It was 20 years ago today that the PC first stepped beyond the ubiquitous MS DOS operating system as Windows 95 was launched. Before 24 August 1995 every PC and laptop in the world, bar a tiny number of Apple Macs and PCs running IBM OS/2, ran on an incarnation of DOS. Early on the market was dominated by IBM DOS, a licenced version of MS DOS, there were even clone versions of DOS, command line-compatible with the Microsoft version.
DOS was always meant to be a staging post for the IBM and ‘IBM compatible’ PCs, as we referred to them back then. IBM dominated the computer market and licenced Microsoft’s operating system for PCs as a stopgap until they were in a position to launch their own product. That was due to be OS/2 (Operating System 2), but in a portent for many subsequent releases of Windows, OS/2 was unloved at launch. It also cost hundreds of pounds, far more than DOS.
Windows existed before 1995 but it was what we called an operating environment, sitting on top of DOS, but if you wanted to get anywhere on your PC, you needed to know a handful of DOS commands, typed onto a dark screen with a flashing cursor.
Windows 95 kicked the computing world on by a magnitude. It obliterated the memory limitations inherent in DOS (as did OS/2, although OS/2 did so before most people needed to reach beyond those limitations), setting off a semi-conductor boom as memory chip demand soared. With more memory, came better software, but at launch Microsoft seemed to know little of what was just around the corner. There was no internet browser included in the volume market product.
Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, had missed the signs that this internet thing was going to be a big deal. They hurriedly readied Internet Explorer, which was launched a week before Windows 95, and made an upgrade available, if you wanted a browser with your new operating system.
Within a year Microsoft were distributing books on how to use Windows as a web server, but this was a futile attempt to stem the flow of Unix, for years thought to be a dying relic of an operating system, of taking control of the web server marketplace. Today, estimates of the web server market share of Unix derivatives (most commonly Linux) are as high as 98%.
Windows 95 was replaced after three years with a close clone, Windows 98, before the hugely successful Windows XP launched in 2001. Even though Microsoft stopped issuing security updates for XP a year ago, it still retains an impressive 11% market share, more than twice that of Apple’s Mac OS X.
When they launched Windows 95 Microsoft looked imperious. They still retain over 90% market share of desktop and laptop devices, but there’s a soft underbelly to those figures. Windows has failed to make a significant impact on the tablet and mobile marketplace. The decision to give Windows 10 away for free to Windows 7 and 8 users, was not a benevolent act. Microsoft are making a play for your disk operating system for the next 20 years.