Windows History: Windows 3

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

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The Magical 3

In my last article, “ history: Part 1”, 1.0 wasn’t taking the world by storm when it came out in 1985. Two years later, 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?


“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 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 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

Design Finds the Spotlight

For the first two versions of, 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.


It’s All About the Apps

Paragraph three of the press release for the 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 Not just because of the networking features, but also because of the key productivity software programs that migrated to the environment. The number of software applications available for had risen from 700 before launch to 1,200 one year later, and included new names like Lotus, WordPerfect, Oracle and Borland.

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Along with 3.0, Microsoft also announced new compatible upgrades of Word and Excel, and the first version of PowerPoint. Later that year, Office for 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 would help with their productivity.

Plus, there was a new game: Solitaire.

* 3.0 Development Team members on stage at the 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 worldwide. This included users of 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 pre-installed, 2,500 software companies were selling 5,000 programs, and at least a dozen had sold more than a million units of their software. Most interestingly, users on average had purchased more software than they had for their DOS environment. was not just an upgrade, it was a new, more powerful way to get things done.

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My first day at Microsoft in September of 1991 was my first introduction to 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

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

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