Twenty years ago personal computing took a significant leap forward. Microsoft released Windows 95, a revolutionary operating system at the time. The company saw it as a milestone moment: Microsoft spent hundreds of millions on marketing just to get people to upgrade. Its efforts included the now legendary “Start Me Up” ad campaign featuring the Rolling Stone song of the same name, which played on televisions worldwide for months preceding and following Windows 95’s launch.
Microsoft’s gamble worked: the catchy commercial caught on with consumers, and Windows 95 went on to sell 40 million copies in the first year alone, according to Time’s Techland blog. But sales and hoopla aside, the real significance of Windows 95 came in its lasting effects. No Microsoft operating system before or since has had such a dramatic effect on the way we use our computers.
So what are some of the many things you can thank Windows 95 for?
1. The Start Menu
Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to include a Start menu. In versions previous, users had to navigate a series of folders and windows to find the files and applications they needed — where the operating system got its name to start with. Windows 95 placed less emphasis on the windows and more on the Start menu, allowing you to access applications and recently used files far quicker.
2. The Taskbar
Along with the Start menu, the taskbar also made its first appearance in Windows 95. The taskbar was chiefly aimed at making app switching easier and faster. It also helped spur true multitasking: before Windows 95, multitasking was slow and unreliable, since only one app could run at a time. Windows 95 changed that, allowing apps to run simultaneously and separate from one another so multitasking was quick and easy — and far less prone to crashing your entire computer, DataBook explains.
3. Long File Names
We take the ability to name our files anything we want for granted these days, but it wasn’t always like this. In previous versions of Windows, users were limited to eight characters or less to name their files, according to PC Magazine. With Windows 95, you could name a file practically anything you wanted (up to 255 characters in fact). No more abbreviations or guessing what file is what.
4. The Internet
No, Windows 95 didn’t create the Internet — what it did do was make the Internet accessible. Microsoft debuted Internet Explorer in an add-on pack for the operating system called Plus and on some new PCs shipped with Windows 95 from the factory. For many it was their first experience with the Web, and Windows’ ubiquity on computers worldwide was likely one of the main reasons the Web grew so quickly during the late 1990s.
5. Plug and Play
For us long time computer users, we remember a time where getting that shiny new camera or printer to connect with your PC meant hours of frustration, and that was if you were lucky. Windows 95 debuted a new feature called “plug and play.” Devices could be connected to the computer and the operating system itself would take care of the rest. While it still wasn’t foolproof early on (some of us may remember “Plug and Pray”), it made the lives of computer geeks worldwide a whole lot easier.
Changes in how Windows operated allowed the operating system to move on from the days of Minesweeper and Solitaire to more robust gameplay, Forbes argues. A technology called DirectX also permitted more graphic intensive games, and some credit Windows 95 with spurring explosive growth in what is now a multi-million dollar industry.
7. Your Own Desktop
Today whether it’s at work, school, or even at home, we take the ability to have your own desktop for granted. Microsoft says in its support documentation that Windows 95 was the first version of the operating system to allow for separate user profiles. While it wasn’t perfect and prone to security issues, it certainly made life easier for those that had to share a single computer.
Any way you slice it, all these things we take for granted today with our computers were all but nonexistent just twenty years ago. Windows 95 changed the world and arguably made computers accessible for anyone, and not just the technologically gifted.
That in and of itself was important. Computers became a necessity rather than a luxury as a result. The World Wide Web exploded in the years following Windows 95’s release, and a whole new market for accessories was opened because Microsoft took the guesswork out of installing. And it just was plain easier to use overall. The groundwork laid in Windows 95 has set the stage for nearly every release of Windows after it.
For that you can thank Microsoft and Windows 95.
Follow Ed on Twitter @edoswald