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Location: GUIs > Windows > Windows 95

Microsoft Windows 95
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With recent developments and popularity of phone and tablet computing, it seems as if the traditional file/folder desktop metaphor may wind up taking a back seat to dumbed down "appliance" like user interfaces. As such, I thought I should revisit Microsoft's OS that first brought the desktop metaphor of the Xerox Star / Apple Lisa to Windows.

It is fair to say that Windows 95 was a significant leap forward in usability over Windows 3.1 and the primitive and cumbersome Program Manager shell. Windows 95 incorporated user interface advancements, visual styles, popular functionality, and a focus on usability popularized by other operating systems and shells of the day. Microsoft took the "best" pieces and pulled them together in a way that fairly well suited Windows.

Windows 95 Boot Screen
It is difficult to tell just from looking, but Windows 95 is built directly on top of MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. As such, it retains almost full compatibility with existing DOS and Windows drivers. As 95 boots, the Windows logo and a slight color animation cover up the bundled MS-DOS 7.0 starting and output from any DOS drivers as they load.

It is interesting to follow the work on Windows 95 from the original "Chicago" development builds. The early builds were still mostly 16-bit and familiar Windows 3.1x bits stick out from underneath the new redecoration .

Windows 95 Default Desktop
This is the default desktop of the original Windows 95 "gold" release sold in stores.

The first thing a Windows 3.1 user might notice is that, windowing controls, dialogs, input controls, and menus all now have a beveled "3d" appearance. This visual appearance was popularized by NeXTStep and OS/2 2.0.

It is interesting to notice that the original retail "gold" release of Windows 95 did not include Microsoft Internet Explorer at all. The only prominent connectivity in this version is Microsoft's proprietary MSN dial-up service. The OEM version of Windows 95 "gold", however, included Microsoft Internet Explorer 1 (a rebranded version of Mosaic) as a non-optional component.

The default icons on the Windows 95 "Gold" desktop are:

  • "My Computer" - a folder containing a list of drives, printers, and dial up connections.
  • "Network Neighborhood" - A list of computers on the network. Shown if a network is installed.
  • "Inbox" - Microsoft Exchange (AKA Windows Messaging), a Mail and Fax program.
  • "Recycle Bin" - A folder that holds "deleted" files until emptied. (And where the MSN icon normally goes)
  • "The Microsoft Network" - Advertising for Microsoft's own MSN dial-up service.
Windows 95 Desktop Metaphor
If you were using a computer in 1995 you were probably using it for creating and printing documents. (or playing Doom.)

Unless you were a high-tech geek you probably had not had a computer for more than a couple of years, and were used to working with Real World documents and filing systems.

In Windows 3.1 you would launch an application program, input information, and then save it to a file.

In Windows 95 you create, open, and manage documents right in front of you. More like what you would do on a real desktop. The Xerox Star, Apple Macintosh, and numerous clones already proved that an icon-document oriented desktop interface worked well for this purpose.

On the Windows 95 desktop:

  • Files and folders are represented on the desktop as icons.
  • The desktop, is itself a folder that holds files.
  • Drives are listed in a folder called "My Computer".
  • Right-click menus provide direct file manipulation.
  • "New" file menu for creating files from installed templates.
Unlike Apple, Microsoft continued to use individual menu bars for each application. This better accommodates huge desktops and large number of simultaneous applications. However this means there is no File menu present for manipulating files on the desktop. Right-click mouse menus make up for this, but are not as obvious. Folder windows do not have this problem.

Similarly, Microsoft placed drive icons in the "My Computer" folder instead of the desktop. This better accommodates potentially large number of drives, partitions, and mapped network drives.

Windows 95 File Views
File management is now done through the "Windows Explorer". By default each folder opens in its own window, typically cascading to prevent completely covering parent windows. You can drag and drop files on the desktop, in other folders, or on program icons. The desktop is in fact just another folder window.

You can view folders as large icons, a list of small icons, or a detailed view.

By default Windows hides file extensions and system files such as DLLs. This attempts to make it look like classic MacOS, which stores file type information in the file system instead of the name.

Windows 95 Drag and Drop
A "Shortcut" is a new file type that points to another file that, when clicked, the Explorer will open automatically. You can create a shortcut to basically anything that appears as an icon in the Windows Explorer.

One notable thing lacking is a default place to put your documents. In Windows 95 you are supposed to create your own folders directly on the hard drive, as was done in previous versions. (The Windows 95 Tutorial specifically demonstrates this) This was back before OSes felt they needed to "own" the entire primary drive. Later versions of Windows added a "My Documents" folder.

Combine the fact that there is no obvious "file" menu to create new folders with the fact that the only default thing you can put files in is the Recycle Bin - and you wind up with some strange ideas of where to store important documents!

Windows 95 Desktop Explorer
Optionally, you can choose to open new folders in the same window. Windows 98 and later default to this mode.

"Exploring" a folder, instead of just opening, displays a folder hierarchy tree on the left. These can be useful for advanced users when exploring deep hierarchies which would otherwise open many windows.

The Exploring view better shows the new Namespace hierarchy. The idea is, all objects are part of a browsable hierarchy originating at the desktop. This includes the Control Panel, printers, dial up networking, Network Neighborhood, as well as the drives themselves.

Windows 95 TaskBar
After Windows 2.0 did away with forcibly tiled windows, open application windows could completely cover other open windows and the icons at the bottom of the screen.

If you completely covered one application window with another you might think the first window was "gone". Nothing on the screen would indicate it is still there. Even if you knew it was still there, getting back to it could be difficult if there were many windows in the way. "Alt-tab" could help, but causal users did not find that obvious.

The new "Task Bar" helps solve this problem.

Like Windows 1.0 it reserves a space for active programs at the bottom of the screen. It displays a button for each application window even if it is not minimized. You only need to click a button once to bring the window to the foreground.

Simply click to bring one application to the front, click to bring another to the front. As they joked back then, "so easy even a talk show host can do it".

Windows 95 Tiled Windows
Like previous versions, you can tile or cascade windows. You can also minimize all windows at once.

The option to do this is not terribly obvious. You must right-click on an empty portion of the task bar to do this. Later versions of Windows add a "show desktop" button to the task bar.

Windows 95 Start Menu
The Often Criticized Windows 95 "Start" Menu.

The Start menu provides instant access to the most common desktop functions.

Why a single "Start" button? Well, they actually tried multiple buttons but users found a single button less confusing.

Having a constant, immutable, set of options that is always immediately available to a user proved to be useful for support and documentation. It was easy to give instructions over the phone to Windows 95 users, such as "click Start, Settings, Control Panel, then click the Add New Hardware icon". Those items are always there.

The programs menu was a little problematic. Let's say if you wanted to play solitaire you would click Start, then Programs, then Accessories, then Games, then Solitaire. If you closed the application and wanted to re-open it, you would have to go through the same thing again.
Start Menu Proper Use Start Menu Typical Use
The Windows 95 way
The Windows 3.1 Way.
Ideally, you would have the most commonly used application shortcuts placed in the in the first level of the Programs menu.

In practice most applications continued to make Windows 3.x style program groups.

Worse yet, many newer applications create dozens of seldom used shortcuts, multiple groups, and extremely deep sub menus.

On a fully loaded system the Programs menu can fill up and wrap around.

Windows 95 Icon Placement
Shortcuts can also be placed on the top of the Start Menu, the desktop or in desktop folders.

Again these locations should be reserved for the most commonly used, most important applications. But to the marketing department, their crazy application is ALWAYS the most important.