The History That Leads to Windows 11

Microsoft has been building operating systems since the 1970s, and some have been more successful than others.
Marcia Wendorf

On June 24, 2021, Microsoft announced a new iteration of its wildly popular Windows operating system called Windows 11. Windows 11 will include Android apps, which are commonly found on Chromebooks, and the operating system will be installed on new PCs by the 2021 holiday season. 

In this article, we're going to take a look at 60 years of computer operating systems. An operating system (OS) is software that manages a computer's hardware and software. It handles memory allocation, schedules tasks, performs time-sharing operations, and administers data storage and printing. Besides computers, operating systems are found on smartphones, video game consoles, web servers, and supercomputers.

Around the mid-1940s, engineers at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, among others, succeeded in building calculating engines. The first ones used mechanical relays, and these were later replaced by vacuum tubes.

These machines were enormous, and filled up entire rooms. They were also very slow compared to today's computers. All programming was done in machine language, often using plugboards. Programming languages and operating systems were unheard of. 

The introduction of the transistor changed things. The first computer operating systems appeared during the early 1950s, when General Motors Research Laboratories began using punch cards for their IBM 701 mainframe computers. Jobs (i.e. programs) ran one at a time, and this was called single-stream batch processing because both programs and data were submitted in groups, or batches. To run a job, the program was first written down on paper, then punched onto cards. These would be fed into the machine.

IBM mainframe and disks
IBM disks Source: IBM/

By the 1960s, operating systems were allowing mainframe computers to run several jobs in their main memory at the same time, and spooling was introduced. Simultaneous peripheral operations on line (SPOOL) interposed a high-speed device, such as a disk, between the computer and low-speed devices, such as printers. Think of movies from the 1960s that feature rooms full of rotating disks.

During the 1970s, microprocessor technology evolved sufficiently for the creation of minicomputers and desktop computers, and two operating systems would come to dominate — MS-DOS for the IBM PC and other machines using the Intel 8088 CPU, and Unix which was used on mainframe computers using Motorola 6899 CPUs.

Unix was created at AT&T's Bell Labs by the programmers Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Douglas McIlroy, and Joe Ossanna, and it was written in the new programming language, C.


At age 13, Bill Gates met fellow student Paul Allen at Seattle's Lakeside Preparatory School, and soon the two were programming on a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-10 minicomputer. The school even called on Gates and Allen to create a class-scheduling system for the school.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates
Paul Allen and Bill Gates Source: Bruce Burgess/Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1973, Gates left for Harvard College where he met Steve Ballmer, who was to become Microsoft's CEO from 2000 to 2014.

In 1975, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) released its Altair 8800 computer, which was based on Intel Corporation's 8080 CPU chip. After the computer was featured on the cover of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics magazine, interest in it took off.

Altair 8800 home computer
Altair 8800 home computer Source: Swtpc6800/Wikimedia Commons

Bill Gates wrote to MITS, saying that he was interested in creating a BASIC interpreter for the machine. BASIC was a new, high-level programming language, and MITS' president requested that Gates and Allen demonstrate their interpreter code at MITS' offices in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

By November 1975, Gates had taken a leave of absence from Harvard, and both he and Allen were working in Albuquerque on the BASIC interpreter. They incorporated their company as Microsoft, and began hiring their first employees. By 1979, Microsoft had relocated to Bellevue, Washington. Then, in July 1980, something miraculous happened.

Bill Gates's mother, Mary, a respected businesswoman, happened to mention Microsoft to IBM's then CEO John Opel, and IBM approached Microsoft to write a BASIC interpreter for their upcoming IBM PC. As an aside, IBM mentioned to Gates and Allen that their new machine needed an operating system.

IBM PC Source: Rama & Musée Bolo/Wikimedia Commons

Gates also pointed IBM toward Digital Research (DRI), who made the popular CP/M operating system, however, DRI and IBM couldn't come to an agreement, and Gates and Allen proposed creating a new operating system that would be similar to CP/M.

Microsoft didn’t have an operating system of its own, so in 1981, the company purchased a license for QDOS (later called 86-DOS), an operating system similar to CP/M which was created by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products (SCP). Using this, Microsoft developed is own operating system, PC-DOS, which they delivered to IBM as PC-DOS for a one-time fee of $50,000. Microsoft later became the full owner of 86-DOS.

Crucially, IBM failed to secure the copyright to the new operating system, leaving Microsoft free to sell it to other computer makers who cloned the IBM PC. On those other systems, PC-DOS became known as MS-DOS.

By early 1983, Paul Allen had left Microsoft after receiving a diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of lymphatic cancer. Allen was able to beat back cancer that time, but another bout of it claimed his life in October of 2018.

