ElI5: Why was so special about Windows 95, what made it a 90s pop culture touchstone?


ElI5: Why was so special about Windows 95, what made it a 90s pop culture touchstone?

In: Technology

It was not DOS.

MS-DOS was not easy to use, particularly in comparison to Apple computers. Win95 would run on most hardware that ran DOS, and it was much easier to use.

It was the first OS you didn’t need a book of command codes sitting next to your computer to figure out how to use. Any dummy could use W95. DOS required some amount of training/ practice.

Edit: I was thinking of Win3.1 when I wrote this comment. Sorry about that! Win95 is easier to use than Win3.1 but somehow I forgot Win3.1 even existed cause my family went from MS-DOS to Win95.

It basically brought home computers into the mainstream. IBM compatible computers were cheaper than Apple and Win95 was much easier to use. With MS-DOS you had to read instruction manuals and with Windows95 you could just.. click things.

Plus, Minesweeper and Solitaire came free with it and everyone loves to play a game on a new technology.

It was one of the first decent graphical OSes that the wider market could get into pretty easily. It also existed at a time when every day people (basically non-tech nerds) were starting to get their first computers at home. It was also the start of the internet becoming more mainstream. Also Microsoft’s massive marketing budget for it really pushed it into the spotlight when it released. In the 3 years from 1995 to 1998 Windows 95 had 57% of the OS market. The majority of the alternatives were OSes that were either difficult to use for the everyday user or were oriented toward businesses.

To put it into modern terms, it was like the leap that was made between cell phones and smartphones, like going from a flip phone to an iPhone.

It was a truly massive leap. Everything was just blasted wide open in terms of ease of use and capability. And I believe that with the Windows 95 “Plus Pack” which included Internet Explorer 1.0, it was the first time the internet was integrated into an operating system, which made things vastly easier for people who weren’t inclined towards tinkering with their computers.

A lot of posts are are implying that before Windows 95 everything was a DOS command line. This isn’t true. Windows existed before Win95, Windows 3.1 was very popular and pretty similar. However Windows 95 had a couple of new things that made it special. First is the “START” button. This was new in Windows 95. Before that you have to click through windows of icons to find what you wanted. Basically the whole experience was like using the File Explorer is today (just without any of the sidebars or previews).

The other thing people have touched on but not really gone into was the marketing. Microsoft paid huge money to use the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up” in their commercial. Just the fact that they paid a lot of money was news and itself free promotion. There was also the fact tha the OS came with a copy of the music video for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” which was a huge hit at the time.

It was the first version of Windows that even approached the usability of MacOS. If you look at productivity figures for the creative fields (artists, printers, and others) who used Macs, they had seen dramatic increases in productivity. Other fields did not see these productivity improvements from computing until Win95.

Because windows 95 was super easy to use compared to everything else at the time.

The closest easy to understand comparison would probably be windows 10 vs Linux today but even then I think Linux is way easier than alternatives were at the time.

I did what the iPhone did to the phone market. Not only was it quite a clean and uncluttered OS, it had a host of easy to use applications that came alongside it (interestingly not a browser on the first release!).

Microsoft spent a lot of time and money working with hardware developers to ensure printers, modems, sound cards etc worked ok with Win95, it provided an experience.

It was the first 32 bit PC operating system. It could actually run more than one program at a time. Prior to that everything PC based was DOS (disk operating system) and could only run one program at a time. If you needed to run another program, you needed to shut the one down, and start the other one.

I think a lot of us immediately answered “Windows 3.1” in our heads.

Win3.1 was the first non-Apple GUI that really took off on the PC, because it demonstrated the *concept* of a GUI, but didn’t push very far on the *possibilities*. The most ground-breaking app that Win3.1 brought to the table was Solitaire, and I’ll plant my flag on that. The major thrust of Win3.1 aside from that was to essentially port OS functions that had previously been available only via command-line to a GUI style of presentation.

Win95, by contrast, took that presentation and ran much, MUCH farther with it. Win3.1 didn’t do nearly as much to expand what your PC could do, compared to Win95.

It was the beginning of making computers really easy to use, and the start of the “multimedia” age. To understand it, you have to know what computers were like before and how Microsoft evolved the experience from DOS to Windows.

## DOS

Before, there were a lot of different incompatible operating systems in use. We just say the word “DOS” today to refer to “Disk Operating System”, some people will say “MS-DOS”. But really DOS was an entire family of operating systems. The “DOS” part referred to some standards for how programs would be run within the OS, but not all companies made a DOS that was completely compatible with all other companies’ DOS. There was IBM DOS, Dr. DOS, MS-DOS, and probably more.

To install a program or play a game in those times, you had to do a lot of work. DOS had special files that told it how much memory your computer had and how to use it. Some programs or games might require you to reconfigure that file. The video and sound cards at the time had to also be configured through these files, and if you had a lot of devices you might have to do some work to figure out how to get them all working without accidentally trying to use the same resources. It was a mess.

## Windows 3

Windows 3.1 is famous, but didn’t really make this much easier. It was really just a GUI on top of DOS. That GUI made some of the configuration tasks easier, as it could display more elaborate screens describing what your choices were, but in the end installing new programs and hardware could still involve opening your case to reconfigure jumpers or editing an arcane file to assign memory in a different way.

