Windows 95 turns 20

It’s the operating system that changed desktop computing forever. Here’s a peek back at what was and how computer interfaces might change in the next 20 years. By Jonathan Roberts.

windows-95-640

The arrival of Microsoft Windows 95 on 24 August 1995 brought about a desktop PC boom. With an easier and more intuitive graphical user interface than previous versions, it appealed to more than just business, and Bill Gates’s stated aim of one PC per person per desk was set in motion. This was a time of 320MB hard drives, 8MB of RAM and 15-inch CRT monitors. For most home users, the Internet had only just arrived.

Windows 95 introduced the Start menu, powered by a button in the bottom-left corner of the desktop. This gives a central point of entry into menus from which to choose commands and applications. The simplicity of this menu enables users to easily find commonly used documents and applications. All subsequent versions of Windows have kept this menu, with the notable exception of Windows 8, a change which prompted an enormous backlash.

We take these intuitive graphic interfaces for granted today, but earlier operating systems such as DOS and CP/M allowed the user to interact using only typed text commands. This all changed in the 1970s, with Ivan Sutherland’s work with Sketchpad and the use of lightpens to control CRT displays, Douglas Engelbart’s development of the computer mouse, and the Xerox Parc research team’s creation of the Windows Icon Menu Pointer graphical interfaces paradigm (Wimp) — the combination of mouse pointer, window and icons that remains standard to this day.

By the early 1980s, Apple had developed graphical operating systems for its Lisa (released in 1983) and Macintosh (1984) computers, and Microsoft had released Windows (1985).

All these interfaces rely on the central idea of the desktop, a comprehensible metaphor for a computer. We work with information in files and organise them in folders, remove unwanted information to the trash can, and note something of interest with a bookmark.

Metaphors are useful. They enable users to grasp concepts faster, but rely on the metaphor remaining comprehensible to the user and useful for the designer and programmer putting it into effect — without stretching it beyond belief. The advantage is that the pictures used to represent functions (icons) look similar to those in the workplace, and so the metaphor is readily understandable.

But 20 years after Windows 95, the world has changed. We have smartphones and smart TVs, we use the Internet prolifically for practically everything. Touchscreens are now almost more ubiquitous than the classic mouse-driven interface approach, and screen resolution is so high individual pixels can be difficult to see. We still have Windows, but things are changing. Indeed, they need to change.

Windows 95 introduced the Start menu

Windows 95 introduced the Start menu

The desktop metaphor has been the metaphor of choice for so long, and this ubiquity has helped computers find a place within households as a common, familiar tool rather than as specialist, computerised equipment. But is it still appropriate? After all, few of us sit in an office today with paper-strewn desks; books are read on a tablet or phone rather than hard-copies; printing e-mails is discouraged; most type their own letters and write their own e-mails; files are electronic not physical; we search the Internet for information rather than flick through reference books; and increasingly the categorisation and organisation of data has taken second place to granular search.

Mouse-driven interfaces rely on a single point of input, but we’re increasingly seeing touch-based interfaces that accept swipes, touches and shakes in various combinations. We are moving away from the dictatorship of the mouse pointer. Dual-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom are new emerging metaphors — natural user interfaces (NUI) rather than graphical user interfaces.

The next 20 years
It’s hard to tell what the next 20 years hold, but one thing that is certain is that interfaces will make use of more human senses to display information and to control the computer. Interfaces will become more transparent, more intuitive and less set around items such as boxes, arrows or icons. Human gestures will be more commonplace. And such interfaces will be incorporated into technology throughout the world, through virtual reality and augmented reality.

These interfaces will be appear and feel more natural. Some suitable devices already exist, such as ShiverPad, that provide shear forces on surfaces that provide a frictional feel to touch devices. Or Geomagic’s Touch X (formerly the Sensible Phantom Desktop) that delivers three-dimensional forces to make 3D objects feel solid.

Airborne haptics are another promising technology that develop tactile interfaces in mid-air. Through ultrasound, users can feel acoustic radiation fields that emanate from devices, without needing to touch any physical surface. Videogame manufacturers have led the way with these interfaces, including the Microsoft Kinect and Hololens that allow users to use body gestures to control the interface, or with their eyes through head-mounted displays.

Once interaction with a computer or device can be commanded using natural gestures, movements of the body or spoken commands, the necessity for the Windows-based metaphor of computer interaction begins to look dated — as old as it is.The Conversation

  • Jonathan Roberts is senior lecturer in computer science at Bangor University
  • This article was originally published on The Conversation

Share this article

  • Chris

    And after 20 years MS have gone back to boring black, blue and grey colours for their operating systems…

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    But flat and modern plus you can add your own wallpaper that has more colors than the Windows 95 palette.

