Advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0

I hear the question from time to time what the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0 were. Windows 3.0, released in May 1990, is generally considered the first usable version of Windows. The oft-repeated advice to always wait for Microsoft’s version 3 is a direct reference to Windows 3.0 that still gets repeated today, frequently.

Although Windows 3.0 is clumsy by today’s standards, in 1990 it had the right combination of everything to take the world by storm.

It multitasked–sort of. Prior to Windows 3.0, Windows was just a task switcher. Windows 3.0 had cooperative multitasking. It was crude, but the Mac only had cooperative multitasking at the time too, and Windows 3.0 was less crash-prone when multitasking than the Mac. In my experience it was less crash-prone than single-tasking a Mac too at that point, but that seemed to depend on how you used the system because there are people who will claim the opposite.

It was more stable than what people were used to. Windows 1.0 and 2.0 weren’t stable enough to be much more than a curiosity. You could actually boot up Windows 3.0 and run it all day and have a chance of not crashing.

It had the killer app. Microsoft Office was still a ways off, but Windows 3.0 had graphical versions of Word and Excel that were better to use than their DOS counterparts had been. And competitor Samna had Ami Pro, which really gave the early versions of Word a run for their money. Lotus later bought Samna and eventually renamed Ami Pro to Wordpro. Part of the reason Windows 3.0 succeeded was because of timing–you needed a program to run to make you want to boot up Windows, and there were several. Earlier versions of Windows were just a curiosity. Innovative computer users could switch tasks between Lotus 1-2-3 and other DOS apps in Windows, but realistically, it was possible to do similar things in DOS with some add-on utilities with lower overhead, and that was what most people did.

It was inexpensive and ran on inexpensive hardware. When Windows 3.0 came out, it wasn’t long at all before $1,000 PCs capable of running it followed. Major cities were stuffed with consumer electronics stores eager to sell them, and even in small towns, you could get one at Radio Shack. Did a Mac provide a better experience? Probably. Did an Amiga? Absolutely. But in both cases you paid a premium for it.

It standardized a hardware tower of babel. Early 386s were really chaotic, and ironically, running cutting-edge DOS games under Windows 3.0 generally made them work a bit better. This was a fairly temporary situation and I don’t think it would be true of systems built after, say, 1992 or so, but I remember seeing this advice in more than one magazine of the time.

Let’s talk disadvantages now.

Windows 3.1 was faster and more stable. Windows 3.0 put Windows on the map, but Microsoft followed up with a better version two years later. It was Windows 3.0 that set the table, but once Windows 3.1 was out, there was no reason to stay on it.

It crashed a lot. It was better than previous versions of Windows, but if you were going to run Windows all day, it was a good idea to reboot in the middle of the day and certainly at the end of the day. Today we expect to only have to reboot once a month for patches and even that makes us grumpy, but that was a pipe dream in 1990.

Multitasking was only cooperative. Applications controlled multitasking–the apps would signal to Windows that they were done and another app could take over. That wasn’t the way Unix or an Amiga multitasked. On those systems, the operating system decided how the apps would divide up the CPU time. Windows NT had cooperative multitasking, but consumer versions of Windows didn’t get Unix-like pre-emptive multitasking until Windows XP was released in 2002. Amiga owners weren’t impressed, but there were only a couple million of those. Microsoft sold four million copies of Windows 3.0 in 1990, and the Amiga never caught back up.

Hardware support was still a bit spotty. There was a lot of new stuff being developed on PCs at this point in time, most notably sound hardware, but Windows 3.0 and its software didn’t support them initially. Microsoft had to release Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions in late 1991 to add support for this new hardware.

It was Windows 3.0 that put Windows on the map, but had Microsoft not followed up in 1992 with Windows 3.1 and again in 1995 with Windows 95, it might not have achieved the dominance it has today.