It's (still) Windows 95's world, we just live in it

From the Start menu and Taskbar to and device autodetection and free, bundled Web browsers, here’s a brief history of how Windows 95 became the operating system that time never forgot

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And yet: I'm writing this article on my iMac running OS X Yosemite, and if I look to the top of the window into which I'm typing this text, I see three buttons, to close, minimize, or maximize the window. If I look to the bottom of the screen, I see the Dock, which lets me know what applications I'm running, and where I can stash minimized documents if I want. Neither of these features were present in System 7.5, the version of the Macintosh operating system shipping with new Macs in August of 1995.

The first version of the Aqua GUI, from Mac OS X Public Beta Wikipedia

The first version of the Aqua GUI, from Mac OS X Public Beta.

At that point in Apple's history, the company was suffering its own OS crisis, even worse than the one Microsoft had gone through with Cairo. Copland, Apple's planned next-generation OS, was now all the more important to the company as it tried to keep up with Windows 95, but its ship date kept slipping further into the future.

In August of 1996, Apple killed the project, and by the end of the year had bought NeXT (bringing Steve Jobs back on board in the process) in order to use the Unix-based NeXTSTEP as its new OS. NeXTSTEP underwent a complete UI overhaul in order to become Mac OS X, and when the new operating system's Public Beta was released in 2000, it included the minimize/maximize/close buttons. The Dock was there too, and it was a particularly ironic borrowing: The reason Oran's original version of the Windows Taskbar was moved from the top to the btoom of the screen, it was rumored, was to avoid a lawsuit from Apple.

Taking control

Windows 95 really did attempt to give its users better and simpler access to the powerful things their computers could do. This didn't always work -- the words "Windows Registry" will send many into a panic -- but there were successes. The Control Panel, for instance, served to consolidate many system settings into a single relatively easy-to-understand interface, and it remains largely unchanged today. (Apple also borrowed the idea for OS X.)

Windows had one challenge that Macs, with their more tightly controlled hardware ecosystem, didn't: working with a bewilderingly wide range of hardware cards and peripherals. Windows 95 pioneered device autodetection, which Microsoft dubbed "Plug and Play"; it didn't always live up to that promise, which gave rise to the phrase Plug and Pray." Still, Deepak Kumar, CTO of IT systems management provider Adaptiva, says that "a huge development in the history of Windows was the abstraction of hardware" that Plug and Play represented, and he praised the behind-the-scenes work the company did in reaching out to hardware vendors. "Since then," he says, "Windows ships with thousands of kernel drivers so users no longer need to know about hardware."

Windows 95 Setup Wizard Ho New/REUTERS

Windows 95 helped users install software as well, pioneering wizard-based installations that made the formerly inscrutable process easier to understand and complete. Even the process of installing Windows 95 itself was wizard-based, and visual step-by-step processes continue to be how most users on most platforms install software today, on Windows and other platforms.

Have fun, get online, crush your enemies

To power all the graphical imagery in Windows 95, and to lure game developers away from DOS, Microsoft released the DirectX set of APIs, which soon came standard with the operating system. Developer adoption was slow, but DirectX was crucial to creating the current gaming environment, in which PCs compete with dedicated consoles for gamers' dollars.

"We make gaming computers and wouldn't be doing that if it weren't for Windows 95," says Tim Lynch, CEO of Psychsoftpc. "It was the first true graphical gaming platform with the introduction of DirectX and games such as Hover, Pitfall (think Lara Croft), Al Unser Jr. Arcade Racing, Battle Beast, NBA Full Court Press, Havoc, and Diablo, all of which defined genres of games. Without Windows 95 there would be no Steam or Xbox and we would still be playing Pong."

Users in 1995 at least knew that games were available for their PCs; many of them were only vaguely aware that they could connect to the Internet. Windows 95 wasn't the first operating system to ship with TCP/IP -- Macintosh System 7.5 had beat Microsoft to the punch by a little more than a year -- but Microsoft was the first to recognize the crucial importance of the Web browser.

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