Vintage Windows Key Photo
Benj Edwards

If you use Windows, you might have wondered about the small key with the Windows logo on your keyboard. It opens the Start menu and performs useful shortcuts, but where did it come from? Why is it there? Let’s take a look.

The Origin of the Windows Key

It might seem like the Windows key has always been with us, but it hasn’t. It first appeared in September 1994 on the Microsoft Natural Keyboard. This ergonomic keyboard was in the same vein as the earlier Apple Adjustable Keyboard, which split the standard QWERTY keyboard in half. Unlike Apple’s keyboard, though, Microsoft’s tilted each half at gentle angles to reduce wrist strain.

By this point, Microsoft had already created other hardware products, including its widely acclaimed mice. When it was time to create its first keyboard, someone at Microsoft had the brilliant idea of including a permanent piece of Windows branding on it. This resulted in two Windows keys, located between the Control and Alt keys to the left and right of the space bar.

Microsoft Natural Keyboard Box.
The original Microsoft Natural Keyboard Box, circa 1994. Microsoft

These new keys would justify themselves by becoming the new meta-keys for enhanced Windows shortcuts, similar to the Command key on the Mac. When pressed once, the Windows key opened the Start menu in Microsoft Windows 95 (released almost a year after the keyboard).

When used in combination with other keys, the Windows key could perform other Windows-related tasks, like opening File Explorer (Windows+E).

In addition to the Windows keys, the Natural Keyboard also had a Menu key designed to open the right-click context menu on Windows 95.

Soon after its release, the Natural Keyboard became a runaway success, selling 600,000 units a month at the height of its popularity. (In February 1996, Byte Magazine reported “nearly 1 million” units had been sold during its first year on the market). This success spawned a long-running ergonomic keyboard series at Microsoft that continues to this day.

The Windows key on a Microsoft Natural Keyboard.
The Windows key on a Microsoft Natural Keyboard. Benj Edwards

The Windows key wasn’t limited to only ergonomic keyboards, though. Microsoft created a new 104-key standard (an extension of the 101-key Model M layout) that other keyboard manufacturers soon licensed. With the marketing blitz of Windows 95, hardware manufacturers didn’t want to be left out of any new features promised by the much-hyped OS. So, suddenly, the Windows Key was everywhere.

More recently, as part of the Windows hardware compatibility program, all keyboards with more than 50 keys must include a Windows key (also called the “Hardware Start Button” in some Microsoft documents) to be certified as Windows compatible. The certification allows vendors to use the Windows logo as part of their marketing.

Through these initiatives, Microsoft found a clever way to put its branding on every PC keyboard, further cementing its dominance in the PC market. Even if you run Linux on generic PC hardware, chances are you’ll see a tiny Windows logo on your keyboard.

Windows Key Pushback

Not everyone was a fan of the new Windows and Menu keys, however. Gamers, in particular, soon discovered the Windows key got in the way when playing many of the thousands of MS-DOS games that used the Control and Alt keys as action buttons, like Doom.

A screenshot of Doom for MS-DOS.

Additionally, if you played an MS-DOS game on Windows, or even just a full-screen Windows game, pressing the Windows key often launched the Start menu. This not only jolted players out of their game, but, in some cases, it also crashed the game.

Remedies included physically removing the Windows key from a keyboard with a screwdriver or running a utility like WinKey Killer that disabled the key via software. Today, you can disable the Windows key with a utility like Microsoft PowerToys.

RELATED: How to Disable the Windows Key on Windows 10

Beyond gaming, not everyone needed or appreciated having to use an extra modifier key. Even Brad Silverberg, former senior vice president of Microsoft’s Personal Systems Division and one of Windows 95’s main architects, doesn’t use it.

“I just never got in the habit of using the Windows key,” Silverberg told How-To Geek. “I don’t use many keyboard shortcuts in general. It’s just how my brain and fingers work.”

A screenshot of Microsoft Windows 95.

Still, Silverberg understands why people enjoy the Windows key and chalks it up to personal taste.

Some people are keyboard shortcut diehards,” Silverberg said. “They know them all and use them extensively. I use a few; they just don’t stick in my brain.”

Silverberg also noted, though, that the ability to use powerful keyboard shortcuts in addition to the more obvious, mouse-based menus was a key design aspect of Windows 95. It was important to him that keyboard shortcuts would be “accelerators, not the only way to do something.”

And so it remains to this day.

Of course, some diehards (including those who prefer the classic IBM Model M keyboard) have never upgraded to a keyboard with a Windows key. If that’s you, and you’ve found that you occasionally need a Windows key, you can simulate it via PowerToys or just press Ctrl+Esc to open the Start menu.

RELATED: How to Create a Windows Key If You Don't Have One

What Does the Windows Key Do Today?

Windows Key
Wachiwit/Shutterstock

As we mentioned above, a single press of the Windows key opens the Start Menu. (It’s no coincidence the Start button is also the Windows logo.)

When used in combination with other keys, the Windows key can launch dozens of tasks in Windows 10, including the following:

  • Windows+I: Opens Settings.
  • Windows+E: Opens File Explorer.
  • Windows+D: Shows/hides the desktop.
  • Windows+F: Opens the Search box.
  • Windows+M: Minimizes all open Windows.
  • Windows+Tab: Shows Task View.
  • Windows+L: Locks the screen.
  • Windows+A: Opens Action Center.
  • Windows+Period: Opens the Emoji panel.

There are dozens more. If you memorize them, they come in handy to quickly do all kinds of things in Windows, including managing virtual desktops or rearranging windows.

The Windows key was—and is still—a monumental marketing victory for Microsoft. But even so, 26 years after its introduction, the Windows key remains incredibly useful in the Windows ecosystem.

RELATED: 30 Essential Windows Key Keyboard Shortcuts for Windows 10

Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a Staff Writer for How-To Geek. For over 15 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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