Windows 95 vs. Windows 7 and Windows 8

    General discussion


    Windows 8 is a major Windows release, one that has been compared to Windows 95 many times. I thought it might be a good idea to consider exactly what Windows 95 was like and see how much Windows has changed since Windows 95 was released. 


    I recently had the opportunity to set up and use Windows 95 on an authentic PC from when Windows 95 was released, and the experience revealed much about how Windows has changed over the years. The particular version of Windows 95 that I was using was OSR2, or Windows 95B. This was not the last release of Windows 95, but it was one of the later versions. 


    Because the vast majority of criticism of Windows 8 has been focused on the user experience, I will attempt to compare the user experiences of Windows 95, Windows 7, and Windows 8 in this post. 


    It is commonly known that Windows 95 was the first version of Windows to include the taskbar and Start Menu that we are familiar with today. This was a huge improvement in usability compared to the previous Program Manager, and the Start Menu made Windows one of the best operating systems ever made. Despite this, the Windows 95 Start Menu is very different compared to the Start Menu in modern versions of Windows. While Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7 all include a list of frequently used programs on the Start Menu, Windows 95 and Windows 8 do not. I found this to be somewhat limiting in my use of Windows 95, as I opened the Start Menu and was surprised to find that none of the programs I was using were in the first page of the Start Menu. As I have used Windows XP, Vista, and 7, I have also come to rely on the links found in the Start Menu for Documents, Pictures, Music, and the Username folder, as well as the links to Computer and Control Panel. Windows 95 does not include these on the first page of the Start Menu by default, and many of the default folders in modern versions of Windows, such as Pictures and even Documents, the equivalent of the Username folder in Windows XP, do not exist at all on a default Windows 95 installation. Microsoft Office creates a My Documents folder when installed, but it exists on the C: drive rather than being stored in a user-specific folder. 


    Other elements of the Windows 95 interface also seem incomplete. Much of the drag-and-drop functionality found in Windows 7 exists in neither Windows 95 nor in Windows 8. Like the Start Screen in Windows 8, there is no shortcut to "My Computer" ("Computer" in Vista/7/8) in Windows 95's Start Menu, and a shortcut has to be created manually. Also, the "New Shortcut" wizard does not work for creating a shortcut to My Computer because My Computer is not a file folder. This type of usability problem is also common in Windows 8, where there is no way to create a shortcut to the desktop by dragging something from one view to another or by right-clicking on an option in the Start Screen. Windows 95 does not allow a right-click context menu to appear for Start Menu items. This is similar to Windows 8, where right-clicking allows a user to manage the Start Screen but does not allow a user to do anything else with a tile or icon. 


    There was one program installed on the Windows 95 PC that prompted me to insert a disc in order to run the software. While the notion of a "please insert disc" error message may seem outdated today, these messages have not gone away. Instead, these have been replaced with error messages that state that an Internet connection is required to use an app. If you have ever tried to use Metro without an Internet connection, these messages will be familiar. Many Wi-Fi-dependent mobile devices also have this problem, and Windows 8 needs to be less dependent on the Internet, in my opinion.


    As I used several applications at once on the PC, I thought of something interesting. How is it that an operating system from 1995 running on a 133 MHz processor could have better multitasking than Windows 8's Metro-style applications? Here lies the fundamental flaw in Metro - the evolution of PCs has always been intended to improve their ability to do more than one thing at a time. Why do smartphones run only one application at a time? It's not because a single-tasking interface is inherently better for all devices than a multitasking interface. Smartphones have to be touch-friendly and capable of working well with small screens. Smartphones, as well as most tablets, do not have enough screen space to display multiple programs on the screen at the same time.


    The modern PC is more than capable of running many different applications at one time. Anyone who spends time editing video, working with pictures, creating advanced documents, or editing a website knows that using a PC involves more than working with one application in a full-screen view (or one application and one small sidebar). Windows has always been designed for multitasking, but Metro is not. One of the things that made Windows 95, 98, and Millennium unique was their ability to natively run MS-DOS programs while Windows was running, and I tested this capability. I have suggested for a while that Microsoft allow Metro-style applications to be run in windows on the desktop, like regular desktop programs. Running MS-DOS programs (mainly the text editor program, or Edit) in a DOS window on the Windows 95 desktop showed me where there advantages to this approach. MS-DOS programs generally fit in with the Windows usage model when running in a window, but running a DOS program in full-screen is more like Windows 8's Metro UI than it might seem.


    Here is a brief summary of what I am trying to say: Windows 95, was, for its time, a major breakthrough in usability, and introduced many elements of the Windows experience that we have come to rely on. Despite this, Windows 95 was far from perfect, and compared to a modern Windows operating system, Windows 95 feels incomplete. It has many usability problems compared to a modern operating system, and it has problems that are not expected in any software program today. Due to the use of Metro in Windows 8, it brings back some of the problems in Windows 95 and introduces new problems of its own. Metro even reverses many of the advancements that were made in the development of Windows 95. Windows 95 is unstable and lags far behind any modern operating system. Windows 7 is miles ahead of Windows 95, and because it is, at its core, a completely different operating system from Windows 95, Windows 95 and Windows 7 have less in common than one might expect. For Windows 8, I would say: "Let the past stay in the past." Reversing so many of the improvements made both in Windows 95 and after Windows 95's release will only reduce the quality of the operating system. Metro is not a good idea for desktop computers, and brings back many of the problems that were associated with older operating systems. Like the rest of the world, I stopped using Windows 9x many years ago, and I do not want its problems to be brought back.

    If anyone has suggestions for getting a better screenshot of the computer, I would like to hear them. It's hard to get pictures off of a PC as old as the one I was using.

