Believe it or not, the Windows graphical operating system has been around now for about 15 years. In that time, Microsoft has spawned all kinds of versions, including some that were never released or never became popular. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll cover a brief history of early Microsoft Windows releases and list sources for information, updates, and service packs for versions up to 3.1. Part two in this series will cover recent and future versions. So, read on to refresh your memory or to check to see whether your legacy installation needs to be taken just a little bit further.

Why Windows?
To answer the question of why Microsoft built Windows (other than to compete in the marketplace and make our lives hell), you really have to ask, why do we need a graphical user interface (GUI, pronounced gooo-ey) at all? Before the desktop metaphor, pull-down menus, mouse pointing, icons, overlapping windows, and WYSIWYG font displays, the human/computer interface consisted of console commands typed on a screen. The keyboard wasn’t much different than those used on typewriters (even the Enter key was still labeled Return).

In fact, the typewriter heritage lives on. The Tab button was an actual metal “tab” that stopped a typewriter carriage at specified settings so you could manually indent type. And ASCII will always contain certain control codes: Bell (07)—it makes a beep, modeled after the ding of a typewriter hitting the right margin zone—Line Feed (0A), and Carriage Return (0D). The last two codes are embedded at the end of every paragraph of this article even though the line doesn’t feed and there’s no longer a carriage to return you to the left margin of the page.

Human/computer interaction
Prior to consoles and keyboards, you could interact with your computer via a teletype and tape, by punch cards, or by manually entering a program one binary digit at a time by flipping switches.

Some of you may even remember how to enter commands in BASIC. You had to access each line number separately, make the editing changes, and redisplay that line. Cumbersome, wasn’t it? Early word processors functioned the same way. DOS programs such as WordStar and WordPerfect were big improvements because they tracked the screen position of each character, and you could edit directly on the “page.”

Although running applications eventually became more efficient and user friendly, many of you probably remember one of the biggest problems hindering new users from learning computers: the lack of standardization. Each program had its own commands, menu structure, shortcuts, and so on. GUIs offered to standardize the look and feel of programs, presenting more of a common interface. For instance, on almost all programs running Windows, [Ctrl]C is the standard key combination for copy, [Ctrl]X for cut. The File menu is almost always on the left, the Edit menu next to it, and the Help menu on the far right. To exit a program, you close the window. Regardless of how confusing it is to learn computers now, GUIs have done a lot to make interaction with computers easier, more efficient, and more fun.

Giving credit where credit is due
But let’s not give Microsoft all of the credit. It wasn’t the first to enter the GUI market. All the GUI concepts were invented elsewhere, at Stanford, Xerox PARC, MIT, and Apple. Douglas Englebart, then at the Stanford Research Institute, demonstrated his invention (and the ne plus ultra graphical user device) in 1968. He called it the mouse.

Truth be told, Microsoft was closer to last place, and certainly the least advanced, with its early graphical product. Among its rivals were Xerox PARC’s Alto (1973, never effectively marketed); Apple’s Lisa (1983, forerunner to 1984’s Macintosh and a steal at only $10,000 each!); VisiCorp’s VisiON (1983); Digital Research’s Graphics Environment Manager, or GEM (1984, for the Atari); MIT’s X Windows for UNIX (1984); Geos (1985); and IBM’s OS/2 1.1 (1988). Microsoft and IBM were partners in OS/2 development. Bill Gates’ decision to make Windows a priority caused a rupture between Big Blue and the emerging software behemoth. By the way, a text-based program, DESQ, offered superior multitasking (1984, later replaced by the graphical DESQview).

With all the competition, you have to wonder how Microsoft succeeded. Perhaps it was a Darwinian case of survival of the least harmful marketing. Or perhaps it’s a Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) case of which company’s marketing department was “mostly harmless.” But whatever the reason, succeed Microsoft did in establishing the IBM PC as the standard business and consumer hardware, and Windows as the standard graphics-based operating system for that hardware. For 15 years, Microsoft has left quite a legacy.

