Windows 7 - or is it?
Windows has had a long history, complicated by there being two completely separate product lines sharing the same name. The original Windows started off as a graphical shell on top of MS-DOS and ended up incorporating DOS as its boot-loader. The second line, originally called Windows NT, began as an offshoot of the IBM and Microsoft joint project to create OS/2. The next version of Windows will be called Windows 7, but as we find out, that's not necessarily an accurate version number.
Windows 1.01 – November 1985
Windows 1 was a bit of a dog, to be honest. So as not to tread on Apple's distinctly litigious toes, it had almost no icons and not even overlapping windows. Nobody much ever used it.
Windows 2.0 – November 1987
The next version of Windows was a little better, but it was still as ugly as sin, with the primitive "MS-DOS Executive" as its shell. So unpopular was it as a shell for DOS that it was mostly sold as "runtime Windows" with the handful of GUI programs for mid-1980s PCs, such as Aldus Pagemaker, the Omnis Studio database and Microsoft Excel.
Windows 2.1 – May 1988
Windows 2.1 started to make use of the PC's ever-more powerful hardware with the special "Windows/286" and later "Windows/386" editions. Windows/286 just gave a little more memory – the 80286 could handle a massive 16 megabytes, although in 1987, nobody had that much in a PC. Windows/386 was a bit more interesting – it let you multitask DOS applications under Windows' control.
Windows 3.0 – May 1990
This is where things started to get interesting. Windows 3.0 rolled Windows 2.11, Windows/286 and Windows/386 into one; it could run after a fashion on an 8086, effectively and usefully use the extra memory of an 80286, and on an 80386, it could multitask DOS programs and provide virtual memory. Just as important were the cosmetics – it borrowed the Program Manager and File Manager from OS/2 1.2, along with "3D" widgets – the controls in the top left and top right corners of each window – and OS/2's proportionally-spaced fonts in title bars and menus. Windows 1 and 2 had used ugly mono-spaced fonts throughout. It didn't have proper scalable fonts without the third-party add-on of Adobe Type Manager, though.
It was the first version of Windows that would be a big hit, and it seems to be where Microsoft starts counting from today.
Windows 3.1 – March 1992
Windows 3.1 started rolling in things that had previously been additional extras, such as Windows Multimedia Extensions and Video for Windows, which gave the ability to play music and video clips. It also added scalable fonts via TrueType. Mostly, though, it just added better polish and stability to Windows 3.0. Standard Mode – the Windows mode intended to run on original PC-XT style 8086 machines – was downplayed. This version of Windows could bypass the PC-BIOS and access some hard disks via its own drivers, for a performance boost, in a feature called "32-bit disk access".
Windows for Workgroups 3.1 – October 1992
Generally known as "WfWg", the clumsily-named Windows for Workgroups 3.1 brought the MS-DOS based Microsoft networking stack into Windows itself for the first time, also allowing the sharing of local resources on a peer-to-peer basis.
Windows for Workgroups 3.11 – November 1993
What often got called "WfWg three-eleven" was when Windows started to grow up. Although still based on DOS, the whole product was aimed at 386s. Also, the project to build the 386-based Windows 4 was already running badly late, so chunks of its code got grafted onto the now-aging Windows 3 base. WfWg 3.11 had 32-bit file access, which brought the whole FAT filesystem into Windows, complete with an integrated disk cache. It also had a 32-bit network stack, including one optional extra that wasn't yet significant to most users – TCP/IP32, a 32-bit Windows version of the up-and-coming TCP/IP network protocol. Most PC networks still used Microsoft's NetBEUI or Novell's IPX/SPX, though – even the hugely popular PC game Doom ran over IPX and nothing else.
Windows NT 3.1 – July 1993
The first version of Microsoft's new flagship 32-bit OS was given the same version number as the DOS version, partly to avoid the scary "1.0" version number, and partly because Microsoft had agreements with certain partners, such as Novell, that only covered Windows up to 3.1. This mattered because several big players – including Novell, whose Netware server OS was the dominant player in PC networking – didn't support the new NT OS. So if you wanted to run NT on a Netware network, you needed Microsoft's home-made reverse-engineered client, as Novell didn't offer one. An alternative interpretation is that NT was the eventual product of Microsoft's part of the OS/2 joint development with IBM. The two companies developed OS/2 1.x, for the 80286, together. The success of Windows 3 killed the join project; IBM took over OS/2 and developed OS/2 2.x, for the 80386, on its own. Microsoft retained OS/2 3.x, which was a barely more than sketched-out cross-platform portable version. It hired famed Digital Equipment Corporation engineer Dave Cutler, architect of RSX-11M and VMS, who developed it into Windows NT.
Windows NT 3.5 – September 1994
In Windows NT 3.5 , which was really version 1.1, some of NT's rough edges got smoothed off. It still required a colossal 32 megabytes of RAM to run well, but it ran much faster and more smoothly than the previous version.
Windows NT 3.51 – May 1995]
To some, Windows NT 3.51 (really, NT 1.5) is still the classic version of NT. With the whole GUI running in userspace, it was stable, but by modern standards, very small and fast. NT 3.51 also supported long file names on FAT disks, which was very useful – but it still had the clunky Windows 3.1 Program Manager interface. No taskbar, no Start menu, no desktop folders here.
