Happy 30th Birthday Windows 1.0, You Were Really, Really Slow

Today is the 30th anniversary of the graphical operating system -- which was widely considered a flop. 


Let’s set the stage: It’s November 20, 1985. The most popular song in the United States is Starship’s “We Built This City,” a gift to the American Songbook. Two days later the highest-grossing recent release is going to be a movie called White Nights, which I’ve never heard of but apparently is about a Russian dancer finding his way. It seems excellent. But more importantly, 30 years ago on this day Microsoft Windows 1.0 was born. It’s tagline then seems kind of long by today’s standards: “The PC operating environment that lets you use today’s most popular applications — and tomorrow’s most powerful ones.”

In 1975, two guys named Paul Allen and Bill Gates came together with a shared vision of getting a computer on every desktop and in every home. You probably know them.


The point of the software package was to allow a user to run a number of different programs at once on their computer. Windows 1.0 came out with several other programs — Paint, Windows Writer, Notepad, Calculator, and even a snazzy game called Reversi.

But the Microsoft Windows 1.0 debut wasn’t as glorious as its makers wished. Apple had premiered Macintosh a year earlier and when Microsoft realized many of the features in Windows overlapped, there had to be some major reworking. Windows 1.0 came out two years after it was first announced, with skeptics calling it “vaporware.”

“Why anyone would purchase Windows without the intent of running multiple applications is a mystery to me,” wrote New York Times reviewer Erik Sandberg-Diment a few months later in February. But he continues, “Even so, running Windows on a PC with 512K of memory is akin to pouring molasses in the Arctic. And the more windows you activate, the more sluggishly it performs.”

And it was true — Microsoft Windows 1.0 was really, really slow. It required a minimum of 256 kilobytes, two double-sided floppy disks, and a graphics card. The company recommended a hard disk and 512 KM memory if you actually wanted to run multiple programs.

Microsoft Windows 1.0 retail box

Szilvester Farkas/Flickr 

But eh, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. As of last year, the Windows operating system is used by 1.5 billion people and Office is used by 1.2 billion. We’re currently at Windows version 8.1.

“Windows 1.0 was a flop,” wrote CNET reviewer Charles Cooper. “But it also was the embodiment of a technology vision which would create a tech empire.”

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