Just the start: Looking back on the Windows 95 launch


Just the start: Looking back on the Windows 95 launch


The 90’s was a decade of significant cultural and societal change. It saw the birth of Britpop, the formation of the English Premier League, and the release of several cult films including Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Titanic, and The Shawshank Redemption.

Away from popular culture, there was also incredible technological advancement, with the emergence of the internet, the rise of the mobile phone, and unprecedented access to computers bringing a wave of new innovations.

At the heart of this was one of IT’s most significant product launches, an event which earlier this year celebrated its 25th anniversary.

I’m talking, of course, about the release of Windows 95, the first of Microsoft’s now-iconic line of operating systems. It was a launch that would go on to become one of the 90’s most memorable moments, and a product that would change the way we saw the operating system, driving the adoption of the personal computer, before eventually setting the blue print for the workplace PC.

But before we take a look at the long-term impact of Windows 95, let’s step back in time to remember the launch itself.

A product launch like no other

While major launch events are more common today, there had never before been a product release of the size and scale Microsoft delivered for Windows 95.

The aim was to put both Microsoft and the Windows 95 OS firmly on the map for consumers that until then had not seen the need to purchase a PC for home, and may not have even needed one for work.

The marketing push began well before the event itself, as Microsoft looked to build momentum ahead of the release. The Rolling Stones hit ‘Start me up’ was licensed for use during TV commercials alongside images of the revolutionary start button that formed a key part of the OS interface. I remember seeing and hearing multiple TV and radio ads myself throughout that period, as Microsoft and its partners looked to raise awareness.

On the day, Microsoft pulled out the big guns, using celebrity appeal to make a connection with a wider audience for the first time. Popular talk show host and TV personality Jay Leno co-hosted the event alongside Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Friends stars Matthew Perry and Jennifer Anniston were also called upon to star in a 30-minute Windows 95-focused sitcom.

While a launch event of this scale, and expense, represented a risk for Microsoft, its efforts paid off, with 7 million copies sold within the first five weeks.

What made Windows 95 different?

Away from the blockbuster launch event, Windows 95 was very much the first OS of its kind, designed with both functionality and usability in mind with an eye on the consumer market.

We’ve already alluded to one of the most significant innovations, but the addition of the start button and task bar revolutionised the OS interface. This, coupled with a switch to a 32-bit platform, allowed the creation of a user-friendly desktop.

Before Windows 95, previous OS iterations such as Windows 3.1 were typically 16-bit operating systems. While this provided a solid level of performance for computers of the time, the user interface they could deliver was limited.

The move to 32-bit allowed for a more visually pleasing and informative display, with the opportunity to give files, shortcuts, and applications character names. It might seem a little absurd now, but this was seriously new ground for Windows and a huge step forward for its OS offering.

It’s an interface that most of us could navigate in our sleep these days, but it took some getting used to. Like many others, I was more accustomed to using Windows 3.1 on my work PC, so my first dalliance with Windows 95 was only once I’d purchased it for home use.

After some teething problems, and a long-winded install across multiple floppy discs (remember those, kids?) I soon came to realise that Windows 95 was a slick and easy to use OS, albeit not without the odd error or crash here and there.

One of the most impressive features was the ease at which PCs could connect to the internet, as well as the automatic detection of additional hardware such as modems, sound cards, and graphics cards. Before Windows 95 even setting up your PC to connect to the internet was a painful experience, and upgrading hardware was an extensive, manual task. The adaptability of Windows made things so much easier, something which undoubtedly contributed to its popularity with consumers.

This original footage from CNET provides a simple run-through of many of these features, as well as some examples of the new capabilities they delivered.

The Windows 95 legacy

It was undeniably a major 90’s event, but the launch of Windows 95 has left a lasting impression on the PC that continues to this day.

Its release coincided with a perfect storm, as the rise of the internet and increased prevalence of the home computer saw it cement a place with consumers for years to come.

The ground-breaking user interface would set the template for every Windows OS that would follow, from Windows 98 through to the most recent Windows 10. In fact, the taskbar first included in Windows 95 is one feature that remains a staple of the desktop interface to this day.

Perhaps more importantly, the move to 32-bit opened the door for further innovation by others, as software and gaming companies developed applications that could take advantage of new capabilities to push the boundaries of what was possible. Equally, the release pushed other PC manufacturers to rethink their own OS offerings, with many of them putting their own spin on several of the Windows 95 features as a result.

Looking back on that famous launch event in 1995, it was clear at the time that Microsoft had some grand plans for Windows 95, but even they couldn’t have known that its impact would still be felt 25 years later.