Windows 95 was launched ten years ago yesterday. It was a huge deal at the time. People lined up at midnight to buy it, and some of them didn’t even own a PC! I was interning at Microsoft that summer, and I remember how massive the launch was. Calling it a carnival is not an understatement. Microsoft had covered a few acres of sports fields on its corporate campus with big tents. There was a hot-air balloon (courtesy of Corel, whose program Corel Draw had a balloon as its logo then) and a ferris wheel. Overhead, a plane flew a banner that read, “Windows 95, will you marry me? Texas Instruments.” Jay Leno MC’ed the event, at a time when it was very rare for celebrities to have anything to do with computers.
Only the press and analysts were into the launch area that day. Not even Microsoft employees were allowed, since they didn’t want the launch to be overwhelmed by us. So the other interns and I worked away in our offices, wondering why the rest of the building was so empty. We were too clueless to realize that virtually the whole company was watching the event live, on the Jumbotron that was set up outside.
But at 6:30 that evening, the gates were opened to us employees, and we rushed in. In one tent, we saw software companies demoing their Windows 95-specific programs. Netscape was proudly showing off Navigator 2.0, which included such advances as frames. (It seemed like an improvement back then…) In another tent, two comedians from a Seattle sketch comedy group called Almost Live were hosting a “game show” about Office 95. When it ended, a bunch of people swarmed around Pat Cashman, mostly women, but no one approached Steve Wilson, which really puzzled me. So I did and told him how much I enjoyed their show, especially during its brief syndication run on Comedy Central.
The whole event had a festive atmosphere; everyone at Microsoft was riding high. It’s hard to remember what a significant change Windows 95 was to the PC world. It brought 32-bit computing to the masses, nine years after Intel introduced the 386. The user interface was much better than Windows 3.1. Finally, we had a real desktop and trash can, uh, recycle bin. Our file names were no longer limited to eight characters plus a three-character extension. Explorer and the Start menu were vast improvements over File Manager and Program Manager. It was much more stable than 3.1, and at least as stable as Mac OS.
And unlike the Mac, Windows 95 could run more than one program without the programs’ needing to explicitly yield control (preemptive multitasking) and you did not have to manually enter how much memory you wanted a program to use (dynamically allocated virtual memory). Even the fact that it was called Windows 95 and not Windows 4.0 was a big deal. Windows 95 truly brought personal computing into the modern era. Now if I could only remember whether I rode the ferris wheel…