Special Windows 10 issue 2015

Volume 30 Number 11

Editor's Note - The Road from 3.0

By Michael Desmond | Windows 2015

Michael DesmondA quarter century ago Microsoft released the most important piece of software in its long history. Windows 3.0 was not the first version of Windows, nor was it the best, but it was the most critical in terms of its ultimate impact. At a time when leadership of the PC industry was up for grabs, Windows 3.0 did more than cement Microsoft’s dominance in the space. It set the course for the evolution of the PC platform—and by extension, software development and IT—for two decades to come.

Before Windows 3.0 entered the market, the PC platform could have gone in a very different direction. Windows 2.0 was just another graphical operating environment, and products like GEM and DESQview boasted innovative UIs and multi-tasking capabilities. IBM, meanwhile, had convinced Microsoft to help it develop OS/2 as a successor OS to DOS.

All that changed when a pair of Microsoft engineers—David Weisse and Murray Sargent—spent a month in 1988 quietly hacking the Windows 2.x kernel, DLL libraries and other assets to get Windows to run in protected mode on a 286 PC. (You can read Sargent’s wonderful retelling at bit.ly/1O6glhy.) Freed from the 640KB memory barrier, and enabled by some capable driver and graphics work, Windows suddenly became something much bigger than it was. Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates, belatedly informed of the skunkworks effort, recognized it immediately. Windows 3.0 was approved as an official project, and within two years of its 1990 release would sell more than 10 million copies.

Windows 3.0 did a great many things. It established a look and feel for Microsoft OSes that would endure until the release of Windows 8 in 2012. And it restored Microsoft’s approach to the burgeoning PC market, prompting it to develop its own graphical OS. But, ultimately, it proved out the adaptability of the platform itself.

A quarter century ago Microsoft was a potent young upstart that found a way to breathe new life into a faltering Windows franchise and steer the course of personal computing for two decades to come. The echoes of that achievement can be heard today. Windows 10 is the third iteration of Microsoft’s new-look OS and represents a major step forward. From the refined and articulated dual-mode UI to the impressive scope of Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) vision, Windows 10 in many ways does what Windows 3.0 achieved 25 years before. It extends the horizons of the platform, and offers an inclusive path forward for developers and end users alike.

Today, a Windows developer can write an app and have it run on any modern, Windows-enabled client, from the smallest Internet of Things device to the largest Surface Hub room-based display, and to every phone, tablet and PC in between. Windows 10 also presents bridges to Android and iOS mobile app developers and provides full support for traditional .NET and COM-based applications via virtualization.

A quarter century ago, we stood at the precipice of the graphical age. Now, as we enter the era of ubiquitous, device-based computing and its reliance on touch- and speech-based UIs, the question begs: Might there be a Windows 3.0 for the modern era?

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.