The Windows 95 Start button.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft launched Windows 95. This innovative, and highly-successful PC operating system weaned people who used PCs off of command lines. It also made Microsoft a household name. Here’s why Windows 95 was so special.

All Windows, All the Time

One of the most notable features of Windows 95 was that it tried to steer users completely away from a command prompt for the first time. Unlike Windows 3.11, Windows 95 booted straight into a graphical interface, despite the fact that it had an enhanced MS-DOS kernel running under the hood.

Prior to Windows 95, PC owners had to buy MS-DOS and Windows separately, and then install one on top of the other. By default, most people still booted into MS-DOS, and then ran Windows whenever they needed it.

Windows 95, though, wrapped both the Windows shell and MS-DOS into one product and called it a complete operating system.

The Microsoft Windows 95 logo on startup.
Microsoft

The greatest advantage of an MS-DOS lineage was Windows 95 was widely backward-compatible with thousands of programs written for MS-DOS and Windows 3.x out of the box. This made it a fairly painless upgrade for most people.

On the downside, being based on MS-DOS made Windows 95 prone to frustrating crashes (largely due to memory management conflicts), especially when compared to something like Microsoft’s Windows NT.

The Windows NT line only began to bridge the professional/consumer divide with Windows 2000 five years later. It didn’t fully replace the DOS-based Windows 9x series until Windows XP launched in 2001.

RELATED: Remembering Windows 2000, Microsoft's Forgotten Masterpiece

The Birth of the Start Menu and Taskbar

If you’ve used Windows in the last 25 years, you’re familiar with the iconic Start menu and taskbar, both of which originated in Windows 95. The Start menu served as a concise and logical replacement for the Program Manager in Windows 3.x to organize and launch installed applications.

Microsoft featured the Start button prominently in much of its advertising and touted it as a simple way for anyone to “start” using their Windows PC.

The Start button on a Microsoft Windows 95 desktop.
Exploring the Windows 95 Start menu.

The Start menu also gave rise to some comic confusion, as shown in this August 1995 New York Times review, which lamented, “Where is the Shut Down option? On the Start button, of course!”

The Windows 95 taskbar stretched across the bottom of the screen (as it does now) providing a compact, but sophisticated way to manage tasks across multiple application windows. Windows 3.x had no such functionality, nor did the Macintosh at the time.

In fact, it could be argued that it was the Start button and taskbar that allowed Windows 95 to surpass Mac OS in functionality for the first time. That was a big deal in 1995, as Apple fans had long derided Microsoft as playing catch-up with Macintosh. Mac OS didn’t get an activated-by-default launcher or task manager until the OS X Beta in 2000.

RELATED: Windows 3.0 Is 30 Years Old: Here's What Made It Special

The Origin of Windows Explorer (and More)

Windows 95 marked the first appearance of Windows Explorer (now called “File Explorer”), a file manager and OS shell rolled into one. Unlike Windows 3.x, which split file and application management into two different programs, Explorer united them (similar to Finder before it). It handled not only windows full of icons representing both files and applications, but also the Start menu and taskbar.

Other Windows 95 software innovations included:

  • A right-click context menu for direct file operations.
  • A desktop area that could store files like a folder.
  • File shortcuts.
  • The Recycle Bin.
  • Device Manager
  • “My Computer” on the desktop.
  • A system-wide “Find” utility.
  • Native 32-bit application support (via the Win32 API).
  • Support for the new DirectX API, which allowed full-screen Windows gaming.

Windows 95 was a huge release designed to wean people off of relying on MS-DOS to get things done. All of these new features made that possible for the first time (on a Microsoft product, at least).

FreeCell

A Microsoft "Freecell" game in progress on Windows 95.

FreeCell first appeared as a demonstration program for the Win32 API (for Windows 3.x machines). However, it shipped with Windows 95 and soon became a sensation on par with Windows Solitaire and Minesweeper before it (both of which were also included with Windows 95).

Its depth and complexity kept players hooked for over a decade as they attempted to solve all of its 32,000 possible games.

The Internet on the Desktop

In its first retail release, Windows 95 didn’t include a web browser. Instead, people saw an icon for a new online service called The Microsoft Network (MSN) on the desktop. Microsoft conceived MSN as a competitor for CompuServe and Prodigy.

However, even before the launch of MSN, Bill Gates recognized the inevitability of the World Wide Web’s dominance. As a result, MSN soon shifted to become more of an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

"The Internet" web browser icon on a Windows 95 desktop.

Microsoft’s web browser, Internet Explorer, started as an optional add-on for Windows 95. By December 1995, however, new versions of Windows 95 (beginning with OEM Service Release 1) included Internet Explorer by default.

People accessed the browser via a desktop icon called “The Internet.” Competing web browser developers, like Netscape, found this to be a monopolistic overreach by Microsoft. The inclusion of Internet Explorer in Windows 95 led to the large U.S. versus Microsoft antitrust case in 1998.

After an initial judgement that called for Microsoft to be broken up, Microsoft prevailed in an appeal and walked away with a slap on the wrist. And Internet Explorer continued to be included with future versions of Windows.

New Heights in Marketing

To launch Windows 95, Microsoft rolled out a $300 million promotional campaign, which was cited at the time as, perhaps, the most expensive in American history. It was an unprecedented high-profile campaign for a software product. It was also complemented by friendly, blue-sky artwork, and a catchy name that seemed to set Windows 95 apart from other, more sterile software releases.

The box art on Microsoft MS-DOS 6.22 and Windows 95.
Microsoft’s older box art (left), and the more consumer-friendly Windows 95 retail box (right). Microsoft

The firm advertised everywhere: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, and billboards. It also licensed “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones for $3 million to use in a high-profile series of TV commercials.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft held a huge press launch event at its campus in Redmond, Washington, hosted by Jay Leno. It was reportedly broadcast live by satellite to smaller Microsoft events around the globe.

The effect was impressive. Windows 95 got a lot of attention and brought Microsoft into the cultural mainstream as a symbol of business success. The company sold 1 million copies of Windows 95 during its first week on the market, and 40 million in its first year. Windows 95 was a bona fide success.

Happy Birthday, Windows 95!

Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a Staff Writer for How-To Geek. For over 14 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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