    Something else of interest: obviously I did not take the screenshot at 12:03 in the morning. The clock on the PC is wrong and there is no way to fix it without replacing the CMOS battery.

    Monday, January 02, 2012 2:15 PM

All replies

  • What spec was the PC?

    I ask because your experience is quite different from that many of us will remember from 'back in the day' as it were. BIOS incompatabilities, Plug-and-not-quite-Play issues and constant "Please insert the Windows 95 disk #8" messages (if, for example you dared to do something as daft as look at the network settings then click OK) were the norm for anyone administering Windows 95 systems. Not to mention the quirky issues that arose from pseudo-COM and all manner of application compatibility issues that were a lot less well handled than today.

    And it crashed. A lot. Not just a single app throwing up an error, as we see today, but the slightest issue taking down the whole kit and caboodle. Which meant that trying to multitask on a Windows 95 was always something of a game of chance, the more you had open the greater the risk of losing something.

    Don't get me wrong, compared to Windows 3 it was a massive leap forward in both usability and providing a more powerful PC experience. Only rather rose-tinted glasses can cover up the fact it was far from perfection. Even with that in mind, it doesn't really make sense to compare the released version of Windows 95 with a pre-beta of Windows 8 - the betas of Windows 95 were far, far more 'interesting' in the way they behaved.

    Monday, January 02, 2012 5:59 PM
  • The PC has a 133 MHz Pentium (P5 microarchitecture), a 1 GB hard drive, and 32 MB of RAM. Many of the problems you describe are familiar, but I'm not quite sure that Windows 95 was as error-prone as Windows 98. Windows 95 does crash very easily. I was trying to focus on the usability of the software and its capabilites, not its technological shortcomings. Windows 95 is actually better at multitasking than Metro is, as far as I can tell.

    The version of Windows 95 I was using is Windows 95B, which I have heard was the most stable of all Win9x releases. It still crashes easily, though.

    Even though the general public opinion is that PCs haven't changed much since Windows 95, that view is wrong. Using Windows 7 is nothing like using Windows 95, and Windows 7 is far better than any Win9x release.

    Monday, January 02, 2012 6:50 PM
  • That's very, very high end for Windows 95. A more realistic machine was something like a 486, 4MB memory (tops) and a 14" monitor which you'd be lucky if you could get 1024*768 on. It was possible to put windows side-by-side, but in reality not terribly useful. Most people stuck to running things full screen anyway and a great many still do to this day. Seperating this reality from what might theoretically be done on Windows 95 is not terribly useful in considering how and why things are done the way they are.

    Metro is perfectly capable of providing for multitasking in most common scenarios, but it takes something of a mental paradigm shift. When most people have windows side-by-side, it isn't because the background application is necessarily doing useful work (though it is consuming CPU nonetheless), it's because they're trying to extract some information from one app to be useful in the other. Contracts can provide this capability in a far more integrated way, moving data between applications in a richer and more productive way, without wasting time giving processing time to busy work in applications that aren't really accomplishing anything right now.

    What's more, the increase in web-based applications and cloud computing mean that genuinely rich processing may well be happening 'in the cloud', with the PC acting as a richer client than a mere browser. Existing services like OnLive are beginning to show how this can be applied even to aspects once considered impossible. The types of service we're using are changing and it's important the interface to the computer changes to meet these new needs, otherwise we'd all just be running a bunch of overlapping DOS boxes. And, of course, for all the task that genuinely do require heavy duty background processing or that are specifically file-centric, the entire desktop environment is still present.

    Monday, January 02, 2012 7:31 PM
  • By today's standards, Windows 95 is not a good OS and cannot keep up with modern technology. I was pointing out that it's better at multitasking than a smartphone or Windows 8's Metro. How is it that I can have a good multitasking experience on a computer that's slower than the original iPhone? Here is the problem with Windows 8: what about technology has changed so much that I need a full-screen-only environment on my desktop PC? If the form factor of my PC has not changed, why should the UI? If you look at my Windows 95 screenshot, you can see an example of an MS-DOS application running in a window on the Windows 95 desktop. In my opinion, Microsoft needs to bring WinRT to the desktop UI and let desktop and laptop users disable the full Metro shell.

    On interesting thing that the screenshot doesn't show: when the PC runs at a resolution of 1024 x 768, the resolution I used for the screenshot, it is limited to 256 colors. Surprisingly, it actually works well with these limitations, and I was surprised.

    4MB of memory and a 486? 4MB is the absolute minimum amount of RAM required for Windows 95 to run, and on that setup, it would hardly work at all.


     What's more, the increase in web-based applications and cloud computing mean that genuinely rich processing may well be happening 'in the cloud', with the PC acting as a richer client than a mere browser. Existing services like OnLive are beginning to show how this can be applied even to aspects once considered impossible. The types of service we're using are changing and it's important the interface to the computer changes to meet these new needs, otherwise we'd all just be running a bunch of overlapping DOS boxes. And, of course, for all the task that genuinely do require heavy duty background processing or that are specifically file-centric, the entire desktop environment is still present.

    As I said before, the "insert disk" messages haven't gone away; they've been replaced with messsage that state that Internet access is required for something to run. That's a problem with the iPad and it the Windows Store demo seemed to suggest that Windows 8's Metro will have a similar problem. Believe it or not, it's not possible to completely depend on always-on Internet access even in the home - there are many things that can cause the Internet to temporarily go out (as I was just reminded of).

    I'm not convinced that Metro is an improvement over what already exists. It is feature-thin and whenever I use the Metro-style IE10, it takes about five minutes before I decide that it isn't good enough and I switch to the desktop version. Metro is primarily about new form factors and touch computing. However, if my PC's form factor has not changed, its interface also does not need to change.

    Monday, January 02, 2012 7:53 PM