Windows (and Microsoft) 30 Years Later

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Windows 1.0, circa 1985.

Windows 1.0, circa 1985.

Windows 1.0 was released 30 years ago this year (albeit announced two years earlier), marking 2015 as a fairly significant milestone in the history of the technology industry. Love Windows or hate it, nobody can argue its impact on personal computing–and although a few months remain until its official anniversary in November, Microsoft is doing enough today to warrant spending a little time in considering this impact.

Personally, Windows has always held a special place in my general love of technology. I remember installing Windows 1.0 soon after it was released and marveling in its newness and apparent power. Sure, the Macintosh had already made real the concepts of windows and icons and the graphical user interface (GUI) in general, and it was certainly prettier. But something about Windows struck me a bit harder, and as I entered the workforce and used Windows and its various applications to do real work, I felt like I was experiencing the future.

And I was.

Flash forward 30 years, and things have changed dramatically. I have Windows 10 installed on a few machines, from my relatively loaded homebuilt desktop to my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 hybrid and Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet to my Lumia 830 smartphone. The experience is rough at this point, but all signs point to an operating system that will optimize the experience for four very different types of machines. If Microsoft is successful, it will be a remarkable achievement and one that likely no other company could emulate any time soon.

Windows 10 vaguely resembles Windows 1.0 in that it has windows and icons and an overall GUI, but it’s capable of doing so many more remarkable things. Perhaps no feature is more futuristic than Cortana, Microsoft’s personal assistant cloud-based agent that borders on artificial intelligence. I can talk to any of my Windows 10 machines and ask Cortana to perform tasks and answer questions. Apple has Siri and Google has Google Now, but neither are so deeply integrated in so many different kinds of machines, and I’d argue that Cortana has more basic intelligence than either of them even being late to the game.

Windows 10

Windows 10, circa 2015.

Other Windows 10 features represent general advances in the industry since Windows 1.0 was released, such as pen input, hundreds or thousands of different kinds of peripherals, ubiquitous communications, and worldwide reach via the Internet. I couldn’t imagine all of these things when I first started using Windows 1.0, but I could see that amazing things were coming.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Some things have remained the same, of course. Personal computers of all kinds, whether rooted in one spot like massive gaming desktops or nimble and highly mobile like today’s incredibly powerful smartphones, still perform many of the same tasks. They help us communicate, get work done, have fun, and learn new things. In this respect, the industry hasn’t changed at all–and that’s a good thing, of course. There’s a timelessness to technology; its value derives from the unchanging things it allows us to do, only better and better, not in the very real fact that it continues to advance in power and complexity.

I don’t know exactly what the technology industry will bring over the next 30 years. Perhaps the Singularity, since technology’s advance builds on itself as more powerful computing platforms make possible even more powerful computing platforms. It’s the exponential nature of technology’s advancement that makes predicting what’s coming border on science fiction–recognizing fully as I write this that science fiction has done a remarkably good job of both predicting and informing technological advancements.

What I’m fairly certain of, though, is that Microsoft will remain one of the most important players. It’s stumbled along the way, certainly, in small ways (Microsoft Bob and Clippy remain relatively harmless objects of ridicule), middling ways (Windows Vista was painful but begat Windows 7, and wasn’t even as bad as its reputation would imply), and major ways (missing out on the sea change in mobile computing best represented by the insane popularity of Apple’s iPhone).

Microsoft has managed to remain a viable and profitable enterprise because it’s maintained an unceasing devotion to enhancing its customers’ productivity. Today, Microsoft’s strategy is brilliant, and the company shows all signs of returning to the innovative and aggressive technology giant that it once was. Windows 10, cross-platform support, Azure and the cloud in general, machine learning, artificial intelligence, HoloLens–all combine to paint a picture of a company that suddenly knows what it’s doing again, and holding nothing back in making its vision a reality.

And so, here’s to the next 30 years, and to Microsoft’s place in it. You don’t have to be a Microsoft fan, I don’t believe, to raise a glass in toast to their accomplishments, while recognizing that they certainly haven’t been alone in accomplishing great things–which is what makes this industry so damn exciting to be a part of.

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