Saturday 23 May 2020

Windows 3.0 (1990)

Software... in a box!
Introduced May 1990

By 1990 Microsoft’s Windows platform had been around for five years and had made pretty much no market impact at all. Early versions of Windows were truly terrible and combined the very worst of clunky user interface design with the technological backwardness of late 1980s IBM-compatible PCs.

Most PC users stuck with plain old-fashioned DOS and were seemingly happy to run just one program at a time, each with a different user interface and incompatible file formats. WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and dBase and ruled the market – all very different products from different vendors. But a high-end business PC could have an Intel 80386 running at 20 or 25MHz with up to 4MB of RAM, plus a VGA card and a 100MB hard disk and a really high-end system might have a powerful 486 processor inside. But by a large of lot of these systems just ran DOS programs… but very, very quickly.

The limitations of DOS were pretty crushing. One application at a time and a maximum memory address space of 640KB. Various tools and memory managers existed, but many of these were incompatible with each other and they couldn’t make up for the clumsiness of DOS itself. Microsoft’s way out of this was to partner with IBM to make a new operating system called OS/2. This had been developed alongside earlier versions of Windows, but it was a much more modern operating system designed for 80286 processors and above where Windows 1 and 2 could run (just about) on a first generation 8086-based PC.

But Microsoft too had been pushing technological limits with Windows/286 and Windows/386 with special versions of Windows 2.1 which maintained the clunky look-and-feel of the old Windows but could actually take advantage of newer CPUs, including multi-tasking DOS applications. These were niche products, but when Windows 3.0 was introduced in May 1990 it included enhanced support for the 286 and 386 processors out of the box.

Not only was it better underneath, but Windows 3.0 had a complete overhaul of the user interface, featuring the application-orientated Program Manager rather than the brutally ugly and simplistic MS-DOS Executive in previous versions. Utilising attractive icons and taking advantage of what was then high-resolution VGA graphics, Windows 3.0 was approaching the usability of the Macintosh – although the Mac’s Finder was more about data files than programs.
That's a billion person-hours down the drain then

Windows 3.0 design was a mix of polished-up elements from previous versions of Windows with a rather flat feel to them, along with 3D elements largely borrowed from Presentation Manager in OS/2. Compared with modern minimalistic versions of Windows, Windows 3.0 had a lot of “Chrome” around the edges which resulted in visual clutter and wasted space. But it certainly wasn’t bad looking for a 30-year-old design.

It had flaws – many flaws – in particular it wasn’t very stable and the dreaded Unrecoverable Application Error (which was Windows 3.0’s Blue Screen of Death) was all too common. Driver support was fiddly, if you didn’t have a popular system out of the box then you’d need to acquire and install things like video drivers and sound drivers. Most importantly, it wasn’t really an operating system in its own right, it was an operating environment perched on top of the ancient DOS OS. It took another three years and a major schism with IBM to create a completely modern version of Windows with Windows NT.

Windows 3.0 was a huge success (perhaps in part to the maddeningly addictive card game of Solitaire it shipped with), and of course the quest for ease-of-use spread beyond the operating system itself. Microsoft Office 1.0 was launched in November 1990 with Word for Windows 1.1, Excel 2.0 and PowerPoint 2.0, typically priced at around half of what it would cost you to buy the programs separately. Windows 3.1 followed two years later with improvements all around, and because Microsoft would cut PC manufacturers a good deal to ship Windows with new PCs it eventually got everywhere and wiped out all the other PC-based opposition.

As an operating system it isn’t of much practical use today, but if you want to play with it there are a few places that you can get virtual machines to run under VirtualBox or VMware, and you can relive the frustrations of Solitaire if nothing else. Complete set of installation disks, boxes and manuals are quite collectable too with prices typically ranging from £60 to £100.

Image credit: David Orban via Flickr - CC BY 2.0

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