Happy 20th birthday to Windows 95

Last Updated on October 1, 2021 by Dave Farquhar

It was on August 24, 1995 that Windows 95 was released, amidst much anticipation. It was the most widely anticipated Windows release of all time, and the runner up really isn’t close. The idea of people lining up for blocks for a Microsoft product sounds like a bit of a joke today, but in 1995 it happened.

I received a free copy of it because I worked at Best Buy in the summer of 1995 and I aced Microsoft’s test that demonstrated sufficient aptitude to sell it. A few weeks later I landed my first desktop support gig, ending my career in a blue shirt, which means I probably never actually talked anyone into buying a copy of it.

I got plenty of Win95 experience over the next couple of years though.

The box stated that it required a 386DX or better processor, 4 MB of more of RAM, and approximately 50 MB of disk space. Nothing stopped you from installing it on a 386SX, but let’s just say it’s debatable whether installing it on such a machine or trying to use it was the more miserable experience. A much more realistic minimum was a 486 faster than 33 MHz, 8 MB of RAM, and 100 MB of disk space. But you really needed a Pentium to be happy with it, and I think Win95 did a lot to goose Pentium sales for Intel. I can only speculate how much money Microsoft made by selling $79 upgrades to people who quickly found their old machines couldn’t run it happily, so they came back to buy a new machine with Win95 pre-installed. But I know Best Buy was counting on a lot of that, or at the very least, selling a lot of RAM and video card and hard drive upgrades.

It succeeded because it was more intuitive to use than Windows 3.1 had been, and it was a lot more stable. It wasn’t truly a full 32-bit operating system, because there was still MS-DOS at the core if you dug deep enough, but it was close enough for 1995. It also helped that Microsoft had a 32-bit version of Microsoft Office available on the same day. Office 95 was more stable running on Windows 95 than the others guys’ 16-bit office suites based around Lotus 1-2-3 or Wordperfect.

My first employer didn’t have the money to replace all its 486s with Pentiums right away. So tweaking Win95 to run adequately on 486DX2 machines with 16 MB of RAM and 270, 340, or 420 MB hard drives quickly became my specialty. I couldn’t make it great, but I could at least get those machines running well enough that everyone could do their job on them.

Over time I built a large collection of tricks to squeeze more performance out of Win95, and some of them actually worked. When former coworkers who’d moved on to other opportunities started asking me for copies of my tips compilation, I started to wonder if I had something. O’Reilly, better known as a publisher of Unix books, agreed with me that I did, so I expanded my tricks with detailed explanations and turned it into a book.

Initially I was rather lukewarm about Win95 because it did very little that OS/2 didn’t do better, but Win95 was much more approachable. Microsoft’s marketing was never as good as Apple’s, but there’s a much shorter distance between Apple and Microsoft than there is between Microsoft and IBM. It was around the time of Win95 that we stopped talking about IBM-compatible PCs and just started calling them Windows PCs or, merely PCs.

It’s a stretch to call Windows 95 great. It was far better than Windows 3.1 was, but so were a lot of things. It did make Windows a lot more approachable and easier to use. Love it or hate it, Windows 95 did leave a formidable legacy even before it gave way to Windows 98.

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