A Visual History of the Windows GUI

Alex Castle

Do you have fond memories of Window's 3.1's retro graphics? Do you remember the wonder you felt the first time you used the taskbar? Well we do, and that's why we're using Windows 7 Week as an excuse to take a moment for a quick, visual tour of Windows’ constantly-changing GUI. From 1.01 to Windows 7, we’ll show you how the operating system has gradually evolved from an ugly duckling to snazzy, Aero-powered swan.

Windows 1.0

The very first version of Microsoft’s massive OS franchise was little more than a graphical front-end for DOS. Though capable of handling layered windows, legal concerns about similarities with the Macintosh forced Microsoft to limit Windows 1.0 to use tiled Windows, except for notification boxes.

Windows 2.0

Windows 2.0 didn’t shake things up too much, although it did enable support for overlapping Windows, which had been previously disabled. Additionally, Windows 2.0 introduced the now familiar “Minimize” and “Maximize” terminology. Before that, the functions had been called “Iconize” and “Zoom.” It also allowed minimized programs to be moved around the desktop.

Windows 3.x

The first widely adopted version of Windows brought with it a number of GUI improvements. Windows 3.0 was first to introduce the Program Manager shell, which allows programs to be launched by clicking on icons. Previous versions had used a file manager called the MS-DOS Executive to launch applications. Additionally, this was the first release to allow users to select their desktop background, and all the icons in Windows 3.0 were given an overhaul to take advantage of all 16 colors available with VGA. Additionally, in this release buttons were given the familiar “3D” effect with shading, though the windows themselves didn’t receive this treatment until the next release. Windows 3.1 gained wider use than 3.0, and was notable primarily for support of TrueType fonts, something that required third-party software in Windows 3.0.

Windows 95

Windows 95 is the first version of the OS that introduced the user interface concepts that are common to every version of Windows since. Windows Explorer replaced the File Manager, and the old Program Manager was replaced by the Taskbar and the Start Menu.

Windows 98

Windows 98 was the first version of Windows to support Active Desktop, out of the box. Active Desktop, which allows users to add HTML-based content onto the desktop, was also included in the “Windows Desktop Update” for Windows 95, which was installed with Internet Explorer 4.0. It was also the first version of Windows that shipped with the Quick Launch shortcut bar enabled.

Windows ME

Windows Millennium Edition was designed specifically for home computer users, and included a streamlined and simplified UI, which was widely panned. Windows ME also added on a System Restore feature allowing users to roll back their systems to a date or time of the past before an issue occurred.

Windows 2000

Still sporting the blue desktop background, Windows 2000 was more than just an upgrade for Windows NT. It integrated a full version of DirectX and included support for Plug and Play hardware, finally removing the need for the Add New Hardware Wizard. From a user interface perspective, Windows 2000 is very similar to ME, other than the Control Panel differences necessitated by its NT heritage.

Windows XP

Windows XP came with another fresh coat of paint in the form of the Luna interface. Promising to combine Microsoft's consumer and business operating systems, uniting them both to offer a unique “experience” for computer users. XP's brightly colored UI wasn't popular with many power users, but it did introduce the collapsable System Tray--allowing you to hide, but not close, system tray apps.

Although the visual style changed, the core functionality and navigation was essentially the same as previous versions, with two exceptions. XP's Start Menu was redesigned to put commonly-used applications front and center. Additionally, the Control Panel received a makeover. While it was intended to be easier-to-use, most users actually switched over to the “Classic View” to figure out how to customize anything.

Windows Vista

While many of the most interesting new features didn't make the cut for Vista, the big enhancement that did was Vista's Aero desktop UI and the WDDM, which replaced GDI as the underpinnings for display drawing technology in Windows Vista. Aero took advantage of PC's GPUs to render 2D surfaces using some rudimentary 3D hardware. For example, Aero included window transparency as well as live thumbnails and live window previews. This new look to Windows was not just a skin; Aero required WDDM-compatible hardware to run.

Vista also added speedy search, not just for finding documents, but for tracking down hidden Control Panel settings or hidden applications. Finally, Microsoft stopped the ever-expanding Programs menu, preferring to keep it constrained within the confines of the Start Menu. While these changes were significant, many users complained that they were simply eye candy, and didn't warrant the increase in hardware requirements and performance hit they required.

Windows 7

Windows 7 marks the first real redesign of the core Windows UI since Windows 95. While interim versions of the OS have added and tweaked functionality, replaced the underlying technology, and changed the color scheme, the basics have remained unchanged. Windows 7's Taskbar combines the application launching functionality of the Quick Launch bar with the traditional Taskbar. To open an application, click the icon pinned to the Taskbar. To switch to an already-open app, click the same icon. The new Taskbar, in addition to widespread use of the window drawing and preview capabilities, finally make good use of the enhancements made with WDDM and Aero.

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