The year was 1990 and while Tim Berners-Lee was authoring the first prototype of the World Wide Web, Windows was becoming an industry standard. As part of our “The Story of Windows” series, Amy Stevenson, the Microsoft Archivist, is walking through her favorite versions of Windows in a series of articles. This is the second installment.

The Magical 3

In my last article, “Windows history: Part 1”, Windows 1.0 wasn’t taking the world by storm when it came out in 1985. Two years later, Windows 2.0 released, and then re-released with two options, one for the 286 chip and one for the new 386 chip.  It was a bit more popular, quite a few more compatible programs released, but it still wasn’t flying off the shelf.  What did the team do that made the third version a game-changer? Timing may have been one thing – personal computers were becoming more mainstream and more powerful, and the computer mouse was more commonplace. But what else?

Magazine article Introducing new Windows 3.0

Memory! Memory! Memory!

When people used the first two versions of Windows, they typically could not take advantage of running multiple programs at a time (multitasking).  Windows itself took up some available memory, so non-Windows apps ran very slowly, since computers running the apps didn’t have as much horsepower as the apps were built for.  Intel had made a new memory mode available (starting with their 286 chip) called “protect mode”, which increased available memory from 1 MB to 16 MB, but neither DOS nor Windows supported its use. 

But then a chance meeting at a party changed all that. As programmer David Weise tells the story in Inside Out

Insideout book cover

“I was at a party one night and ran into Murray Sargent, an old physicist friend of mine. He had come up to Microsoft for the summer from his position at the University of Arizona in optical sciences. He was here to improve the performance of some of our language tools by putting them into protect mode. He had written his own ‘DOS extender.’ It was a program that allowed specially written MS-DOS apps to run in protect mode. He also had his handcrafted debugger that would allow folks to debug such apps. We both knew what a happy marriage it would be between his tools and my Windows code base. We got so excited about the idea that we went straight back to my office to start in on it. Over the next few months, I worked nights and weekends, rewriting the memory manager and tweaking everything else so it could run in protect mode. And I didn’t tell a soul I was doing it.”

Once he and Murray had it working, David and his managers (including Steve Ballmer) surprised the rest of the team with the news at a key planning meeting with Bill Gates, and the rest is history. With Windows 3.0, users could finally take advantage of real multitasking, and software developers could do so much more.  This memory management change was a key factor for the subsequent popularity of Windows. 

Design Finds the Spotlight

For the first two versions of Windows, software engineers made all the design choices. For Virginia Thornton (now Howlett), a graphic designer who worked on the user manuals, it became increasingly apparent that the design discipline was a necessary component of building great graphical interfaces. She wrote a memo to Bill Gates in 1987. 

Screenshot of Virginia Thornton's memo to Bill Gates

The memo went on to discuss the competitive advantages and customer satisfaction benefits that taking design seriously would have.  As a result, a new User Interface Architecture team was formed, with Virginia as Graphic Designer. You can see the difference design brought to Windows 3.0, including a consistent use of color, more useful iconography, and cleaner, proportional fonts. 

PageMaker and Program Manager in Windows 2.0 and 3.0 respectively

It’s All About the Apps

Paragraph three of the press release for the Windows 3.0 launch lists the version's key features (selling points). Along with the performance increases and improved ease of use and visual appeal, the press release says it also offers "straightforward integration into corporate computing environments,” through new networking awareness features built in to the product. 

Corporate purchasing was significant in the skyrocketing sales of Windows. Not just because of the networking features, but also because of the key productivity software programs that migrated to the Windows environment. The number of software applications available for Windows had risen from 700 before launch to 1,200 one year later, and included new names like Lotus, WordPerfect, Oracle and Borland.  

Along with Windows 3.0, Microsoft also announced new compatible upgrades of Word and Excel, and the first Windows version of PowerPoint. Later that year, Office for Windows launched, putting all three together for one price. 

It was clearly easier to use these graphically oriented programs than their prior DOS-based equivalents. Companies could see that their training time would go down and that Windows would help with their productivity. 

Plus, there was a new game: Solitaire.

Screenshot of Solitaire

What Else?

Of course, while any number of other improvements also contributed to the growing popularity of Windows, it was also helped by environmental factors.  One of these was the proliferation of higher quality color monitors, and Windows new ability to use 256-color mode. Windows 3.0 also was the first version of Windows to be pre-installed on hard drives by a computer maker.  Zenith was the first to do so, but Dell followed a few months after and other companies quickly did the same. That meant time that users would have been spent installing several slow floppy disks was instead spent getting to know and depend upon this new, easier environment. 

The Launch

The Windows 3.0 launch on May 22, 1990 was a much bigger production than the original launch nearly four years earlier. Held at the City Center Theater in New York City, there was a fully dressed out stage, professionally produced video and a carefully rehearsed script. But the highlight for employees was in the final minutes when the team took the stage.  

Microsoft employees taking stage during Windows 3.0 launch

Windows 3.0 Development Team members on stage at the Windows 3.0 Launch event. Left to right: Chip Anderson, Bob Gunderson, Craig Critchley, Aaron Reynolds, Clark Cyr (side of head/ear visible), Paul Travis (navy shirt and white socks), Tim Gerken, Chris Shaffer, Ty Carlson, Lisa Cram, Greg Lowney, and Randy Gerl.


Three months after launch, one million copies had already shipped worldwide.  By the next year, the number was four million, and in April of 1993, Microsoft announced there were 25 million licensed users of Windows worldwide. This included users of Windows 3.1, which shipped in April of 1992, providing greater speed and stability, TrueType fonts and multimedia enhancements. Also by 1993, 60% of the personal computers shipped worldwide had Windows pre-installed, 2,500 software companies were selling 5,000 Windows programs, and at least a dozen had sold more than a million units of their software.  Most interestingly, Windows users on average had purchased more software than they had for their DOS environment.  Windows was not just an upgrade, it was a new, more powerful way to get things done.

My first day at Microsoft in September of 1991 was my first introduction to Windows 3.0.  While I had casually rejected its predecessor years before, I found the new version immensely easier than my prior DOS work environments. The color monitor made an enormous difference, and I must admit it was an added perk to install Entertainment Packs over the network to enjoy during my lunch hour. 

Next in the History of Windows

With versions 3.0 and 3.1, Windows was clearly becoming a popular technology platform. But in 1995, Microsoft would launch a version that solidified Windows as a global presence at home as well as work.

Links to explore:

  • The Computer Chronicles – Windows 3.0 - The Computer Chronicles was a half-hour show airing on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).  This was their episode about the graphical user interface and includes a good tour of Windows 3.0 at around timecode 7:20.  You can also see PowerPoint at 20:30. 
  • A Tour of Windows 3.1 – A modern tour where you can see the design gains in Windows 3.1.
  • Office Minefield – Fun Washington Post Article about the impact of free games in Windows.  Mentions that Solitaire was included to help people learn to use a Mouse.  Although not mentioned in this article, Minesweeper helped train people to click both right and left. 
  • A Brief History of Design – Thanks go to Juliette Weiss for helping unearth and interpret Virginia Howlett’s story last year.  Here is her piece on the larger history of design at Microsoft.