While Windows 1 and 2 were just graphical shells for the MS-DOS operating system designed to be used with keyboard controls, with Windows 3.x, Microsoft took a gamble with (then fairly uncommon) mouse control.
The system boasted large, colorful icons that one could click to run programs. The company introduced “Program Manager” for launching programs. It became the desktop homescreen, appearing when you started your PC in Windows mode.
Meanwhile, people used the new “File Manager” option to manage files and drives. There were no right-click commands. The most common way to switch between running programs was the Alt+Tab shortcut.
The 1995 version of the operating system introduced the basic structure of the familiar Windows interface we’ve all used since.
The Start menu button debuted. At the time, it was such a foreign concept that Microsoft had to design moving “<– Click here to begin” text for the homescreen, so that users could learn how to access their PC’s programs.
Windows 95 also introduced the taskbar, Shortcut icons, the Explorer tool and the My Computer folder for drives.
As mice took over the keyboard as the primary interface device for controlling a PC, right-clicking and dragging and dropping became options, as did double-clicking to open files and programs.
In 2001, when XP launched, PCs were becoming not just tools for productivity, but for web browsing, email and multimedia, too. Computers were now common, and XP was the user-friendly OS for the mainstream masses.
People stored their music, photos and video on PCs, which influenced the design of XP’s Start menu.
The Start menu featured an “All Programs” option, instead of the old hierarchical list. And Mail, web browsing, pictures and music were moved to the top level for easy access.
Although the ’90s OSes offered some aesthetic personalization options, XP was a more colorful and customizable OS by far. Users could easily change the “Theme” (color scheme) screensavers, wallpaper and more.
With Vista, Microsoft gave Windows another major makeover. The Aero visual style appeared like see-through glass frames.
Vista boasted a transparent sidebar with customizable gadgets, live thumbnails and icons, minimized pop-up preview views from the new taskbar and a “Favorites” option.
The Start button was dropped, replaced by a Windows icon, which offered instant search as well as clickable access to the old-style Start menu.
Vista also introduced Aero Flip 3D, a desktop button that let you quickly preview all open windows by displaying them in a flip-through, three-dimensional “stack.”
Image courtesy of Daisuke Sakaguchi
Windows 7 didn’t represent a radical UI update from Vista, but Microsoft nonetheless made some notable changes.
The sidebar was removed, the Aero Flip 3D button disappeared (although the functionality remained through shortcut keys) and the Show Desktop icon became a small strip to the right of the taskbar.
The taskbar saw the biggest changes, with the Quick Launch shortcut killed off in favor of the ability to “pin” applications to the taskbar for quick access. This meant that the old-style Start menu contained programs you used less often.
These taskbar pins also got “Jump Lists.” Right-clicking an icon on the taskbar offered a list of shortcuts, dependent on the software — for example, recently viewed websites, popular songs in Media Player or recently edited documents.
Windows 7 is notable for integrating multitouch support into the base OS. Although not operable entirely via touch — the Windows UI has always been designed around the mouse and keyboard after all — when paired with a touchscreen, Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate all boast multitouch functionality.
Windows 8 represents another radical shift for Microsoft, as the company bets on tablet computers and other touchscreen devices as the future of personal computing.
The new “Metro” interface offers a tile-based Start screen similar to that of the Windows Phone OS.
The customizable Start screen’s tiles, which link to apps and desktop programs, will offer live, animated, constantly updated info, so you can quickly glance at your inbox, latest tweets, weather info, traffic data, sports scores, etc.
Access the vertical toolbar by swiping or mousing over the right edge of the screen. Swiping the bottom edge pulls up a menu bar, while swiping the left side lets you switch between active apps and your desktop.
How consumers adapt to this radical UI shift — and how well it will work for users who have not made the leap to touch computing — is yet to be seen. But it’s clear Microsoft has come a long way. After all, in the beginning, you had to start Windows by typing “win” at the DOS prompt. Wow.