Where are you in the legacy?
Astonishingly, offices are still running Windows 3.1 (one lawyer’s office I know of is still running DOS and WordPerfect 5.1). To tweak your legacy Windows, you might want to update drivers or apply service packs using the resources at the end of this Daily Drill Down and in part two of the series. It will help to know your exact version and build of Windows. Here’s how to find that information, for Windows 3.1 and onward.

In the Windows 3.1 Program Manager, select Help | About Program Manager. A pop-up window will show your version.

Open an MS-DOS prompt (Windows 9x) or a command prompt (Windows NT), and type ver, then press [Enter]. You’ll see a result such as this:
Windows 98 [Version 4.10.1998]

Or click Start | Settings | Control Panel, and double-click the System icon. You can read the version information in the General tab.

Windows 1.0
Though most people probably don’t remember anything prior to 3.0, there was a Windows 1.0 release. Announced in 1983, not shipped until November 1985, Windows 1.0 presented a graphical interface to DOS. However, the windows couldn’t be overlapped, only tiled. Real Mode was the memory management scheme, which assumed less than 1 MB of memory (the old DOS 640 K) and multitasked programs out of the same memory space (can you say crash?). The Windows 1.0 Startup screen is shown in Figure A, the user interface in Figure B.

How well did the program work? According to CNET, Windows 1.0 gave rise to a popular joke: How do you get Windows 1.0 to crash? At the DOS prompt, enter the letters w-i-n, and press [Enter].

There was another big problem with Windows 1.0—hardly any applications. Windows 1x ended at version 1.04.

Figure A
How it all began: The Windows 1.0 Startup screen. Courtesy of modemnet.

Figure B
Tiled windows were all you got in Windows 1.0. Courtesy of modemnet.

Windows 2.0
Windows 2.0 (released December 1987) extended the graphical capabilities of its predecessor. Windows could overlap, for example, and the use of Protected Mode on 286 systems allowed applications to use more than the DOS limit of 640 K. Protected Mode was a type of memory management introduced on 286 chips. The mode allowed programs to be run in separate, non-overlapping memory areas, thus protecting them from being interfered with by other programs. Protected Mode also allowed multitasking, so several programs could be run at once. Actually, with this type of multitasking, programs only seem to run simultaneously. They actually take turns—each program gets assigned a slice of CPU time. But the CPU is fast enough that the delay is invisible (or should be).

Figure C shows the Windows 2.0 MS-DOS Executive, which functioned like a combination of the later Program Manager and File Manager.

In 1988, Apple released a lawsuit against Microsoft. At issue was Microsoft’s use of the Trash Can icon, which Apple contended belonged to their unique look and feel. Microsoft won the lawsuit five years later, in 1993. The best application for Windows 2.0 was Excel. Windows 2x made it up to version 2.04, although Microsoft’s official version record shows up to 2.11 (its versions probably include what would be called Windows 286 and 386).

Figure C
The Windows 1.0/2.0 MS-DOS Executive would become the Windows 3.x Program Manager and File Manager. Courtesy of modemnet.

Where’s Windows 2.1? Introducing Windows 386…
Windows 386 (released December 1987) was an early attempt to port Windows 2.0 to 386 chipsets. It used a Virtual 8086 Mode that later was developed into Windows 3.0 386 Enhanced Mode. These modes set up a virtual CPU complete with virtual registers. One effect was that DOS could run simultaneously with Windows as a virtual machine. This meant that DOS programs could multitask while Windows programs were running.

About the same time that Windows 386 appeared, Microsoft and IBM released the fruits of a joint project, OS/2 version 1.1. This operating system also has a graphical interface, called the Presentation Manager.

…and Windows 286
Typical of Microsoft, Windows 286 (Released June 1988) was a rename game. This OS was really Windows 2.1 repackaged for machines based on Intel’s 286 chip and named so as to be consistent with Windows 386.

