In the 1990s, Microsoft produced a wide range of multimedia CD-ROM educational and entertainment titles under the brand “Microsoft Home.” These guides covered topics as diverse as dogs, dinosaurs, wine, and gardening. We take a look at some of these forgotten classics.
The Origins of Microsoft Home
In the 1980s, Microsoft pushed heavily for the future of the CD-ROM format, even organizing the first major industry conference on CD-ROM in 1986. In a time before the internet could deliver unlimited research materials to your PC, the CD-ROM medium, with its massive 650 megabyte capacity per disc, promised to bring large reference works and multimedia to home computers.
After the successful release of the Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia in March 1993, Microsoft launched the “Microsoft Home” brand under its consumer products division in October of that same year. Led by Patty Stonesifer, the Home brand would encompass hardware products like mice and dozens of entertainment and educational titles.
Each Microsoft CD-ROM title was a lavish production, with hyperlinks between slides of interactive information. They often involved audio narration, music, and short video clips. For some titles, Microsoft used material licensed from publisher Dorling Kindersley (DK), which is known for its richly illustrated educational reference books.
Today, with resources like Wikipedia and YouTube at our fingertips (thanks to the internet), it’s hard to imagine a time when companies produced rich multimedia reference products frozen in time on CDs—even for people who lived through the era.
But Microsoft’s CD-ROM products were well-received, and they filled an essential gap between the reference book era and the internet. A generation of kids grew up loving them, and industry critics, such as Byte columnist Jerry Pournelle, recommended them. “You can’t afford to be without a current Microsoft Home Products catalog,” he wrote in 1995. “They’re adding really good titles every few weeks.”
Let’s take a look at a handful of those titles below.
Microsoft Dinosaurs (1993)
As one of the earliest Microsoft Home CD-ROM products, Microsoft Dinosaurs set a template that later titles followed. You can explore dinosaurs by species, see where they lived by location on a map, and even watch narrated cartoon videos about them. Dinosaurs received great reviews in general and sold fairly well, setting the stage for future Microsoft CD-ROM releases.
Microsoft Dangerous Creatures (1994)
Unlike Microsoft Dinosaurs, Dangerous Creatures focused on living animals that could hurt or kill you in the present day (such as piranhas, scorpions, bears, and tigers), which made it a particularly popular title during the mid-1990s. You can watch narrated videos of the animals in action (including a mosquito drinking blood) and read illustrated entries about them.
Microsoft Dogs (1995)
This comprehensive CD-ROM guide includes images, videos, and even audio bark clips of 250 different dog breeds. You can also learn about the evolutionary origins of man’s best friend, or simply how to groom and feed them properly. In 1995, Entertainment Weekly gave this title a “B” grade, which was fairly impressive for a reference CD at the time.
Microsoft Wine Guide (1995)
Wine expert Oz Clarke hosts this guide to types of wine and how to drink them (including explanations regarding all the glass shapes and which regions produce which varietals). As Clarke says in an animated video on the title screen, “There’s never been a better time to be a wine drinker.” This timeless piece of advice is as true today as it was in 1995, which proves that Microsoft Wine Guide will never truly become obsolete.
Microsoft Complete Gardening (1996)
After producing Microsoft Complete Baseball and Microsoft Complete NBA Basketball, Microsoft followed up those titles with the next logical CD-ROM: Microsoft Complete Gardening. This guide includes a plant encyclopedia with photos and videos as well as information on insect pests. In 2000, icangarden.com gave this title a mixed review, citing slowness and tedious guides. This one didn’t knock it out of the park for Microsoft, but at least the firm had an operating system business to fall back on.
There’s Plenty More Where That Came from
The five titles listed above are just a small sampling of a much larger library. From 1993 to 1997, Microsoft released at least 32 reference titles on CD-ROM (some in multiple yearly editions), including dozens of games, productivity titles, and more. (Even the poorly received Microsoft Bob interface was a Microsoft Home product.)
Here’s a partial list of some of the reference products, if you’d like to research them on the web:
- Microsoft Encarta
- Microsoft Encarta Africana
- Microsoft Bookshelf
- Microsoft Cinemania
- Microsoft Music Central
- Microsoft Complete Baseball
- Microsoft Complete NBA Basketball
- Microsoft Reader’s Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Guide
- Microsoft Oceans
- Microsoft 500 Nations
- Microsoft World of Flight
- Microsoft Ancient Lands
- Microsoft Musical Instruments
- Microsoft Isaac Asimov’s The Ultimate Robot
- Microsoft Art Gallery
- Microsoft Julia Child: Home Cooking with Master Chefs
- Microsoft The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright: America’s Architect
- Microsoft Composer Collection
Recently, an American software collector named Jared Albert posted a photo of his impressive Microsoft Home boxed software collection on Reddit. His shelf of mostly shrink-wrapped titles serves as a great visual indicator of the depth and breadth of Microsoft’s underappreciated series.
In a short interview with How-To Geek, Albert recalls seeing Microsoft Home products in CompUSA and admiring the Microsoft brand. He also played some of the Home-series games as a kid in the 1990s. “I thought I was the only person interested in the Microsoft Home line,” he said, delighted that we reached out.
We suspect that as more people who grew up in the 1990s begin to look back on the CD-ROM era, we’ll see a much wider appreciation for Microsoft’s pioneering multimedia series.