In August 1995, only 30% of American homes had a computer. Less than 10% had internet access. I had not become a disciple of broadband. I didn’t even know what broadband! Like everyone else, I was patiently waiting to upgrade my no-name laptop, which I had bought from the Computer Shopper catalog. For an impoverished immigrant, it felt like a dream machine. It was ugly, and there wasn’t anything dreamy about it. But at the time, it was good enough for me to lose myself on the network. Still, I was certainly ready for an upgrade to Windows 95 — the soon-to-launch operating system from Microsoft.
Many of these memories came rushing back today when I started reading Anil Dash’s excellent essay, What Windows 95 Changed. “It was undoubtedly a technical leap forward, but its biggest, most lasting impacts are about how it changed popular culture’s relationship to technology,” Anil writes.
Of course, as they say, timing is everything. And this big leap happened to be made in lock step with the emergence of the web. It was the confluence of the two that changed everything.
The Windows 95 OS rolled out with much fanfare, thanks to the big bucks Microsoft put into on the launch. The Rolling Stones couldn’t resist the offer Microsoft CEO & Chairman Bill Gates made them for their track, “Start Me Up.” Jay Leno was ready to do corporate bidding. Friends stars were roped in for the how-to videos. “Splashy, big-budget ads for Windows 95 were ubiquitous in primetime TV in that era when everyone was still watching TV with ads,” Anil notes.
In New York City, folks started lining outside stores like CompUSA. The press was buzzing with news about Windows 95. I didn’t get an invite for the press briefings. I wasn’t important enough for Microsoft to care, and I didn’t work for a prominent enough publication to give a damn. Microsoft sold a million copies in four days. So like everyone else, I waited in line and bought my copy of Windows 95. The OS came in a box. The box had 13 special distribution media floppies that had higher capacity than the traditional 1.44 MB floppies. They were like the magic potion for my computer.
As someone who had never used Mac, it was magical. The Start Button and the Taskbar were unique new features that made accessing apps easy and multi-tasking a breeze. It also made PC gaming dead simple, though it will be a while before things would fall into place. Direct X came later. And so did the Valve’s Steam.
Windows 95 was a springboard for broader consumer adoption of personal computing. Along with more powerful chips from Intel, Microsoft had created an incredible engine called WinTel. The two companies spent enough money on their products — and the ecosystem — to make PCs commonplace.
However, we don’t quite appreciate the impact Windows 95 had in jump-starting the consumer internet, helping to set the stage for what are now household names, such as Amazon, Craigslist, and eBay. While many of the Internet’s core technologies were the gift of operating systems such as UNIX, but it was Windows 95, that made it easy for the rest of us.
And to understand the impact of Windows 95, we have to go back to an astute observation by one of the key elders of computing and networking. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, once observed that a network’s effect is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2). That law is called the Metcalfe’s Law.
The launch of Windows 95 acted as a steroid for Metcalfe’s law. The more people got on the network using Windows95-based computers, the more useful the network became. The more useful the network was, the more people wanted to be on it. The web would become the first and ultimate app. It would also set a stage for what would become a society defined by the symbiotic relationship between the computing devices and the networks that connected them.
Windows 95 was the fertile land that allowed the internet in general — and the web, specifically — to thrive. Sure, Win95 didn’t initially ship with a Microsoft browser. Sure, you had to download Mosaic (Netscape) to get online. But it made everything, including connecting modems and getting online, more accessible.
Suddenly, surfing the Internet, accessing various online services, and doing email became easier. “Microsoft had been working on underlying technologies to make the Internet and especially TCP/IP easier to use for users and developers,” Brad Silverberg, then a senior VP at Microsoft, told me via email. “In many ways, the browser was the killer app for Win 95, and Win 95 had all the plumbing needed for consumer internet to be possible.”
Brad would eventually go on to become leader of Microsoft’s Internet efforts. Microsoft had developed a TCP/IP stack that it has shipped as part of Wolverine (and was shipped initially for WfW 3.11) The TCP/IP stacks at that time were memory hogs and not ready for commonplace usage. “Win 95 brought about the consumer internet, and it was one of our key goals for Win 95,” Silverberg said.
For Windows 95, Microsoft helped fine-tune the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) and the Point to Point (PPP) protocols. “Prior to that, IP addresses were static and you had to configure the stack manually with subnet masks,” Silverberg pointed out. You needed someone from IT to set up a PC with TCP/IP before DHCP. “DHCP provided dynamic IP addresses. And you couldn’t dial-up to an Internet service until there was PPP — it handled the dynamic connection to a dialup Internet service.”
What does it all mean? Well, DHCP and PPP made everything simple – “plug and play,” in Microsoft lingo. Getting on the internet using dial-up modems started to become seamless, thanks to automatic configuration capabilities. Everyday computer users with Windows 95 could get online, download their Internet browser or other software, and start using it instantly. It made it possible for the browser to be one of the killer apps for Win 95.
Microsoft didn’t get much love in Silicon Valley. But where would many of the Internet giants be without the Windows 95? Apple’s computers at that time, and for many years into the future, would lag as Internet machines. Sun Microsystems’ dream of network computer would remain just that.
Before Windows 95, getting online was not easy. Only 12 million people were using online services in the US in 1995, the year that saw the birth of Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, General Magic, and the great Netscape IPO. With that, the great Internet mad-dash began. The growing number of online destinations and websites made owning a PC desirable. And vice versa.
PS: FWIW, I have intentionally abstained in this piece from commenting about how Microsoft used its monopoly to cram down the decidedly sub-par Internet Explorers down our throats, and killed competition in the process.
PS #2: Bill Gates was late to the Internet, but he did so with his typical gusto and bombast when he arrived at his conclusions. You should read his Internet Tidal Wave memo on Wired magazine’s website. He even got on the David Lettermen Show to talk about it. Like Anil pointed out in his piece — we can’t underscore how much Windows 95 and Microsoft did to make computing part of everyday life — with a lot of help from the Web.
By the way, the video is the ultimate in what John Gruber calls a claim-chowder.