Windows 3.0
Windows 3.0 (released May 1990) is the first PC graphical operating system that most people remember. Though buggy and crash-prone, it was the first serious competition against Apple for the hearts and minds of computer users. In the first year, sales exceeded four million (including international sales). The design of 3.0 incorporated three modes: Real, Standard, and Enhanced. The good news? Up to 16 MB of memory was available to Windows and Windows programs. The bad news? According to a History of the Windows API, “Many existing apps crash with ‘Unrecoverable Application Error’ dialogs because they read or write memory they should not have, but which previous versions permitted.” Though 3.0 sold wonderfully, Windows 3.1 was the real killer product, with 1 million advance orders.
All this talk of Windows modes gets confusing. Here’s a mode cheat sheet.

  • Protected Mode: For 286 machines, used in Windows 2.0 and 286.
  • Virtual 8086 Mode: Used for 386 chips, included in Windows 386.
  • Enhanced Mode: Used for 386 chips, developed from Virtual 8086 Mode. Came with Windows 3.0.
  • Real Mode: If you had a 286 with only 1 MB of RAM, Real Mode would get your Windows 3.0 up and running. You could run programs from Windows 1x, 2x, and some DOS programs in this mode.
  • Standard Mode: Included in both Windows 3.0 and 3.1, this mode would also work on a 286 and would speed up Windows on 386 machines. If apps wouldn’t run on a 386, you could try Standard Mode.

Confusing? Think how the users felt when Windows 3.0 came with three modes. If you were running Windows for Workgroups, you had only Enhanced Mode and life was a little more peaceful.
All these modes help explain why Windows 3.1 is referred to as an operating system that runs on top of DOS. Here’s how it works. Windows 3x boots as a DOS application in Real Mode, using the first 640 K of RAM. As it boots, it switches to Protected Mode so that it can use more memory and multitask programs. Windows applications are placed above the first megabyte of memory. When DOS applications are started, Windows uses Virtual 8086, or Enhanced Mode, to run them in a virtual DOS machine, and the programs are loaded somewhere in high memory, not the lower 640 K that DOS usually reserves. Drivers called VxDs translate Windows hardware requests in Protected Mode to DOS system calls (i.e., disk reads and writes) in Virtual 8086 Mode. Simple!
Windows 3.1
Windows 3.1 (released April 1992) was a major upgrade to Windows 3.0, in that it worked for more than five minutes without crashing. A 16-bit operating system, Windows 3.1 introduced drag-and-drop capabilities to the Windows family, as well as True Type (scalable) fonts, OLE (object linking and embedding), and multimedia support, so important to the future of Windows. The last version of this series was Windows 3.11, which added networking support.

Windows for Workgroups
Windows for Workgroups (released April 1992) was a version of Windows 3.1 for collaboration and networking. It included the ability to share files and printers through peer-to-peer networking, calendaring, and mail. In general, Windows for Workgroups was considered to be superior to 3.1. Version 3.11 was released November 1993.

We’ve now come about halfway down the legacy timeline. Figure D shows the whole shebang from 1985 to the ghosts of Windows future. Use it for perspective, a refresher, or just for amazement.

Figure D
How we got here—a timeline of Microsoft Windows major releases

It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since the introduction of Windows 1.0. Microsoft has left quite a legacy and gained the hearts and minds of most computer users, though some would argue that the legacy includes many broken hearts and confused minds. As I hope I’ve pointed out, it’s no small thing to have designed a GUI. Resources are out there for legacy systems, whether for purely intellectual interest or for some applications you need to keep running for a while longer. If you’re still running applications in legacy Windows, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a note.
General Resources

Windows 1-2-3

Microsoft’s FTP site

  • Set your browser to for a comprehensive general resource. For example, in you’ll find subdirectories filled with Knowledge Base articles, supported and unsupported tools, utilities, drivers, and freeware for Windows 3.x and Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Other areas of the site contain info and apps for DOS and a software library.
  • Windows 3.1

    Windows for Workgroups 3.11

  • Microsoft’s downloads page. Select Windows For Workgroups 3.11 from the drop-down list and click “Find It!” You’ll find 45 downloads still available, with accompanying Knowledge Base articles.
  • Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

    The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.