When Microsoft kicked off work on Windows 95 way back at the beginning of the 90s, the company wasn't to know how much of an impact it would have on our lives two decades on.
In one fell swoop the new version of Microsoft's OS brought a swish graphical user interface (GUI) to desktops for the first time and the much vaunted Start menu began life inside the mid-1995 edition of the OS. You only need look at the disquiet that surrounded its removal from Windows 8 and subsequent return inside Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 to realise how influential some parts of Windows 95 still are.
With 20 years under its belt, it's a fine time to have a look back at some of the moments that defined the popular OS which was Windows 95.
- And in a more contemporary vein, check out: 20 smart new and improved features in Windows 10
Where it all began
Even though it wasn't actually released until 1995, Windows 95 began life as 'Chicago' shortly after Windows 3.11 was released in 1992. Development kicked off in earnest around March of the same year and the first details on Chicago's specification were out later on that year.
The plan from the outset was to create an OS that would leave the days of MS-DOS in the dust and welcome a new age of 32-bit glory. Much of the code was changed to 32-bit for this purpose, however, it did of course still retain 16-bit for certain elements. Build 56/58s, the very first Microsoft Chicago, already featured a Start menu of sorts and was beginning to look like the Windows 95 that would arrive in a few years' time.
Becoming Windows 95
One of the biggest milestones between Chicago being born and the final product being released occurred a little under a year before the OS was outed to the public in the shape of it being named Windows 95 for the first time.
By now we were onto Build 189 and, even though it hadn't got the trademark clouds behind it, the UI began to take on the grey hue and the Start menu is right there in full force. The next build, which was to be the 'Final Beta Release', finally brought us the clouds and flying Windows logo that have since become synonymous with Windows 95.
The Preview Program
Before the OS got its release in August 1995, there was one more milestone for those that simply couldn't wait for the full version. The Windows 95 Preview Program, which was only open to US citizens, came in at $19.95 and allowed eager PC owners to try out the features of Windows 95 before its release.
A selection of 3.5-inch floppy disks allowed the OS to be installed on a PC already running Windows 3.1 or an entirely new machine. It contained an early version of the Microsoft Network (MSN), however, there was no sign of Internet Explorer, something that would also be the case when the full version was released in the summer of 1995.
When release day arrived on 24 August 1995, Microsoft had long been a byword for the incredible success of tech startups on the West Coast and the release of Windows 95 saw no expense spared. Given that the Start menu was such a big part of the OS, it felt apt that Bill Gates went big and secured the rights to Rolling Stones hit 'Start Me Up' for a reported $8 million to $14 million (a figure later denied by Microsoft). The fanfare didn't end there and also included the world's first 'Cyber Sitcom' starring Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston (watch it here).
When you take into consideration the free copies of the Times Redmond handed out to 1.5 million UK citizens (double the average daily print run), the Windows 95 banner draped down the side of Toronto's CN Tower, and lighting up the Empire State Building in Microsoft colours, you quickly realise the $300 million the company spent on advertising is not an overestimation.
Windows 95 wasn't only a ground-breaking release for the OS sector, as it ushered in a new era for the personal computers of the mid-90s. When it was unveiled, the minimum system requirements were as follows:
- A PC with a 386DX or higher processor (486 recommended)
- 4MB of RAM (8MB recommended)
- 35-40MB of free disk space to install Windows 95 as an upgrade or 50-55MB to perform a clean install
- A 3.5-inch floppy disk drive
- VGA or higher resolution
To get Microsoft Exchange and The Microsoft Network working you obviously needed a modem plus 8MB of RAM and 20MB of hard disk space.
Microsoft introduced a range of new features to Windows 95 that have stood the test of time almost completely unscathed to this day. The biggest of these innovations was the Start menu that made it easier for Jennifer Aniston and any other 'goofs' using the system for the first time to navigate around it. You only need look at the outcry surrounding its omission from Windows 8 to realise how popular it was.
The era of the Start menu also ushered in the taskbar for the first time, a place where every window escaped to when not being used. Windows 95 even introduced the Recycle Bin, plug-and-play, MSN, longer files names (up to 250 characters) and lots of other smaller tweaks to make life easier.
Addition of Internet Explorer
One big omission from Windows 95 on launch day was Internet Explorer, which didn't make the original cut and instead had to be bought as part of the Plus! add-on pack that retailed at an annoying $50 on top of Windows 95 itself. It did, however, come as part of the package when Windows 95 was included by OEMs on new PCs, and struggled at first due to the firm foothold Netscape Navigator had on the market.
Internet Explorer 2.0 did finally arrive as part of Windows 95 OEM Service Pack 1 and started to gain the ground on Netscape that saw it take an almost 100% market share of the browser market in the coming years. Internet Explorer 5.5, released in 2000, was the final version to be supported by Windows 95, which was at that stage close to its end of life.
Service Packs a-go-go
Keeping Windows 95 relevant was a tough task given the amount of investment that was going on around it, and to make sure the OS wasn't left behind Microsoft turned to the Service Packs that we've all become very used to in subsequent versions of Windows.
Among the features that had to be added were FAT32 support, IE (courtesy of Plus! for Windows 95), DirectX, InfraRed, USB, and of course all the bug fixes that have to be applied to any OS worth its weight in bytes.
End of Life
When it comes to Microsoft's operating systems, all good things have to come to an end and Windows 95 was eventually retired alongside Windows 3x on New Year's Eve 2002, hitting its 'End of Life' or EOL status.
Microsoft originally buried the news deep in a press release about the flashy new Windows XP OS and the reaction was rather similar to when XP hit EOL status just over a year ago. On December 31, 2002, all support was withdrawn in true Microsoft style and, even though many had already migrated to Windows 98 or XP, the OS will forever be remembered for a whole host of different reasons.
Legacy of Windows 95
As we've alluded to already, Windows 95 boasted a truck-load of firsts on its release and a great deal of them live on to this day. The Start menu is the one that continues to draw the most attention. After Microsoft made the error of removing it from Windows 8 there was a huge outcry from Windows users and it now very much has pride of place in Windows 10.
As we've already mentioned, the taskbar is another feature that remains integral to Windows to this day, as does the Recycle Bin, which was actually rejigged for the arrival of Windows 10 with a newly designed icon, and the colour scheme is one of the only major things that is no longer present.