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Microsoft Windows 95
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.
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
development builds. The early builds were still mostly 16-bit and familiar
Windows 3.1x bits stick out from underneath the new redecoration .
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
"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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
You can view folders as large icons, a list of small icons, or a detailed
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.
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
Ideally, you would have the most commonly used application shortcuts placed
in the in the first level of the Programs menu.
The Windows 95 way
The Windows 3.1 Way.
In practice most applications continued to make Windows 3.x style program
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.
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.
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