Windows 95 – August 1995 (Windows 4.0)
The long-running Windows 4 project – codenamed "Chicago" – finally bore fruit. Windows 95 was a 386-only enhancement of Windows for Workgroups 3.11. It still ran on DOS, but now, DOS was built-in, making 95 look like a complete, integrated OS – and, not incidentally, locking out Novell's rival DOS, DR-DOS. Because Windows 95 still ran on top of DOS, it sported excellent compatibility with DOS drivers and DOS apps – unlike the scary whole-new-world approach of NT.
Windows 95B – 1996 (Windows 4.03)
Hard disks were getting so big – over a Gigabyte! – that 95's 15-yearold FAT disk format was horribly inefficient. 95B brought in FAT32, a more efficient format with smaller disk blocks. It also supported a strange new interface that was starting to appear, called USB. A minor added-extra program was bolted in for the first time, too – Internet Explorer, a browser for a rarely-used academic curiosity called the WorldWideWeb.
Windows NT 4.0 – July 1996
Another long-running Microsoft project, Cairo, to produce an object-oriented graphical OS that kept its data in a database instead of simple files on disk, was now running badly late, so NT got updated with a port of the new Explorer shell from Windows 95 to produce Windows NT 4, really v2.0. To try to get decent graphical performance, the GUI subsystem was moved into the kernel, meaning that a buggy graphics driver could disastrously crash the whole OS – a move Microsoft is still trying to undo today.
Windows 98 – March 1998 (Windows 4.1)
DOS compatibility still mattered for consumers, so the old DOS-based product line got updated again. Now it could convert FAT disks to FAT32, drive multiple monitors and more than four network cards. To avoid a Netscape lawsuit, Internet Explorer 4 was integrated – parts of it were used to render the Windows desktop, bringing in the Quicklaunch toolbar, JPG wallpaper and thumbnail icons.
Windows 98 Second Edition – May 1999 (Windows 4.2)
Windows 98 was still massively outselling NT, so was cleaned-up and polished, gaining Internet Explorer 5, Internet Connection Sharing and DVD support.
Windows 2000 – February 2000
"W2K" (NT 5.0 – actually, v3.0) moved NT onto a plug-and-play base, so it could handle dynamically-changing hardware like USB and PCMCIA properly, meaning that Windows 2000 can actually handle most modern PC hardware. The writing was finally on the wall for DOS-based Windows, but still, consumers in the home-computer market got the confusingly-named…
Windows Millennium Edition – September 2000 (Windows 4.3)
Windows Me was a final update for the venerable classic line of Windows, DOS was now completely hidden. Much-maligned, this did actually improve on 98 in some ways, notably networking and Firewire support, but anyone with a new PC would be better off with Windows 2000 – but that was still only being promoted to business customers.
Windows XP – October 2001
Windows XP was the long-promised "converged" version of Windows, bringing all Windows 9x's features to the NT platform - but without the DOS base, and thus, no compatibility with DOS drivers. XP (NT 5.1, or 3.1 for those who are counting) was a massive improvement over Windows 9x – albeit with dramatically higher system requirements. It needed some 256MB of RAM to run well even in the beginning. For the first time, NT was sold to consumers and hone users, meaning that the tidal wave of poorly-written, insecure consumer applications and games hits the previously safe, stable world of NT. It may the classic version of Windows, the one most people now know best, but it was also the beginning of Windows' reign as the industry's premium platform for viruses, Trojans, worms, spyware and malware in general. On a corporate network, it can be locked down tight and kept secure and stable, but the default setup for consumer machines is wide-open.
Windows Server 2003 – April 2003
XP Server in all but name – but for the first time, the Server edition of NT (NT 5.2, or 3.2) is out of step with the "Professional" client edition, so it gets a different release name.
Windows Vista – November 2006
There were two efforts to write the follow-on to XP. Originally, codename "Whistler" was planned to be an enhancement of XP, with the big changes held over to "Blackcomb", the next major release. In August 2004, though, the much-delayed project is canned and development restarted based on Windows 2003 Server. The result (NT 6.0 – or, really, v3.3) was less ambitious than it was planned to be – the database-oriented WinFS storage subsystem is dropped and the shell is just an update of the 11 year-old Explorer with an added Sidebar.
Windows 7 – 2009 or 2010
So we get to the next version of Windows. Again, what was planned to be a major rewrite has been scaled back. Microsoft has stated that Vista's successor (NT 6.1, but really, it's 3.4 underneath) will be based on the same base as Vista and Server 2008, so there's no big rewrite underneath - thus, it's not really version 7.0. Windows Server 2008 has been far better-received than Vista, so this is the Windows' team's attempt to sort and fix Vista. It's really NT 6.1, as the version numbers of the preview releases attest. Or, if you're counting from the first version of NT in 1993, it's something like v3.4.
But as the erratic progression of Windows' version numbers and names shows, the marketing people at Microsoft have more influence than the developers, so the forthcoming release is being promoted as a major new version: Windows 7.
The underpinnings may have changed, but Windows' GUI still shows a clear progression from the DOS days of old – and if you count those ancient DOS versions as its ancestors, this is more like Windows 10.
If Benjamin D'Israeli were alive today, he might say "there are lies, damned lies and version numbers."