  • Chris

    But just last week I was in Dions and chatted to the salesperson and I just happened to bump the mouse of the Apple 27in with retina display. Im not a Apple fan, but O M G. What a nice screen and I could read everything so clearly on that screen (I need glasses for normal PC work). The interface is 20 years ahead of what Windows is trying to give to the people with Win 8 & 10. I would much rather buy a new Apple than a PC with win 10 on which still looks like Win 95. Seriously, they can keep their boring colours and lets not even talk about things like Visual Studio, that’s even worse.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Maybe because Microsoft wants their software to be more functional that just some eye candy on screen. I mean even though it looks nice but if it’s useless and hard to use, then it’s just colorful garbage.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Also pointing that Microsoft is using styles from the International Typographic Style that is clear to understand. I’m assuming that you’re not a graphic designer so I just need to throw it out there.

  • Chris

    But compare Android to Win for instance. Android is easy to use and it has very nice eye candy. Why cant you have both as in Andriod or Apple?

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Maybe eye candy is subjective? Just saying.

  • Chris

    And just to add, MS was forced to bring back the start menu as well. People I work with are still on either XP or now at least Win 7, but nobody I know wants 8 or 10 on their PC. So when it comes to functionality I know think MS is doing to great in some areas.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Because Windows 95 set a bar that influenced a lot of OSes. Basically using Windows 7 is like using Windows 95 but using more memory.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    And maybe people are afraid of change and can’t learn new things. Just saying. I’m sorry that they can’t learn a new interface.

  • Chris

    Must be. Because some people and MS of course find 10 attractive.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    I mean I prefer Windows 8.1 because it felt more exciting than Windows 10.
    But the good thing is that I can do this… I have the best of both worlds.

  • Chris

    Of course people are afraid / lazy to learn a new interface, but why change it so much that people actually need to learn it again? And in a corporate environment most of the people also don’t have time.
    I work with people who struggles with some basic stuff in Excel, so you do have to understand that some companies are very reluctant to change over to Win 8.
    I’m also not sure what they are going to do when they roll out new PC and laptops…

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Have you forgot that Windows 8 was designed as a step up for touch screens? I mean look at Windows 7. It has touch abilities but clunky on touch.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Also welcome to 2015. It’s not 2005 anymore.

  • Chris

    I have a Acer Win 7 PC all in one which has a touch screen. It works more than fine, so no need for win 8’s touch screen I would say

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    It’s Microsoft’s effort to be current and not stagnant and also trying to unify the OS that made possible in Windows 10.
    I use Windows 8.1 on both of my laptops and it works smoother than Windows 7.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Apple generally use LG panels in their desktops – find a similar specced LG or Dell (they also use LG on their upmarket monitors) display if you want that on your PC.

    >and lets not even talk about things like Visual Studio, that’s even worse.

    Not sure what you’re getting at? Are you suggesting that productivity environments should have exciting vibrant colours? I spend most my life in VStudio and like the default colours. Easy on the eyes. Colours are fully customizable if you don’t like them.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    MS tried the whole Eye Candy route with Vista (the latest OS X has taken some visual cues from Vista, it’s expected they’ll backtrack on the “aero” stuff some time), I’m glad they went back to a more boring out-the-way experience. The OS shouldn’t be the star of the show, it needs to sit in the background and get on with the job. If you never think about it, it’s doing its job well.

  • Chris

    Then why do MS force its developers to stick to their boring blocks of colours? Look at the visual studio, they want you to right apps that looks like their OS. So you land up with boring OS and boring Apps?

  • Chris

    VS 2008 is much better looking and much easier on the eyes than VS 2014. VS 2014 light interface where things are just to white and dark interface where its too dark again? No sorry, you cant tell me that either of those colour schemes work for you in VS

  • Chris

    lol, is the pic now to show me how great win 10 looks like? I’ll rather stick to 7 and have at least a better looking OS

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    They’re called “interface guidelines”.
    I’m not sure why you want your wordprocessor or spreadsheet to be exciting? Isn’t the whole point of productivity apps to put the emphasis on your work, not the app?

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Good luck on 2020. Windows 7 would be just another legacy OS now.
    Windows 7 can’t even mount ISOs by itself.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Because we all know that Windows works. It does the job for me.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Tools -> Options -> Colour Theme -> Blue

    There, VS2008 colours in VS2015 (There was no VS2014). Can you stop ranting now? Happy?

    And yes, even though I was aware of the ability to revert to the old colour scheme (unlike you, too busy complaining to find a solution), I choose the new dark theme because I prefer it.

  • Chris

    Nope only got dark and light. and oops sorry VS 2012

  • Chris

    And sorry using sql server 2014, that’s where I got the 2014 from. Damn, Im not perfect after all

  • Chris

    I’ll rather hold onto to is as long as possible.
    And if you haven’t noticed there’s a huge amount of things windows cant do. In 7 just go and download a free tool to mount ISO files. Most people I know would rather download software than use the default MS products in any case. Just look at notepad for instance, been with us with over 20 years already and still you hardly do anything in it. Media player and image viewers, all of those are normally replaced by other non MS products in any case.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Good luck!

