Last updated: December 30, 2018
MS Windows: This OS Rules The Desktop World, But There’s More to Learn
Disclosure: Your support helps keep the site running! We earn a referral fee for some of the services we recommend on this page. Learn more
MS-Windows is a graphical user interface (GUI) developed and marketed by the Microsoft Corporation. More commonly referred to simply as "Windows," it represents a family of graphics-based operating systems that rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the development of Microsoft Windows helped to usher in the personal home computer revolution, and it is estimated that today nearly 90% of all commercial computing devices run some form of the Windows operating system.
From Command Line to Graphical Interface
Prior to the development of the graphical user interface, personal computers relied on single user/single tasking operating systems using a basic command line interface (CLI) for all operations. A prime example would be MS-DOS, another Microsoft product that still sees service today supporting background operations for many Windows applications. With a CLI users needed to input text commands for all operations, which, while effective, was not particularly user friendly (especially for those with limited computing skills). The development of the graphical user interface changed all that.
In 1983, Bill Gates and Paul Allen announced the development of Microsoft's first graphics-based operating system. Originally codenamed "Interface Manager," the system laid the groundwork for what would become Windows' defining features — drop down menus, scroll bars, dialog boxes, user friendly icons and, of course, the operating system's ubiquitous windows. In 1985, Windows 1.0 saw general release and was quickly followed up by the subsequent launches of Windows 2.0 and 3.0. At this point, the Windows operating system was primarily a graphical shell that ran on top of MS-DOS. Microsoft would continue to develop this early version of Windows, introducing advancements in virtual memory and device drivers, throughout version 3.1.
The next major advance in the Windows operating system came with the release of Windows 95. While still MS-DOS based, this iteration brought greater stability to the operating system and introduced support for 32-bit applications, multitasking functions, and long file names. Windows 95 also saw the arrival of the more user friendly object oriented user interface which included the now standard start-up menu (replacing the existing Program Manager), taskbar and Windows Explorer shell. Subsequent iterations, specifically Windows 98 and Windows ME (Millennium Edition), saw further improvements to the system, including faster boot times, enhanced system file protection and system restore functions. It is also here that we begin to see the introduction of more commercially focused features such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser and multimedia functions like Movie Maker and Microsoft Media Player.
As the earlier MS-DOS based versions of Windows were being developed and released, work began on an updated version of Microsoft and IBM's OS/2 operating system. This would be a more secure multi-user operating system with POSIX (portable operating system interface) compatibility with preemptive multitasking and support for multiple processor architectures. Dubbed NT OS/2 (designated NT for "New Technology"), it would ultimately morph into Windows NT 3.1, Microsoft's first 32-bit operating system. Released in 1993, NT 3.1 was available for both home workstations and servers and marked the introduction of Microsoft's NTFS file system, an improvement over the existing FAT standard. In many ways, Windows NT 3.1 is the first appearance of the Windows platform that we know today, finally breaking away from the older MS-DOS based versions of the operating system.
The move away from an MS-DOS based operating system ultimately resulted in the launch of Windows XP, the first major version of the Windows NT platform. Originally marketed in both "home" and "professional" editions, Windows XP included a number of critical advances to Microsoft's flagship operating system. The new system included a redesigned user interface, enhanced performance as compared with older MS-DOS based versions, advanced multitasking functions, and improved multimedia and networking features. Moving forward all of Microsoft's Windows operating systems would be based on the NT model, with continued research and development resulting in Windows Vista in 2007, Windows 7 in 2009 (mainly addressing bug fixes for Vista), and Windows 8 in 2012 (bringing in enhanced performance features for portable devices). 2015 saw the release of Windows 10, the latest iteration of Microsoft's flagship operating system, which featured a revamped user interface with a virtual desktop, new multitasking functions, and enhanced security features.
Emulators and Alternatives
MS-Windows, in all of its many iterations, has proved to be the most popular operating system on the market. That popularity has naturally resulted in the development of applications designed to make Windows compatible with other operating systems. Some of these act as a simple compatibility layers designed to allow Windows applications to run on a different operating system, while others have been developed as standalone systems that can run Windows out of the box.
A few of the most notable emulators and alternatives for MS-Windows include:
- Parallels Desktop for Mac — this allows Mac users to run Windows and Linux operating systems and critical functions in conjunction with with Mac OS on any Intel powered Apple device;
- Wine — a free open source emulation of the Windows API allows users to run Windows applications on any Unix-based operating system;
- ReactOS — an open source operating system designed to emulate Windows NT 4.0 and able to run Windows software;
- Linspire — previously known as LindowsOS, Linspire is a Linux-based operating system designed to run Windows software.
With Windows long history comes a number of books devoted to various versions of the operating system. Some of these are basic introductions to the platform with an emphasis on the needs of day-to-day users, while others are more technically focused and geared toward programmers and IT specialists.
- New Perspectives on Microsoft Windows 2000 MS-DOS Command Line, Comprehensive, Windows XP Enhanced (2002) by Phillips and Skagerberg — while somewhat outdated, this reference book provides a solid introduction to the earlier iterations of the Windows operating system. An emphasis is placed on command line interfaces, and Windows as a graphical shell for MS-DOS. The addition of material on Windows XP tracks the transition to a fully 32-bit NT based GUI.
- Windows 8.1 for Dummies (2013) by Andy Rathbone — part of the popular "...for Dummies" franchise, this book covers the then current upgrades featured in Windows 8.1. Topics include basic mechanics, file storage, and working with dual interfaces. Emphasis is on everyday use more than programming aspects of the operating system, though the book does touch upon some of the more technical aspects of Windows 8.1.
- Windows 7 and Vista Guide to Scripting, Automation, and Command Line Tools (2010) by Brian Knittel — this guide is somewhat outdated with its focus on Windows 7 and the then current Vista release. That being said, its emphasis on programming and technical details of the operating system is still valuable for software developers and computer engineers. Topics include understanding Windows Scripting Host in the new Windows scripting environment, working with VBScript, JScript and ActivePerl, and navigating the Windows Management Interface.
- Windows 10 Simplified (2015) by Paul McFedries — with the launch of Windows 10 Microsoft made some major changes to the basic Windows operating system. This reference guide is aimed primarily at lay users, and acts as an introduction to the latest iteration of the Windows operating system.
- Operating System Concepts (2012) by Silberschatz, et al — while not strictly relevant to Windows, this book should appeal to those interested in the design and function of modern computer operating systems. This updated edition, published in 2012, examines contemporary operating systems and provides end-of-chapter exercises and review questions to help the reader master important programming concepts.
Microsoft Windows has been with us, in one form or another, for more than thirty years. Its success as a commercially viable operating system helped to make Microsoft the software giant that it is today, and while there will always be challengers to the throne Windows remains the most popular operating system on the market. At last estimate, approximately 90% of all of the world's computing was done on machines running some form of MS-Windows. Undoubtedly, Microsoft will continue to develop their operating system, introducing new features and refinements, with the intention of keeping Windows at the forefront of home and business computing.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to computer use:
- Network Programming with Internet Sockets: learn all about computer networking.
- Linux Programming Introduction and Resources: this deep dive into Linux programming gets down into the kernel where all the action is.
Unix Programming Resources
MS-DOS is very much Unix's simpler sibling. So if you want to move to Unix, we have a great place for you to start learning: Unix Programming Resources.