Windows, how you grew… and stopped

The first version of Windows came on one floppy disk. Not that it did much, but it’s pretty amazing the journey that Windows has taken in its 30 years of life on this planet. I mean, look at how cute it was when it was young!

How Windows took over the world

Windows 1.0 was a curiosity. It was nothing more than proof-of-concept really. It showed that PCs could use a mouse and graphics in a productive way. But it didn’t really have any app support to speak of, and it wouldn’t until version 3.0. Starting with those humble beginnings, though, Windows grew until by the 2000s it was pretty much the only way people interacted with their PCs.

Along the way it got bigger, more complex, and more interesting to look at. Don’t believe me?

There’s a slideshow. Isn’t there always?

ZDNet (which, back in 1985 was called PC Magazine and published on paper) has a slideshow of Windows throughout the ages. Check it out. The funny thing was, looking at all these OS’s side by side, I got a little nostalgic. I sort of miss the rather straightforward way that Windows 3.1 didn’t try to be everything to you. It just gave you a way to run apps graphically, and it did that pretty darn well. I also found the screenshot of Windows Vista to be more attractive than I remembered, even if the OS itself was kind of a pile of garbage.

The slideshow, along with most similar ones you’ll find, was created in 2015 just as Windows 10 was about to launch. I looked quickly and didn’t find any newer ones. Why? Because Windows looks more or less identical to how it looked in 2015. Sure there are some minor changes to the taskbar but really it’s just the same. And, we like it that way

Windows may never look different ever again. Is that a bad thing?

Although you may see some little improvements and modernizations to Windows, it may end up looking essentially the same in 2025 as it looked in 2015. Microsoft learned a very hard lesson with its launch of Windows 8. This was a ground-up re-imagining of the way that Windows looked, and users hated it. They refused to use it. And, it nearly killed both Windows and the PC ecosystem.

With Windows 10, Microsoft took a very familiar and comfortable path. That comfortable Start menu was back, and all those gestural shortcuts were gone. People liked it. Why? Because most people use PCs for work or for gaming, and that’s it. Gamers aren’t going to spend a lot of time looking at the desktop, and workers just want to get work done.

The same people who are excited by a new gesture or feature on their phones are not going to want to learn anything new on the desktop. And that’s not surprising, because people just want to do their jobs and not be stopped by the operating system.

The big changes to Windows are on the inside

Chances are that if you use Windows for work in the next decade, at some point you’ll stop actually using Windows. (What?) You’ll probably use a cloud-based service that gives you all the functions you need, and looks like Windows. It’s similar to the Chromebook idea. If you have a Chromebook, you’re doing everything online through a browser that looks like Chrome. There just isn’t a lot happening on the actual device. That means that Chromebooks can be pretty cheap and simple. All the hard work is done on a server.

For basic productivity, this works great. I’m guessing that at some point the only people using actual Windows on their computers will be the power users. You know, the media creators, the gamers, that sort of person.

In order for this to happen, people need to feel comfortable with the transition. And, nothing makes people feel more comfortable than a desktop experience that hasn’t changed much in about 30 years.

Parting shots

More than any other piece of software, Windows has really defined how we’ve looked at our personal computers over the last 30 years. Sure, there’s Mac OS and Linux and now the smartphone OS’s, but each of them is inevitably compared to Windows in terms of usability and power. And Windows has done surprisingly well, despite a few clunkers like WindowsME, Vista, and the original Windows 8. I am pretty surprised to say that I like Windows 10 better than any of the versions that came before, although there are a few UI tweaks I wish were built in. I miss the transparent window frames from Windows 7 “Aero” and I know I can hack the registry to put them back, I just haven’t gotten round to it.

So, this version of Windows may be the last one, at least from a look and feel perspective. And that’s not really a problem, if you think about it.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.