History of Microsoft and Its Major Milestones

Inspired by an article in an electronics magazine, Microsoft would grow exponentially to dominate the tech market today.
Christopher McFadden

Microsoft is one of the most successful tech companies in history, with a market capitalization of just over $1 trillion. Its products are used by hundreds of millions of people every day, and its logo is one of the most recognized around the world

Here, we explore Microsoft's earliest days and answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the company. This article is, however, intended primarily as an overview of the company and not as a comprehensive history.


When and where did Microsoft start?

The company that would eventually become Microsoft was first founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1975.

The pair were avid programming enthusiasts from a young age. Building on their existing skills, they were inspired to produce their own programming language, Microsoft BASIC, based on the existing language BASIC.

Taking around eight weeks to compile, the pair of plucky entrepreneurs demonstrated BASIC for Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS),  the company that built the Altair 8800 microcomputer.

microsoft history BASIC
Example of some BASIC code for the Commodore 64. Source: Idealisierte Farben/Wikimedia Commons

MITS liked what they saw and agreed to distribute and market the product under the name of Altair BASIC. This deal inspired Gates and Allen to found their own software company, and in April of 1975, Microsoft was born. 

"When we signed that first contract with MITS, we referred to ourselves as 'Paul Allen and Bill Gates doing business as Micro-Soft.' I don't remember why we spelled it with a hyphen and a capital 'S.' We put a credit line in the source code of our first product that said, 'Micro-Soft BASIC: Bill Gates wrote a lot of stuff; Paul Allen wrote some other stuff.'" - Bill Gates.

History of Microsoft and Its Major Milestones
Source: Microsoft

From that moment on, Microsoft would continue to grow until it eventually became the tech giant we all know (or love and hate in equal measures) today. 

What are some key dates in Microsoft's history?

Providing a comprehensive history of Microsoft is outside the scope of this article, but according to Microsoft, here are some of the key early dates in the company's rise to world domination.

microsoft history building
Source: tomhoryn/iStock

Trust us when we say this list is far from exhaustive.

For a fuller summary of Microsoft's history, we recommend checking out their official webpage


