Microsoft Windows Desktop Operating System Evolutionary History - Illustrated Timeline

Microsoft Corporation is an American multinational corporation headquartered in Redmond, Washington and has been in the software development business since 1975. In the 1980s, Microsoft began dominating the personal computer market with their MS-DOS (a rebrand of IBM PC DOS) - a non-graphical command line operating system. In 1985, Windows 1.0 was released, a graphical extension for MS-DOS allowing users to use a computer mouse and graphical images, instead of memorizing and typing in commands, to interact with the operating system.

The Windows family of operating systems has evolved greatly over the decades. Through the many iterations, Microsoft has continued to enhance the user interface, sound support, video/graphic support, and hardware support. Additionally, security, reliability, and other innovations continue to be added and improved upon as Windows evolved. The illustrated timeline below summarizes the major versions of the popular and world-dominating Windows desktop operating systems Microsoft has released since 1985.

MS Win

Windows 1.0

November 20, 1985

Microsoft released their first version of Windows, Windows 1.0 - It was not well received as it relied heavily on a mouse (not a common device at the time) to interface with the operating system. Underneath the hood of this operating system was MS-DOS. The advantage of Windows 1.0 is it allows users to point-and-click to perform an action as opposed to memorizing and typing in DOS commands.

Windows 2.03

December 9, 1987

A more polished version with support for 256 colors. Additionally, Word and Excel were introduced in Windows 2.0.

Windows 2.1

May 27, 1988

The first version to require a hard drive (previous versions of Windows ran off floppy disks).

Windows 2.11

March 13, 1989

Windows 2.11 offered minor enhancements to Windows 2.1 and included changes in memory management, AppleTalk (Apple's network protocol, now discontinued) support, and faster printing.

Windows 3.0

May 22, 1990

This version saw the first use of icons, had better ability to multitask, support for CD-ROM drives for the first time, enhanced sounds, and included more improvements to the graphical user interface. Windows 3.0 included Program Manager, File Manager, Printer Manager and introduced the world to Hearts, Minesweeper, and Solitaire (Klondike).

Windows 3.1

April 6, 1992

Introduced true type fonts and drag-and-drop user experience.

Windows NT 3.1

July 27, 1993

Unlike previous versions of Windows that ran on top of MS-DOS, Windows NT (New Technology) 3.1 uses its own separate kernel in which many future versions of Windows are based on. Additionally, Windows NT 3.1 was the first 32-bit operating system, unlike Windows 3.11 which is 16-bit.

Windows 3.11 for Workgroups

August 11, 1993

Windows 3.11 for Workgroups is a version of Windows 3.1 that included network support. As such, this version was targeted to businesses to connect their computers with other network devices.

Windows 3.11

November 8, 1993

Windows 3.11 contained various bug fixes for Windows 3.1. This significantly improved stability and reliability helping it remain a popular operating system at the time. Windows 3.11 differs from Windows 3.11 for Workgroups as this version lacked built-in support for networking.

Windows 3.2 Chinese Edition

November 22, 1993

This version is a Simplified Chinese version of Windows 3.1. This language-specific update is limited to Chinese only as it addressed issues related to the complex input system of the Chinese language.

Windows NT 3.5

September 21, 1994

Windows NT 3.5 introduced a complete rebuild of the TCP/IP and IPX/SPX network protocol stack. Windows NT 3.1 used a proprietary and incomplete implementation of TCP/IP based on the AT&T UNIX System V.

Windows NT 3.51

May 30, 1995

Windows NT 3.51 brought fixes to various bug found in Windows NT 3.5 and brought support for PCMCIA adapter cards - which enables add-on cards to be added to notebooks to extend its functionality, such as adding networking capability and connecting an external CD-ROM drive.

Windows 95

August 24, 1995

The release of Windows 95 was considered to be a significant upgrade to the Windows operating system. Unlike previous versions, the underlying legacy DOS platform was removed. This enabled Microsoft the ability to make significant advantagemens, such as support for 32-bit applications, a revamped user interface, and overall increase in performance.

Windows NT 4.0

August 24, 1996

Targeted towards business users, Windows NT 4.0 was a popular successor to Windows NT 3.51 and was very stable due to changes in how the operating system manages and protects access memory to limit system crashes from a poorly written application.

Windows 98

June 25, 1998

Some argued that Windows 98 was more of a service pack to Windows 95 than a new version of an operating system. While it included bug fixes for Windows 95, Windows 98 contained mostly cosmetic and user interface changes, not much when it comes to features and innovation.

Windows 98SE

May 5, 1999

Also known as Windows 98 Second Edition, this version addressed many of the bugs in the original Windows 98. Additionally, it added support for DVD-ROM and Internet connection sharing, and included improvements to USB support and power management.

Windows 2000

February 17, 2000

Often abbreviated as 'W2K', this version of Windows was geared towards businesses as it has a robust set of security and network capability and was considered to be reliable.

Windows ME

September 14, 2000

Also known as Windows Millennium Edition was not well received as it was plagued with bugs and stability issues.

Windows XP

October 25, 2001

Built on the Windows 2000 kernel, Windows XP (aka WinXP), where XP stands for 'eXPerience' supported NTFS file system (a file system that supported large capacity hard drives and is more reliable than FAT), had a well-polished interface, and offered good stability and performance. Windows XP remained popular until 2009 when Microsoft announced the end of support.

Windows Vista

January 30, 2007

Similar to Windows ME, Vista was not well received as it suffered many hardware compatibility issues. However, Bitlocker, a full drive encryption technology was introduced which today continues to serve as an important feature to secure data on a hard drive.

Windows 7

October 22, 2009

Although similar in appearance to Windows Vista, Windows 7 was much more stable and well received. With its strong popularity, Microsoft is expected to continue to provide support for select versions of Windows 7 through 2023.

Windows 8

October 26, 2012

While Windows 8 is a stable and relative bug-free operating system, it was not well received as Microsoft made changes to the user interface to accommodate tablets and other devices that use touchscreen. Additionally, Microsoft took away the Start button and the Start menu, the most common way users accessed the programs and various Windows functions. These changes caused confusion with and pushback from desktop computer users as mobile devices and touchscreens were not as ubiquitous as they are now.

Windows 8.1

October 17, 2013

After much criticism, Microsoft reintroduced the Start button and Start menu back to the operating system.

Windows 10

July 29, 2015

Windows 10 introduced the world to Cortana, Microsoft virtual assistant used to help users save time and be more productive. Additionally, the Start Menu is back, albeit in a new implementation. And, Microsoft Edge is the new default web browser.

Windows 11

October 5, 2021

Windows 11 interface has a Mac-like feel and appearance. Microsoft Teams is now integrated into the taskbar for easier video calling. While not immediately supported at release, Windows 11 will have built-in support for installing and running Android apps from the Microsoft Store. And for those running Windows 11 on a mobile device, touchscreen experience is improved with better spaced icons, haptics added for digital pens, and voice typing and commands are introduced.


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