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Maybe you don’t know that they are using a design language. It’s mildly organic and based on the modernist style. The style that you see in airports, subways, signage and more.

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    He prefers the chrome than the content.

  • Chris

    Productivity is assisted by easy of using the software or app. If you are constantly looking to find the right menu then you are not being productive.
    And why should I not have eye candy in my spreadsheet?
    I design BI dashboards and the only thing that pulls the eye to the data and what it actually means, are graphs and eye candy. Nobody wants to look at stats on a boring interface.

  • Chris

    You are right, I don’t know about their organic modernist style. As one of the politicians once said, I cant say what porn is, but I know it when I see it.
    I see Win 8 and 10 and I know I don’t like it. All I can hope for is that they change their style so something else very soon.

  • Chris

    Thanks

  • Hadrian Embalsado

    You know that there are people making skins for Windows 10. People used to hate the cartoony blue windows of Windows XP and hated the glass of Windows Vista.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    Surely you have some contradicting ideas here? You have your nice pretty BI dashboards that stick out because the OS/App blend in to the background. If they were flashy and bright, the app’s UI would have to be even more garish to pull your attention. Look in the Windows XP days, where the UI was indeed bright, how the apps all took to skinning and other fancy-pants methods to stand out even more. That was not a good time for UI. I don’t miss it at all.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    You should try and nudge yourself and users towards pinning apps more. The start menu was a necessary evil because it was made in the days of low res 15″ monitors, and it was a way to present the information on that. with today’s higher res, larger screens, there’s better ways of using an OS. I never missed the start menu because I (and most people I know) have been using pinned apps since they appeared in Vista, almost 10 years ago. It’s a UI element they borrowed from OS X, which you speak highly of, so I assume you approve of it?

  • William Stucke

    You do know that you can use any size and resolution display you like with your Windows box, unlike the “one size fits all” Apple approach?
    Yes, you can use a 60″ 4K display, if that rocks your boat.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I see from that link that the Blue Theme is in VS2012 update 2… are you running an unpatched dev environment, seeing you never saw the option? For shame!

    This is one the great advantages of Windows – although it’s closed source, it’s an extremely open well documented platform, and customization tools like this are possible and commonplace.

  • Chris

    Im actually running that on the server at the moment. (please don’t tell anybody). As soon as the test has been done, that will disappear and I’ll be running from my PC, but until then….
    One thing that MS has gotten right is their market share and because of that you have millions and millions of websites to actually research a problem or normally problems. Just for that I’ll never change to any other OS.

  • Chris

    I for one can not work without the start menu, and actually Im running a utill called “classic start menu” to actually give me more control over the start menu as well. So I would have been one of those asking for the SM in 8.
    And no I’ve used the Apple, but I like to look (which is very important to me) of the OS on it. Nice graphics and icons as oppose to the Win 8 & 10.

  • Chris

    Skin for Win 10, was that a thing in Win 95?
    I sort of liked the Vista look but not the OS it self and rather not say anything about XP.

  • Aaron Franke

    I don’t like the Windows look too much either. Personally, feel the customizability of Linux is the future.

Why TechCentral?

We know that as a prospective advertiser, you are spoilt for choice. Our job is to demonstrate why TechCentral delivers the best return for your advertising spend.

TechCentral is South Africa’s online technology news leader. We don’t say that lightly. We believe we produce the country’s best and most insightful online tech news aimed at industry professionals and those interested in the fast-changing world of technology.

We provide news, reviews and comment, without fear or favour, that is of direct relevance to our fast-expanding audience. Proportionately, we provide the largest local audience of all technology-focused online publishers.

We do not constantly regurgitate press releases to draw in search engine traffic — we believe websites that do so are doing their readers and advertisers a disservice. Nor do we sell “editorial features”, offer advertising “press offices” or rely on online bulletin-board forums of questionable value to advertisers to bolster our traffic.

TechCentral, which is edited and written by award-winning South African journalists, cares about delivering top-quality content to draw in the business and consumer readers that are of most interest to technology advertisers.

We’d like the opportunity to demonstrate the value of directing a portion of your advertising budget to TechCentral, whether your company is in the technology field or not. Numerous opportunities exist for companies interested in reaching our audience of key decision-makers in South Africa’s dynamic information and communications technology sector. We offer packages that will deliver among the best returns on investment available in the online technology news space.

For more information about advertising opportunities, and how your organisation can benefit by publicising itself on TechCentral, please call us on 011-792-0449 during office hours. Or send us an e-mail and ask for our latest rate card and brochure.