Microsoft is founded
January 1979
Microsoft moves from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Bellevue, Washington
June 1981
The company is officially incorporated
August 1981
IBM introduces its personal computer, which uses Microsoft’s 16-bit operating system and MS-DOS 1.0.
Windows 1.0 is launched. Effectively an extension of MS-DOS, it was created in reaction to the growing popularity of the early Apple OS. 
February 1986
Microsoft moves once again, this time to a corporate campus in Redmond, Washington
March 1986
The company issues its IPO
August 1989
Microsoft introduces the earliest version of the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications
May 1990
Windows 3.0 is officially launched. It would go on to sell well over 2 million copies. 
August 1995
Microsoft officially launches its groundbreaking Windows 95. This is the first truly consumer-focused version of Windows and it would help to define the future of personal computers. It is widely loved and fondly remembered by many users today.
December 1995
Gates outlines Microsoft’s commitment to supporting and enhancing the Internet
June 1998
Microsoft Windows 98 is officially launched. This will become one of Microsoft's most popular operating systems. 
January 2000
Steve Ballmer named president and chief executive officer of Microsoft
February 2000
Windows 2000 is launched. For its day, this operating system was extremely good. It had tons of application support and very solid drivers. Many businesses would stick with it for many years, until finally forced to upgrade.
June 2000
Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer outline Microsoft’s .NET strategy for Web services
September 2000 Windows Me is launched. The last of the MS-DOS-based Windows operating systems, it is widely considered slower and more unstable than most of the new hardware coming onto the market at the time, with which it was  also often incompatible.
May 2001 Office XP is officially launched. The precursor to Office 2003, it was widely praised by consumers. 
October 2001
Microsoft officially launches Windows XP. Incredibly stable and great for businesses and private users alike, it would dominate the market for many years. 
November 2001
Microsoft launches the, now venerable, Xbox game console. A big gamble in a market dominated by Sega, Nintendo, and Sony, the Xbox would none-the-less stand the test of time. 
January 2002
Bill Gates outlines Microsoft’s commitment to Trustworthy Computing
April 2003
Microsoft launches Windows Server 2003. A very capable platform, many businesses would continue to use until it was no longer supported. 
October 2003
Microsoft launches Microsoft Office System
July 2004
Microsoft announces plans to return up to $75 billion to shareholders in dividends and stock buybacks
November 2005
Microsoft launches the incredibly successful Xbox 360. It would go toe-to-toe with the Sony Playstation 3 (launched in 2006) and hold its own. 
July 2006
Microsoft announces a new, US$20 billion tender offer and authorizes an additional stock-repurchase program of up to $20 billion over five years
January 2007
Microsoft launches Windows Vista and the 2007 Microsoft Office System to consumers worldwide. The former would be met with mixed reviews, while the latter was widely considered a great upgrade of its trusty forerunner.
February 2008
Microsoft launches Windows Server 2008, SQL Server 2008, and Visual Studio 2008. Incredibly stable, many of these are still in use today
June 2008
Bill Gates transitions from his day-to-day role at Microsoft to spend more time on his work at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
June 2009
Microsoft launches the Bing decision engine
October 2009
Microsoft launches Windows 7, much to the relief of many struggling Windows Vista users. It also opens its first physical store in Scottsdale, Arizona.
June 2010
Microsoft launches the general availability of Office 2010
November 2010
Microsoft launches its Windows Phone 7
November 2010
Microsoft announces the availability of Microsoft Lync
June 2011
Microsoft launches Office 365. This platform would revolutionize the office suite of programs. 
October 2011
Microsoft officially acquires Skype
June 2012
Microsoft takes control of Yammer (a social networking service for private communication within organizations)
September 2012
Microsoft launches Windows Server 2012
September 2012
Microsoft launches Visual Studio 2012
October 2012
Employee giving tops US$1 billion. Windows RT is also released along with Windows 10 and Microsoft Surface. They also introduce their new entertainment experience for Xbox.  
January 2013
Office 2013 is launched and Office 365 is expanded
February 2013
Microsoft launches Outlook.com for the first time. 
May 2013
Microsoft unveils its amazing Xbox One
July 2013
“Microsoft One” reorganization realigns company to enable innovation at great speed, efficiency
September 2013
Microsoft announces decision to acquire Nokia’s devices and services business, and license Nokia’s patents and mapping services
October 2013
Microsoft launches Windows 8.1. It also launches Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2
November 2013
Xbox One officially hits the market
February 2014
Satya Nadella named CEO for Microsoft
March 2014
Microsoft launches Office for iPad
April 2014
The company completes acquisition of Nokia Devices and Services business
June 2014
Microsoft launches Surface Pro 3
September 2014
Minecraft joins Microsoft announcement
November 2014
Microsoft announces Office apps for Android tablets
May 2015
Microsoft releases Surface 3
July 2015
Microsoft launches Windows 10. Stable and fast, it came with a variety of handy features and inbuilt antivirus gear. 
September 2015
Microsoft launches Office 2016 -- much to the annoyance of those who'd just familiarized themselves with Office 2010. 
October 2015
Microsoft announces Surface Book, Surface Pro 4, Microsoft Band 2, Lumia 950, and Lumia 95 XL. They also open a flagship store in New York City
November 2015
Microsoft expands its physical presence around the world by opening a flagship store in Sydney, Australia
January 2016
Microsoft Philanthropies announces $1 billion in donations, putting Microsoft Cloud to work for the "public good"
June 2016
The company launches SQL Server 2016
July 2016
Microsoft Dynamics 365 is launched
September 2016
Microsoft forms what is now known as the Technology + Research Group
October 2016
Microsoft researchers make a huge technological leap forward when they achieve human parity in conversational speech recognition. They also introduce Surface Studio, Surface Dial, new Surface Book, and Windows 10 Creators Update
December 2016
The company completes its acquisition of LinkedIn
March 2017
Visual Studio 2017 is released. Microsoft Teams rolls out to Office 365 customers worldwide
May 2017
Microsoft introduces new technology for education, including Windows 10 S, new Surface Laptop, and Microsoft Teams for classrooms. IT also announces Windows 10 China Government Edition and the new Surface Pro
June 2017
Surface Laptop and new Surface Pro become available in 25 markets worldwide
September 2017
“Marea,” the highest-capacity subsea cable to cross the Atlantic Ocean is completed in collaboration with Facebook and Telxius
October 2017
Windows 10 Fall Creators Update and Mixed Reality Headsets become available; Surface Book 2 announced
November 2017
Xbox One X launches. Microsoft also announces major renovation works to its Redmond campus. 
December 2017
Microsoft breaks ground on a new sustainable Silicon Valley campus
February 2018
Microsoft opens a new campus in Dublin, Ireland
March 2018
The company announces it has made the single largest corporate purchase of solar energy in the U.S., at 315 MW. 
May 2018
Microsoft announces Surface Hub 2. They also unveil the Xbox Adaptive Controller
August 2018
Surface Go becomes available
June 2018
The company commences its "Project Natick". This is an initiative to place data centers on the ocean floor to take advantage of its near-limitless cooling capacity
October 2018
GitHub is bought out by Microsoft. On a sadder note, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen dies at the age of 65
July 2018
The company announces they would welcome the regulation of facial recognition technology to protect human rights
January 2019
Microsoft announces a $500 million commitment to advance affordable housing in the Puget Sound region
February 2019
HoloLens 2 is introduced by Microsoft
March 2019 The company announces that is banning all "April Fools" pranks by its staff. However, the "Clippy" virtual assistant returns from the dead for a short-lived cameo on GitHub.
May 2019 Starbucks partner with Microsoft to create a machine learning app to which can give out customers tailored suggestions for food and drink
July 2019
Microsoft opens yet another flagship store, this time in London. They also invest around US$1 billion in the OpenAI partnership
April 2019 The company suffers a massive security breach of its webmail services. This includes their Hotmail and MSN services. On a brighter note, the company becomes one of only a handful to reach a market value of US$1 trillion
October 2019
Microsoft announces the release of five Surface products for late 2019, plus two new dual-screen devices, Surface Neo and Surface Duo, slated for late-2020. They also announce that they want to bring internet access to 40 million people by 2020
December 2019
Xbox Series X is announced with a prospective release date in late-2020
January 2020
Microsoft announces its grand vision of becoming carbon negative by 2030
February 2020
The company announces they would not attend the GDC 2000 conference, due to COVID-19 concerns. Amazon win a court case to block a contract between the U.S. military and Microsoft
March 2020
Microsoft introduces new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family subscriptions
June 2020 The company announces that it is to close all but a select few of its stores around the world.