## Multimedia

CD-ROM drives arrived around the period of time Windows 3.1 was really popular. At the time, having a hard drive with a few hundred megabytes was living large, so giving your computer a drive that could hold **650** megabytes really expanded the horizons. This opened the door to being able to play video or music on computers, so sound and video cards started being developed to handle this extra load.

Yes, before the early 90s it wasn’t very common to have sound cards OR video cards in PCs. They were still mostly business machines and businesses didn’t need those features. A lot of games just used the cruddy speaker designed to make beeps and boops when a program had an error for music. Early DOS games had notoriously bad graphics. If you wanted to play video games or support video you bought machines built for those tasks like the ones made by Amiga. At the time Apple was a gaming powerhouse because their machines were more focused on graphical performance than PCs running any flavor of DOS. But there were a lot of other computers on the market who were better at gaming than DOS, too.

## Windows 95

Win95 solved both of those problems at the same time. (Sort of.)

It was still built on top of DOS, but in this evolution you booted into the GUI first. MS tried really hard to make it so instead of YOU hand-editing cryptic configuration files, Win95 could automatically detect how your system was set up and use the right configuration. It introduced a sophisticated (at the time) technology called “plug and play” that let hardware like video cards describe themselves to Windows and be auto-configured. This made it much easier for the average person to own and operate a PC.

MS also had very strict policies that any PC sold with Win95 meet some minimum requirements. Win95 PCs were REQUIRED to ship with sound support, speakers, and a CD-ROM drive. MS wanted your first boot of a Win95 PC to include video and sound in ways only people with the most expensive DOS computers (or Amigas) had seen. My Win95 PC shipped with a free copy of Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia. My mind was blown when I could not just read an article about historical events, but watch videos and hear speeches! In a lot of ways, Wikipedia still pales compared to what I remember of Encarta.

There was effectively no competition on PCs. As far as I can tell, nobody who produced a version of DOS for the market had this idea or was trying to create it. Users could look at a Windows 95 PC and see vibrant colors, video, and hear it playing music. Next to it they’d see a DOS PC displaying text-based graphics and making occasional beeps and boops. Suddenly a PC wasn’t a thing you used for work when you *needed* to, but a device you could use for entertainment when you *wanted* to.

There was definitely competition on Apple and Amiga, but both companies were in trouble. One could argue their machines and their graphical OSes were superior to Windows 95, but they had been focusing on professionals who needed audio/visual performance and not consumers who wanted entertainment. Their OSes ran only on specific hardware, and due to their focus on professional markets that hardware was very expensive. Win95, on the other hand, could run on relatively cheap PCs that had been running DOS for the lower-end business market. Add a CD-ROM, sound card, and low-end video card and you had a capable Win95 machine for less than the competitors.


Windows 95 made it easier to own and operate a PC. Microsoft required machines to support sound and video in order to run Windows 95. Nobody else selling an OS did both of those things on relatively cheap computers in the early 90s. That made for a very successful combination and the PC market exploded.

Because it wasn’t Windows 3.0. Does this look better to you?


When I was a kid we had AOL dialup and it took 20 minutes to load Nintendo’s official pokemon website. I played King’s quest 6 and some old dos games on that computer.

Honestly? They hired the cast of *Friends* to advertise it. Warp OS was more interesting, and compatible with a long list of established Microsoft products. Remember the time, this was before there was a computer and tablet at your reach. A lot of people didn’t know how to use a computer, and when they learned they learned DOS and UNIX, not exactly exciting stuff. Most people couldn’t afford a Mac. So here was a software that could help you use the PC to do tasks that were a huge pain before, like word processing, or relied on special business computers (i.e. an IBM running Lotus 1-2-3). Now you could run your spreadsheets at home, load up and Encarta disk at home and do your book report, and get your e-mail. It was just easy enough that parents who used terminals or IBM/DOS/UNIX at work could easily transition at home.

There was more going on, the ‘world wide web’ and the ‘information superhighway’ were on the news every night. They would run stories about how you can replace a whole conduit full of copper cabling with one fiber optic strand. Businesses started putting up websites so the tech saavy could find its address and phone number without digging through the yellow pages. Bill Gates / Microsoft greased the wheels of that phenomenon.

It was what brought mainstream people into using computers. It was not perfect but it was user friendly and happened at the same time of the multimedia explosion.

it came out as CDs were getting really popular too, as well as the internet. windows 95 was pretty big for PC gaming as well.

A lot of people are talking about win 3.1, which is a big part of it, but there is also the fact that its successor, windows 98, was a buggy mess that received widespread condemnation. It wouldn’t get enough patches to be really usable for quite awhile after launch. Windows ME, or millennium edition, was a similar train wreck.

It was considered the OG great software. I’m not a big computer guy but all I remember is Windows 95 then Vista

Late to the game, so people have already covered most of it… but there’s one thing I don’t see anyone mentioning. Although Windows 95 wasn’t very good/stable on release they worked on it a fair bit. After a while it got (for the time) rock solid for stability and performance.

Pretty often in the Windows 98 and later days the best solution to getting something working was to install Windows 95 instead. This meant that it had a strong following for gamers and computer geeks, and people mostly don’t remember the days when it was often worse than Windows 3.1.

You could suddenly have more than one program or folder open, which was not possible before. The PCs were also much faster. I had a 33 MHz PC with Win 3.11. I think the ones with Win95 at least had 100 MHz. Often more.