Mac OS
Mac OS Source: Apple Computer/Wikimedia Commons

In 1984, down the Pacific coast from Seattle, another wunderkind, Steve Jobs, was developing the groundbreaking Apple Lisa and Macintosh home computers. They featured the Mac OS operating system, which was the first operating system with a graphical user interface (GUI) built in. In 1986, Apple struck a deal with IBM to develop the OS/2 operating system .


Seeing which way the wind was blowing, on November 20, 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0 to compete with Apple's operating system. Windows 1.0 was essentially an extension to MS-DOS, but it included elements which have now become familiar including, Calculator, Calendar, Cardfile, Clipboard, Clock, Control Panel, Notepad, Paint, Reversi, Terminal and Write.

Another iteration, Windows 2.03, featured overlapping rather than tiled windows, and this change led Apple to file a copyright infringement lawsuit against Microsoft. That suit was settled in Microsoft's favor in 1993. 

Linux kernel
Linux kernel Source: Attys/Wikimedia Commons

In 1991, Finnish-American software engineer Linus Torvalds created a free variation of Unix called Linux, and it came to play an enormous role in computer servers. Not to be outdone, in 1993 Microsoft released Windows NT as a server operating system to compete with Linux. NT has served as the basis for Windows server operating systems to this day.

Windows NT
Windows NT Source: Microsoft/Wikimedia Commons

In 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95, the first Microsoft operating system to have a graphical user interface built into it. Tremendously successful, Windows 95 was adopted all over the world. In 1998, Microsoft released Windows 98, which was another iteration of Windows 95.

Windows 95
Windows 95 Source: Microsoft/Wikimedia Commons

In 2000, Microsoft came out with Windows 2000, which became very important for enterprise and professional developers. Windows 2000 was developed from a completely different code base than Windows 98.

Windows 2000
Windows 2000 Source: Microsoft/Wikimedia Commons

In 2001, Windows XP was released by Microsoft. It was an enhanced version of Windows 2000, and was very successful. On January 30, 2007, Microsoft released a consumer version of Windows Vista, which was widely criticized by both reviewers and customers.

Windows XP
Windows XP Source: thatkitten/Wikimedia Commons

First, Vista only allowed signed drivers to be installed. This required developers to get an Authenticode cerificate, which cost between $400 and $500 per year, which was out of reach for many small developers.

Windows Vista
Windows Vista Source: Граймс/Wikimedia Commons

Security researchers identified numerous bugs in the Vista operating system, such as a buffer overflow bug, and an animated cursor bug. However, the biggest criticism of Vista was that it incorporated digital rights management (DRM) into the operating system.

DRM was included primarily in response to licensing restrictions coming from the HD-DVD Consortium and the Blu-ray Association, and those restrictions required that any component, such as graphics cards, that came into contact with their video content had to be certified by Microsoft. Vista users also complained about a drop in performance and longer boot times.

Windows 7
Windows 7 Source: Giorgosarv18/Wikimedia Commons

In response to the criticism of Vista, on October 22, 2009, Microsoft released Windows 7, with the goal of it being more compatible with both applications and hardware. Windows 7 had a redesigned shell with an updated taskbar, multi-touch support, and a home networking system called HomeGroup.

Windows 8
Windows 8 Source: Giorgosarv18/Wikimedia Commons

On October 26, 2012, Microsoft released Windows 8 to general availability. This was optimized for touch-based devices, such as tablets and all-in-one PCs. The start screen featured large, easy to touch tiles and continually updated information. Windows 8 required a minimum resolution of 1024 x 768 pixels, which ruled it out on netbooks which only had 800 by 600-pixel screens.

The main feature of Windows 8 was that it integrated with cloud services, such as Microsoft's OneDrive, the Windows Store for software, and Xbox Live services. A variant of Windows 8 called Windows RT was for use on devices using the new ARM architecture chips.

Windows 10
Windows 10 Source: Microsoft/Wikimedia Commons

Something Windows 8 was missing was the Start menu, which didn't go down well with consumers. To address that, in July, 2015, Microsoft released Windows 10, which included a Start menu. Windows 10 also included a virtual desktop system, and the ability to run Windows Store apps within windows on the desktop rather than in full-screen mode.

Windows loses the title

For decades, Windows was the most popular operating system in the world, however, in 2014, that title shifted to Android, due to the massive number of Android smartphones being sold. Today, Windows 10 runs on PCs, tablets, and smartphones. Windows Server 2019 is used on millions of server computers worldwide, and Windows IoT (Internet of Things), which was previously called Windows Embedded, is used on handheld devices and in automobiles.

Several versions of Windows have gone to ignominious deaths. These include Windows 9x, Windows Mobile which was an operating system for mobile phones, and Windows Phone, which was only sold to manufacturers of smartphones.

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