How did Bill Gates come up with Microsoft?

In short, he didn't — at least not on his own. The basic (pun intended) idea was mainly Paul Allen's. 

In what is now something of a legend, the idea for Microsoft came in a moment of inspiration for Paul Allen. Back in 1975, at the time, Gates was an undergraduate at Harvard University, and Allen worked for Honeywell Inc. as a computer programmer. 

Allen, at the time 22-years old, purchased a copy of the January edition of Popular Electronics. On the front cover was an image of the World’s First Minicomputer Kit — the Altair 8800 microcomputer.

history of microsoft popular electronics
Source: Computer Museum

Allen read the related article and struck on an idea. With his copy of Popular Electronics in hand, he decided to pay his school-friend Bill Gates a visit. 

The two had been friends since their early days at Lakeside School (a private preparatory school in Seattle) and shared a passion for computers and programming. In fact, they had both become accomplished programmers and had been hired in 1971 to write a payroll program for Information Sciences, Inc. on behalf of COBOL. 

Allen made his pitch to Gates. His idea was to adapt the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC) for the Altair 8800.

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Gates was impressed and liked the idea. He was also persuaded by Allen to leave Harvard to pursue their business idea. 

At that time, microcomputers like the Altair 8800 executed source code provided by the machine's compiler, but lacked an interpreter. Paul Allen proposed using BASIC to develop such an interpreter. 

If successful, this BASIC-based interpreter would make machines like the 8800 very appealing to hobbyists and professional programmers around the world. Allen believed it would also enable the cost of microcomputers to fall dramatically, making software development a viable business on a larger scale.

history of microsoft logo
Source: Wonderlane/Flickr

With their pitch and interpreter prototype completed, the pair approached MITS to give an in-person demonstration. Ed Roberts, the founder of MITS, agreed to the meeting, loved what he saw, and agreed to distribute a new machine which included their software - Altair BASIC.

In February of 1975, Allen and Gates sold their code to MITS for $3,000 (around $14,000 today), plus a percentage of royalty payments (worth around $840,000 today).

The same year "Micro-Soft" was officially registered as a company. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Where did the Name Microsoft come from?

Back in 1975, Gates and Allen had mused over a few possible names for their new venture. 

"We had talked about a lot of different names back in Boston, and at some point, I said, 'Well, the totally obvious name would be [Micro-Soft].'" - Paul Allen. 

history of microsoft office
Source: jejim/iStock

But there were other options on the table. 

"We also had mentioned names like Outcorporated Inc. and Unlimited Ltd., but we were, you know, joking around. We talked a lot about whether we should call it Allen & Gates, but decided that was not a good idea." - Bill Gates.

But the name "Micro-Soft" stuck. It was created by Allen as a portmanteau of "microcomputer" and "software."

After officially forming a company, the pair would later open their first international office in Japan, called ASCII Microsoft, in 1977.

Two years later, in 1979, the company relocated to Bellevue, Washington, and eventually incorporated as Microsoft Inc. in 1981.

Bill Gates would take on the role of President of the company and Chairman of the Board, and Paul Allen became the company's Executive Vice President.

So, there we go. 

Today, Microsoft has grown to be a world leader in the tech industry. From humble beginnings in the 1970s, hard work and attention to detail would create one of the most successful companies of all time. 

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