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The Prehistoric Days of DOS
Millions of years ago, before the dawn of civilization, cavemen went into the office each morning and used a program known as DOS. DOS stands for Disk Operating System, and it was the operating system of choice for home and office computers during the 80s and the first half of the 90s. Visually, DOS has almost nothing in common with Windows (that the average user would notice; many things were similar under the hood), but it is the first step in understanding what Windows is, because it shows what an operating system was like before Windows came along, and it's also because MS-DOS, Microsoft's version of the DOS operating system, is where Microsoft got its start.
When you started a DOS-based computer, you were greeted by a simple command prompt, the famous C:\>. In order to use the computer, you had to type in commands. A mouse was not generally part of the experience of using a DOS-based computer, at least not in the operating system - the keyboard was your primary guide. To accomplish anything, you had to type in commands. For example, to change directories, you had to type in the command cd and then the name of the directory.
As you might guess, this was far more difficult to use than Windows. To accomplish a task, you had to know exactly the command you needed and exactly the location of what you wanted to run, open, copy or change. If any part of what you typed was wrong, you'd receive an error message.
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Introducing the GUI
GUI is an acronym, standing for Graphical User Interface. This simply means an interface that uses graphical elements, rather than simple text-based ones, to represent files and programs. In MS-DOS, the C: drive is simply represented by the text "C:". In Windows, however, the C: drive is represented by a graphical icon meant to look like a hard drive, plus the text "C:".
GUI-based operating systems existed for a long time before Windows actually achieved popularity. In fact, Microsoft's first stab at making a Windows-brand operating system debuted in 1985, a full decade before the market share torch was passed from MS-DOS to MS-Windows. This version, Windows 1.0, and its successor, Windows 2.0, nailed down the fundamentals of what a Windows-based operating system would be. Windows 1.0 allowed users to visually see programs represented through various icons and pictures. This gave the user a way of identifying programs and functions without having to read through large amounts of texts. It introduced the modern concept of a menu, as well, giving the user the ability to select through a list of commands represented in a visual tree, where as before a command had to be typed in. And most importantly, it had windows.
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Windows has Windows
A window is what you're viewing this article in. It is a display area containing a user interface and some form of functionality, typically an application. The window is one of most important features of a GUI-based operating system, and an important feature which contributed to why GUIs overcame text-based operating systems. With a window, you can contain an application in one area of your display's usable space. Previous to the concept of a window, multi-tasking was either handled through a clumsy function allowing a user to flip through active programs, with one displayed on-screen at a time, or wasn't possible at all. Programs could not be moved across the screen, minimized, or maximized, because in a operating system that does not make use of a window, these concepts have no meaning.
The rise of the window came with the rise of Windows 3.0 and its later siblings. Previous versions of Windows had contained similar ideas, but they had lacked software support and used MS-DOS as their base. Windows 3.0 did as well, but was far less obvious about it, and was capable of keeping the user separated from DOS in most cases. Microsoft, of course, wasn't the only one with a GUI-based interface, as Apple had its own operating system, and there were numerous small-time alternatives. But Windows is, due to its popularity, generally regarded as the operating system that defined what a window is. The modern user owes a lot to Windows. The modern desktop, with web browsers, flash games, and instant messengers all displayed at one time, would only be possible through a GUI-based operating system making use of windows.
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These days, all operating systems with a GUI are using some form of windows. Windows (obviously) OS-X, Ubuntu, and many more all use the basic concept of a window, along with other GUI concepts like icons and menus. This basic format has served users well for the last decade, but many are wondering what the next step will be.
That is hard to say, but there is evidence where GUI operating systems will go already available in both Windows Vista and OS-X. Both of these operating systems have methods for lining up windows in a 3D view, and for quickly clearing a desktop. Apple's Expose is a particularly good example, as it has various functions that can clear a screen of all windows, show all windows as a sort of thumb-nail, or show all windows related to a currently active application. More likely than not, the use of 3D will be the most obvious direction to take the concept of a window, as that concept has traditionally been 2D. It is nearly certain, however, that both Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OS will continue to use the basic concept of the window for decades to come.