By Genevieve Chan
With the recent release of Windows 8, Microsoft has brought Windows users another revamp. But operating systems have not always had sleek icons, speedy performance and reliable operation — in fact, many of us can probably remember the rectangular, grey taskbars and dull fonts of the older operating systems.
In just under two decades, computer operating systems have come a long way, whether in regards to features, speed, aesthetics, reliability, networking or support.
So in honour of the release of Windows 8, let’s take a look back at some Microsoft OS milestones over the past seventeen years.
At the time of its release, Windows 95 was a huge step forward in the PC world in terms of efficiency, smooth performance, customizable graphics, multimedia support and more. It also gave birth to some of the features we now consider to be core essentials — features like the start menu, taskbar, and audio and video playback tools. The inaugural version of Internet Explorer was also released around this time, and it steadily rose to become one of the most widely-used web browsers, peaking in 2003.
Windows 95 provided consumers with a user-friendly layout, the ability to personalize graphics and support for longer file names. In contrast to older operating systems, it had significantly better responsiveness and multitasking capabilities, allowing for smoother and faster processing. The introduction of Plug-and-Play support allowed compatible devices to be detected and configured without manual setups.
The drag-and-drop feature worked for most folders, with the exception of folders such as the Control Panel, Dial-Up Networking or Printers. Some of the early networking abilities opened up some security problems, and protection from computer crashes due to problematic applications was poor.
With computers becoming more common household items, Windows 98 was designed to target consumers. Among some of the minor items it improved from its predecessor, Windows 98 improved USB and DVD-ROM support, and introduced internet connection sharing – whereby multiple users could share an internet connection within a Local Area Network.
Released with an updated version of Internet Explorer 5, this provided an upgrade of the web-browsing experience. Overall, Windows 98 was an upgrade of Windows 95, improving aspects such as stability, processing speed, more disk space and multimedia capabilities.
Windows 98 was not as radical of a change as Windows 95 was of its predecessors, but it refined and polished many features.
Released with 4 versions — Professional, Server, Advanced Server and DataCenter Server — Windows 2000 was targeted at individual business clients and business servers. It was intended to replace all of the Windows operating systems before it, and provided improvements in reliability, Internet compatibility and a user-friendly setup and installation.
Users found that Windows 2000 ran better on laptops than previous operating systems had, as the trend began to shift from personal desktop computers to portable ones. With the business clientele in mind, Windows 2000 was also better suited for mobile users to access their personal data and settings from remote locations.
Though advertised for its security, Windows 2000 fell target to a number of virus attacks, and subsequently required frequent updates (or “patches”) to compensate for its security vulnerabilities.
Shifting back to targeting personal computer users, XP brought about the biggest change in visual aesthetics and customizable settings. Its stability and efficiency was a noticeable step up from the operating systems that had preceded it. In the wake of Windows 2000’s security troubles, XP introduced a number of security features as well as upgrading its networking features. XP also allowed for switching between user accounts without losing any saved information while a user was still logged on. It was also the first operating system in Microsoft’s line to have product activation, in order to prevent software piracy.
Windows XP introduced a number of improvements, including speedier start-up and hibernating times, more applications to improve reliability (such as System Restore, Automated System Recovery etc.) and better hardware support for external devices, including USB 2.0 and multi-monitors.
Though product activation served as a security feature against software piracy, one copy of XP could only be installed on one computer, effectively multiplying costs for consumers with multiple computers.
Vista was designed to address the susceptibilities of its predecessors to viruses, malware and other security breaches. Like each previous upgrade, Vista also improved XP’s stability and efficiency, namely, preventing system crashes.
Vista’s layout was noticeably more visually appealing, with a sleeker start menu, taskbar and icons. Vista also introduced a number of Windows applications, including Windows Mail, Calendar, Photo Gallery, DVD Maker, Media Center and more.
Generally, people found that Vista was only a more polished version of Windows XP, without any significant software or feature improvements to deserve the upgrade.
For many users, Windows Vista had not lived up to the 5-year anticipation before its release, but Windows 7 provided the focused upgrades that Vista had not. Instead of increasing the number of new features, Microsoft aimed instead at improving performance and reliability. While maintaining the visual improvements of Vista, Windows 7 also improved the taskbar with translucent icons for users to preview open applications on their taskbars, and allowing for pinning and reordering of taskbar items.
The improved taskbar, a better searching function and further-improved security are among the subtle, but significant improvements from Vista.
The price for installation is still steep, and the increased performance can be taxing on older computer hardware, especially for users upgrading from XP.
With the rise of devices like smartphones and tablets in the last few years, Windows 8 is a clear step in the direction of touch screens and tiled layout that echoes that of mobile devices. It looks to support compatibility across devices, allowing desktop computers and laptops to be synchronized with portable smartphones and tablets.
The new layout is colourful and modern, and the tiled setup allows for relevant and updated information to be presented to the user. When switching devices, the same tiled setup is present on a mobile device, allowing ease in working from different places. Windows 8 continues to support multiple monitors, with a significant upgrade that allows the user to personalize each monitor with different backgrounds and displays.
Though the cross-device compatibility and touchscreen support seem to be futuristic steps, some users feel that Windows 8 is better suited for tablets than desktops. Although the new layout is visually appealing, it is a great departure from the traditional start menu and taskbar users have grown accustomed to, and some have difficulty navigating the radically different desktop. Considering that Windows 7 is still fairly new, some consumers and businesses are opting to stay with that rather than upgrade.
Though Windows 8 is still in its infancy, it has given us a glimpse of the direction in which computer technology is headed. In as little as seventeen years, there has been a huge shift in the capabilities, efficiency and aesthetic design of Windows operating systems – an enormous technological improvement without even looking at other corporations, gadgets or modes of media. With the radical technological advancements that we have witnessed, we can only wonder what is still to come. Maybe those science fiction visions of our future technology aren’t so far off after all. •