Last Updated on February 28, 2021 by Dave Farquhar
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 Microsoft 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.
Advantages of Windows 3.0
When it came to the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0, the advantages mostly outweighed the disadvantages. There were still several GUIs competing for the public’s imagination in 1990. If you’re reading this on a Windows PC, that’s because Microsoft hit enough of the high points to get the traction it needed.
Windows 3.0 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 a single-tasking Mac too at that point. But that seemed to depend on what programs you ran because there are people who will claim the opposite. But Windows 3.0 beat the Mac’s System 7 to market by 356 days, and Windows 3.0 was more stable when multitasking in 1990 than System 7 was in 1991.
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. Today that doesn’t sound like an achievement at all and it sounds like a backhanded compliment at best. But in 1990, it was an improvement. While its stability wasn’t great, it was acceptable, especially by 1990 standards. It was good enough for the time. That became a consistent theme with Windows from 1990 onward.
That was really the corner that Microsoft turned with Windows 3.0. It was the first version of Windows to be good enough for the time.
Windows 3.0 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 Windows programs that fit the bill. Earlier versions of Windows were just a curiosity. Innovative computer users could switch tasks between Lotus 1-2-3 and other DOS applications 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.
But with Word and Ami Pro, you could create documents that looked typeset without having to learn desktop publishing software. And Excel made it easy to create charts and graphs, and you could copy and paste them from Excel into your Word or Ami Pro documents. We take all that for granted today, and earlier PC GUIs had that ability, but they didn’t have a spreadsheet as good as Excel or a word processor as good as Word or Ami Pro. It was Windows 3.0 that pulled it all together, and that was a big advantage for Windows 3.0 over anything else at the time. People felt like they could do everything they really would want to do on a Mac on this much cheaper PC.
Windows 3.0 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. And you had to drive a longer way to buy one. Rule number one of marketing is making things easy to buy.
While $1,000 is a lot of money for a PC today, in 1990 it was the magic number for mass adoption.
It standardized a hardware tower of babel
Early 386s were really chaotic, and ironically, running cutting-edge DOS games of that period under Windows 3.0 generally made them work a bit better. This was a fairly temporary situation and I don’t find it true of systems built after, say, 1992 or so. But I remember seeing this advice in more than one magazine of the time, and I’ve observed the odd behavior in games like Railroad Tycoon on my 386DX system. I have the option to just run it on another machine, but that wasn’t the case in 1990.
Virtually all 286s were very close copies of the IBM PC/AT, so they were very compatible with each other–to the extent that you can even put the system BIOS from one 286 in another and it will frequently work. While 486 systems weren’t that compatible, those systems had a high degree of software compatibility with each other as well. The 386 was a bit of an awkward transition period, and by abstracting out some of the chaotic hardware, Windows 3.0 helped ease it.
Windows 3.0 took advantage of the 386
Speaking of the 386, Windows 3.0 actually took advantage of it, rather than just treating it like a fast 8086. Depending on what CPU you had, it could run in real mode, standard mode, or 386 enhanced mode, which took advantage of the 386’s protected mode for multitasking and freed you from having to think about conventional memory and other confusing memory types, at least if you ran native Windows programs. The 386 was capable of addressing several megabytes of memory in a single big chunk, and Windows 3.0 could take advantage of that. It allowed developers to create much more complex software than they could under DOS.
Truly modern computing was still a ways off, but Windows 3.0 was a big step in the right direction. Windows 3.0 and the 386 helped sell each other. It’s no coincidence that PC technology advanced much more rapidly between 1990 and 1995 than it had between 1985 and 1990.
Windows 3.0 was easy to use and personalize
The Windows 3.0 GUI is primitive by today’s standards, so people count it among both the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0. But it was easier to use than DOS. It took about half an hour to learn how to use Windows, and within a few weeks you could really know your way around it. One of the most critical things it did was provide a central control panel where you could globally set up your computer how you liked it, rather than fumbling around with config files. The ability to personalize the machine helped it become really popular.
In contrast, learning DOS took about a week, mastering DOS took years, and DOS always pretty much looked the same. The “P” in PC stood for personal, but DOS was impersonal. Windows 3.0 put the personal in personal computers in a way nothing had before. Yes, some people chose to personalize their machines in garish, tasteless ways. But it was theirs.
In 1990, PCs had three viable rival platforms: the Mac, Amiga, and Atari ST. All of the others had GUIs. By 1995, only the Mac remained. Windows is a big reason why.
Disadvantages of Windows 3.0
While Windows 3.0 was the bet-the-company product that put Windows on the map to stay, it was only on the market for a short period of time. There were good reasons for that.
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 came out, there was no reason to stay on it. Windows 3.1 was faster, especially on newer hardware. And while it wasn’t super stable, it was more stable than Windows 3.0 was.
Windows 3.1 wasn’t perfect either. But it showed enough incremental improvement that people stuck with it.
It crashed a lot
While Windows 3.0 was better than previous versions of Windows, 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.
Most of its rivals crashed a lot too, so when it came to weighing the advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0 at the time, this one didn’t weigh it down too badly.
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 pre-emptive multitasking, but it didn’t come along until 1993, and consumer versions of Windows didn’t get Unix-like pre-emptive multitasking until Windows XP 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.
In one short year, Windows went from an afterthought to having more market share than the #3 computer platform at the time.
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 ran on top of DOS
When it came to advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0, the biggest one was that it still relied on MS-DOS. Microsoft called them operating systems, but Windows 3.0 and 3.1 were really just a shell that relied on DOS for most I/O, with significant impacts on performance and stability. Microsoft moved more and more of the functionality into Windows over time, but it was a gradual move that took several years.
Advantages and disadvantages of Windows 3.0: In conclusion
It was Windows 3.0 that put Windows on the map. Going from an installed base of essentially zero to four million in a year created momentum nobody could ignore. It allowed Microsoft to get Windows out of the early adopter phase of marketing and into the critical early majority phase.
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. Windows 3.0 took most of the mindshare away from competitors like GEM and GEOS and OS/2, but those competitors didn’t give up without a fight. Windows 3.0 was good enough for 1990, and its subsequent products were good enough for their year of release.
The rise of Windows was one of the more significant ways computers changed in the 1990s. And its legacy remains, including some curious vestigial elements like PIF files.