You'll be forgiven if Windows 95 doesn't summon a burst of nostalgia. It was never pretty, often cantankerous and, for the most part, our only option. But within two years of its release, 70 per cent of the planet was using it.
Your own preferences and computing ideology aside, Windows 95 is an undeniable icon. For hundreds of millions of people, Windows 95 was personal computing, spanning the inscrutable crudeness of the Windows 3.1 era and the soothing balm of Windows 98. It was inescapable. It was, possibly, the first operating system you used at home. It might not have been your favourite — we'll stop there out of respect for our elders — but it helped an entire generation make sense of the PC's ascension.
It's worth considering how long ago 15 years was. By today's tech standards, the mid-1990s might as well have been the Cretaceous Period. In his review of Windows 95 for the New York Times, Stephen Manes hyphenated "on-line". That long ago. Manes also recounts the frustrating experience of fine-tuning his AUTOEXEC.BAT file — a computing relic whose name is a shock to my eyes, softened by years of smooth animations, colour gradients and idyllic menus. Operating systems were gritty back then. But they worked — most of the time. "In many ways," Manes poetically sighed, "[Windows 95]is an edifice built of baling wire, chewing gum and prayer, but you will probably end up living there."
And we did. In the process, mainstream computer users didn't just struggle with inconsistent performance and obscure configuration files, but eased themselves into the warm waters of the Start Menu, task bars, plug-n-play (when it worked), and an overall graphical interface intelligible outside of comp sci classrooms. And at the blistering rate of technological change — they were hyphenating the word online back then! — Windows 95 is owed respect for popularising these computing principles, many of which are still part of today's status quo. And how embarrassing would it have been if the Start Menu flopped? — Microsoft paid $US2 million to licence The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" for their Windows 95 advertising blitz.
But popularise might be putting too bright a gloss on the Windows explosion. It was popular, yes — immensely so — but the Department of Justice had another word for it: monopolistic. Windows 95 introduced the first iteration of Internet Explorer (although it shipped sans browser — again, this was 15 years ago), the software at the heart of a federal antitrust grappling match that lasted years.
But despite all of this (or perhaps because of it), Windows 95 can't shake its place in the annals of tech history. She hasn't aged terribly well, but for better or for worse, Windows 95 was for a considerable time the OS that shaped our notion of software's place in daily life. Happy birthday kiddo.
Republished from Gizmodo.