Microsoft Windows is the product everybody loves to hate.
And yet, Microsoft sells hundreds of millions of copies of Windows every years.
Surely not all of these people are brainwashed. Surely some of them are actually CHOOSING to use Windows? Why?
Because Windows does more things than other operating systems.
It doesn’t have any single stand-out feature that turns people into rabid fans. It often lacks the surprising “wow” factor of Mac OS X features like Time Machine. It can be frustratingly slow and confusing, and Microsoft still has to answer for the dud that was Vista. A lot of the changes in Windows were forced upon it by partners or competitors.
But still, for better or worse, Windows defined what personal computing is. Over the last 15 years or so, it has set the standards for others to meet and beat.
As Microsoft begins to lift the veil on its next version of Windows, here are some reminders of what Windows did for computing.
This is what made Microsoft huge in the first place -- its original operating system, MS-DOS, worked on any IBM-compatible hardware and helped create the PC market. To this day, there are far more types and models of Windows PCs than there are Macs.
The PC makers don't always do a great job of describing those choices, as Ars Technica's Peter Bright recently pointed out. But it's telling that he insisted on shopping for a PC because a Mac wasn't available with the U.K.-style keyboard he was used to.
With Windows 8, Microsoft is widening the range of supported hardware even more: it will be the first version of desktop Windows to support ARM processors, which are widely used in mobile devices.
Before Microsoft started making operating systems, it made tools for developers. So it's always understood the importance of reaching out to developers and offering great, relatively inexpensive tools for them to build apps for its platforms.
That's going to continue with Windows 8 -- the company took the wraps off it at least a year before it ships to get developers excited and give them a chance to build plenty of great apps in the year before it launches. Microsoft also put a lot of goodies out there for developers, including test machines, a choice of development languages and methods for making 'Metro' style tablet apps, and new ways to call online services and information from other apps.
Microsoft has also gone to great lengths to preserve backward compatibility with old apps.
Over the years, that has contributed performance problems and made it hard and slow for Microsoft to build new versions of Windows -- a lot of legacy code has to be maintained and passed to the next release. But it's vitally important for corporate customers who don't want to rewrite their custom apps every time they upgrade their PCs. It also lets companies upgrade PCs incrementally as they wear out.
Microsoft is continuing this with Windows 8: today the company promised that all Windows 7 apps will run on the new OS.
If you're under 30 and not super-technical, you probably don't know what this is.
But long ago, installing new hardware took work -- users sometimes had to open their machines and move jumper cables around or flip physical switches (like the one pictured here) to configure new hardware. (Before that, a soldering iron was often required!)
In 1995, Microsoft introduced the Windows Plug and Play architecture, which tried to recognise new hardware as soon as it was plugged in. It also began shipping software drivers for common hardware -- like printers -- with Windows.
The technology wasn't perfect -- some called it Plug and Pray -- but it was way better than what had come before.
Eventually, Microsoft's Windows installed base gave it enough clout to force hardware manufacturers to ship devices that Windows could automatically detect. Today you take it for granted that your computer is going to recognise most printers, digital cameras, or other devices that you attach to it.
Microsoft first created a media player for Windows back in 1991, and shipped it with a special version of Windows 3.0 called Multimedia Extensions. Over time, media playback became more and more important, and Microsoft began shipping the Windows Media Player in Windows 98 SE.
Competitor RealNetworks objected -- and eventually won some money in an antitrust settlement, as well as restrictions in Europe -- but users voted by continuing to use the Media Player. (Or later, Apple's iTunes -- which showed that there WAS a market for third-party multimedua software as long as there was a compelling reason to use it. In this case, the iPod.)
Other advances, like native DVD video playback, support for TV tuner cards, and the remote-controllable Media centre interface, followed in subsequent releases.
So now, when you buy a new Windows PC and want to play a CD, DVD, or digital audio or video file, it just works.
Once upon a time, connecting to the Web required you to buy and install special software called a TCP/IP stack. Then, you had to go to an FTP site to download a browser and install it as well.
Windows 95 changed all this by bundling a TCP/IP stack and Internet Explorer. If you use Windows but hate IE, remember to give thanks as you're using it to download Firefox or Chrome.
Netscape complained, leading Microsoft into its epic antitrust battles, but the market proved Microsoft right: now you wouldn't buy a computer (or smartphone) that didn't come with an easy way to get online.
Over time, Microsoft added other features as well, like the ability to recognise Wi-Fi networks and reconnect to familiar ones automatically.
Microsoft's philosophy with Windows has always been to give the users as much control over its inner workings as possible.
Over time, the company has added wizards, troubleshooters, and other automation to help inexperienced users, but you're always a couple clicks away from being able to see how something REALLY works -- where those hidden files are located, for instance, or exactly what port your printer is connected to.
Apple gets credit for introducing Spotlight, which let users search their Macs for files, in 2005.
But Microsoft already had file search in Windows XP in 2001. It wasn't as good as Spotlight -- in particular, it didn't index the words within documents -- but the idea was already out there. Eventually, Microsoft developed a different desktop search functionality, released it as MSN Desktop Search, and then built it into Vista.
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