Happy 25th Birthday to Windows 1.0: The Bland Bust that Started it All

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Windows 95? A somewhat hazy memory at this point (whether you miss it or not). But Windows 1.0? One point oh? Mostly forgotten. But bring it up again, and all the problems and primitiveness of it might surprise you.

Windows 1.0 was two years late—shipping, finally, on November 20th, 1985. Bill Gates had announced it, in grand 80s style, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It would be great. It would be graphical. It would, most of all, bring Microsoft up to date with Apple, whose GUI systems were smoking the clunky text fest that was MS-DOS. Text was dead. People wanted to see their files, not read them. People wanted metaphors. Each thing you wanted to do on a computer—that was something separate in your head, right? They should be fenced off, not all slopped together in a tower of command prompts. They could be in, perhaps, some sort of rectangular boundary. A window, if you will.


Shortly thereafter, Microsoft started touring around to demo their new wonder interface. Windows! Move 'em around! Be amazed! And how were they received by would-be customers? This probably says it all: "We laughed, just laughed them out of the place," says Nathaniel Borenstein, who was doing IT work for Carnegie Mellon at the time, "Because we had a vastly superior window manager of our own, and these guys came in with this pathetic and naïve system. We just knew they were never going to accomplish anything."

Nathaniel was mostly right—except about that last part, of course. But it was a clunker. It was bland. How bland? They were going to call it "Interface Manager" before a sage marketing chief intervened. Interface Manager. It was functionally sparse—a tepid drip of graphical interface. No trash can to delete files! And the Windows themselves? The feature so prominent they named the entire OS after it? They couldn't overlap. If you wanted to save space, you could only throw them onto a mostly useless "tiled" view. This was still the case two years later, when Windows finally shipped. Late.


A quarter of a century later—25 years that include a lot of elbowing against Apple—Windows is beyond dominant. While 1.0 might have been an unimpressive dud, some iteration of Windows is now running on over 90% of all computers. So in spite of Nathaniel Borenstein, happy birthday little guy. It took you 25 years, but you made it.