Windows 95 is fifteen today. It's hard to imagine it now, but the launch was greeted with the sort of hype that only Apple generates today: the Empire State Building lit in Windows colours, midnight queues outside PC shops, wall-to-wall news coverage and that Rolling Stones riff.

To some, the arrival of Windows 95 heralded a brave new world of personal computing; to others, it was the beginning of a long period of stagnation for the PC platform.

There's no doubt that if you were running Windows 3.1 or 3.11, Windows 95 was like a visitor from the planet Groovy. No, really. It looked great, and provided you treated the system requirements - a 386 with 4MB of RAM and 120MB of disk space - with the contempt they deserved then it ran great too.

Heavily targeted towards home users as well as the more traditional corporate users, it was the first stand-alone Windows (MS-DOS was part of it rather than a separate OS). It had an exciting new interface that's still visible in Windows 7, and it even had Microsoft's first go at a Web browser - albeit one that was initially tucked away on the optional-extra Plus pack.

The beginning of the big boots

Critics, however, would argue that Windows 95 was when Microsoft started throwing its weight around.

They argue that by bundling MS-DOS inside Windows, Microsoft killed the market for MS-DOS rivals; the arrival of Internet Explorer would become the Netscape-crushing browser war; and the US Department of Justice found that it used the "Windows Tax" - that is, offering manufacturers discounted prices if they promised to limit the number of non-Windows PCs they sold - to stifle competition.

In 1998 consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a devastating critique that accused Microsoft of "suffocating" the PC industry and argued that "the victims of Microsoft's monopolistic activities aren't just the companies that go belly-up; they are the consumers who pay high prices to use mediocre and unreliable products."

It's bleakly amusing to note that when the (then) Microsoft-owned Slate magazine responded to Nader, it argued that "in the browser wars, Microsoft faces a formidable array of opponents--Sun and Oracle, to name just two--and, after two years, it still lags behind Netscape even though IE generally gets better reviews than Navigator."

A force for good

Let's concentrate on the product itself, though, because when you do that Windows 95 was clearly a force for good too. It was a vast improvement over its predecessors. It revolutionised PC gaming. It made using computers - computers that we could actually afford to build or buy - much easier than before.

You may mock its primitive graphics, its press-Start-to-stop interface, its increasingly demented product names - Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2, anyone? - and its postie-crippling pile of installation floppies, but fifteen years ago Windows 95 was as cool as computing got.

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