play" facility.
For many users, Windows 95 also provided the first experience of the World Wide Web via Internet Explorer; while it wasn’t included on the original release, Internet Explorer shipped with later editions.
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Windows 98 (v4.1)
Requiring 16 MB of RAM, a 66 MHz CPU and a (then) massive 500 MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 launched to a fanfare in May 1998, and went on to become one of their most popular operating systems.
As with Windows 95, the familiar Start button is present along with the quick launch toolbar, taskbar and system tray; indeed, there are few aesthetic differences with later releases to date.
What Windows 98 (and Windows 98SE and Windows Me) did so successfully was improve actual and perceived faults in Windows 95. By 2003, 27% of Google users were accessing the service from a Windows 98 machine, a figure that resulted in Microsoft extending support for the operating system until 2006.
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Windows 2000 (v5)
Version 5 of Windows was Windows 2000, a version of Windows NT which was released for corporate use. Four versions, Professional, Server, Advanced Server, and Datacenter Server were widely used, although Advanced Server Limited Edition and Datacenter Server Limited Edition (which were configured to take advantage of 64-bit processors) were released in 2001.
Many corporate users will have had Windows 2000 Professional as their desktop operating system in the early 2000s. The OS required at least a Pentium 133 MHz processor, 32 MB RAM and 1 GB of hard disk space and supported at least 800x600 VGA displays.
Server versions of the Windows 2000 server OS are still found in active use.
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Windows XP (v5.1)
Derived from the same Windows NT base as Windows 2000, XP is technically Windows 5.1. This numbering system hasn’t affected its popularity, however; in September 2011, data showed that over 36% of computers connected to the web were using Windows XP – not bad for a ten year old operating system!
An improved GUI and USB 2.0 support for new hardware was provided in Windows XP, which also offered a wealth of new tools and features such as DirectX 8.1, new views in Windows Explorer, integrated disc-burning tools and a much-revised version of Windows Media Player.
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Windows Vista (v6)
The success of Windows XP was undermined by various security vulnerabilities that Microsoft decided to address in their sixth full Windows release.
Sadly, the result was a largely unusable (visually stunning) Windows Vista, a release that attracted very poor reviews. Better testing would have overcome these problems and left users with a much improved user experience – Vista featured an enhanced Windows search tool, the Aero user interface, Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Media Player 11.
Following XP, it was five years before Microsoft released Windows Vista in January 2007. With poor backwards compatibility for software and hardware and much higher system requirements than XP (at least 800 MHz CPU, 512 MB of RAM and 15 GB of free HDD space) Vista simply didn’t tick all of the right boxes for many users, and despite being available in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, it didn’t set the corporate market alight either.
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Like Windows XP before it, the current version of Windows is widely used and appreciated both in business and domestic environments. Before release in July 2009, Amazon reported that Windows 7 had outsold Vista’s first 17 weeks of sales in just eight hours’ worth of pre-sales.
Upgrading the Aero user interface, introducing support for touch displays in its tablet versions and a reduced reliance on the user access control that marred so many users experience of Vista, Microsoft managed to focus on the success of the previous OS and make Windows 7 a big success.
In addition, while the minimum hardware requirements are revised up (1 GHz CPU, 1 GB RAM, 16 GB HDD space) both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions have improved memory management and increased memory limits.
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Expected in 2012 comes the most remarkable version of Windows yet, likely to be as revolutionary as Windows 95. As with the first version to feature a Start button, Windows 8 relegates a much used system to a mere feature. In Windows 95, MS-DOS was commonly accessed via the Start menu; in Windows 8, the Start menu (and indeed the entire traditional Windows desktop) is relegated to the status of an app.
Designed to be used on desktops, laptops, hybrids and tablets, the Metro user interface found in Windows 8 can currently be seen in Zune, Windows Phone and portions of the Xbox 360 UI.
New apps and software will be included in Windows 8, along with great new ways to view photos, movies and interact with popular social networks. Minimum system requirements are currently unconfirmed, but they’re likely to be very close to those of Windows 7!