The History of Windows 3
Windows becomes competitive
David Weise graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D in biophysics. He, along with Chuck Whitmer and Nathan Myhrvold, started a company called Dynamical Systems Research in Oakland. This company was acquired by Microsoft on the 20th of June in 1986 for $1.5 million (around $4.2 million in 2023). This brought David Weise into Microsoft. Weise had become a member of the Windows development team, and much like Tandy Trower (at this point in the story, now part of the Applications Group), he felt that Windows could be much more than it was, and he also didn’t much care for IBM.
Murray Sargent studied at Yale receiving his Ph.D in 1967. He became a professor at the University of Arizona in 1972. Weise hired him for work on a DOS extender and debugging program (called Scroll Screen Tracer, or SST) that brought 32 bit protected mode capabilities to MS-DOS applications.
On a Friday night in late June, celebrating the opening of Microsoft’s Canyon-Park manufacturing facility Murray and Weise were chatting. Murray accused Windows/286 of being rather poor in the memory management arena, and suggested that a protected mode version that rid the system of the 640K RAM barrier would be better. David then replied:
Weise: Yes, let's go do it!
Murray: OK, how about tomorrow?
David: No, let's go right now!
The duo then absconded to the Microsoft campus where they proceeded to use SST to load the Windows 2 kernel in protected mode. They worked in secret for a month fearing that the OS/2 focused company would kill the project. This became Windows/386 of the Windows 2 line. As it was further refined and developed this technology became the basis of Windows 3’s memory systems. This memory management work was a big deal. Windows 3 supported real mode on the 8088/8086, standard mode on the 80286, and enhanced mode on the 80386. The 80386 version was protected mode with paged virtual memory. This allowed for both more physical RAM and for better swap. Both protected modes allowed for far better execution of DOS applications in VDMs with emulated hardware and VCPI and DPMI.
In the weeks and months preceding the release of Windows 3, the folks inside Microsoft were getting pumped. As Steve Sinofsky put it:
One of the most exciting things was seeing the visual appearance of the product. Windows 1.0 and 2.0 were, to put it kindly, garish, or at best excessively blocky and utilitarian. Much of this was out of necessity as computer monitors only displayed about the equivalent number of pixels of one app icon on today’s iPhone and only had access to 16 colors (or no colors at all).
Starting in 1981, Microsoft had had a partnership with IBM to sell MS-DOS preinstalled on IBM’s computers. This IBM version was called PC-DOS, and this arrangement served Microsoft very well. As IBM clones had become available, Microsoft partnered with the clone makers to sell MS-DOS preinstalled on those machines as well. Typically, PC-DOS or MS-DOS was the operating system most PC users got with their new machines, and it was the operating system they used on their new machines. With Windows 3, Microsoft Windows would be shipped pre-installed on more than just a few computer models. With Windows 2, some 386 class machines had shipped with Windows due to a need for software that could exploit the new power and the new features of the Intel 80386, and the Windows/386 version of Windows 2 was among the very first 386-enabled software products. This was not, however, a major sales pathway for Windows 2, but it would be a major sales pathway for Windows 3.
Windows 3 had better memory management, better visuals, better organization, and better file management. Gone was the MS-DOS executive, and newly present was File Manager. Network support was added, MS-DOS programs could be run simultaneously with greater stability, and the Control Panel was reworked and improved (with printing being especially better in my experience, or at least in my memory). Win3 also had Dynamic Data Exchange - when data is updated in one program the updated data can automatically show up in another, Windows Help, and Solitaire. With multimedia extensions, Windows could support CD-ROMs, audio cards, and SVGA.
The most amazing part of Windows 3 is that not only did Microsoft achieve seriously impressive technological improvements, but Windows was still quite svelte. System requirements for real mode were an 8086/8088, 384K free RAM, 6MB of disk space, Hercules/CGA/EGA/VGA or 8514/A graphics adapter, and MS-DOS 3.1 or better. As usual, a mouse was highly encouraged.
The primary thing that was removed from Windows 3 was a runtime version. Microsoft instead offered an upgrade from either the runtime version or full version of prior Windows releases for $50 (around $116 in 2023). The full release was $149 (around $348 in 2023).
To inaugurate Windows 3, Microsoft was planning a very large launch event at the New York City Center Theater. The budget for this event was $3 million (around $7 million in 2023), 6000 people were in attendance, and the event was broadcast live to seven other locations. The tech world, prior to this event, was not a major player in the wider culture of the time with just 15% of US homes having a computer. This event signifies that transition in world history; world culture was becoming a technological culture.
Just 435 days after the release of Windows 2.11, Microsoft Windows 3.0 was announced on the 22nd of May in 1990 on a grand and fine stage.
The PC outsold the Macintosh, and Windows 3 was better than OS/2. Within the first year of Windows 3’s life, those two points meant that Windows sold four million copies and Microsoft closed fiscal year 1990 with $1.18 billion (around $2.8 billion in 2023) in sales. MS-DOS was now on track to be a piece of history; effectively serving as just a boot loader for Windows. OS/2 was quickly losing mindshare and marketshare, and the Macintosh’s influence over the industry was becoming that of an also-ran.
Windows 3.1 was released on the 6th of April in 1992. By this point in time, more than 10 million copies of Windows 3 had been sold. Version 3.1 introduced TrueType fonts, expanded multimedia support, screensavers, Windows Media Player, Soundrecorder, the Windows Registry, better internationalization, and Object Linking and Embedding (OLE). This version of Windows also brought improvements to almost every other part of the system, and in particular to networking (for Windows for Workgroups) where file and print sharing, chat, and peer-to-peer networking were all introduced to Windows for the first time (as far as I am aware). Microsoft Mail and Schedule+ were also introduced in this version along with SMB and NetBEUI. The Workgroups version was available as “Workgroup Add-on for Windows” for $69 (around $150 in 2023) or as a standalone version for $219 (around $477 in 2023).
Windows 3.11 was released on the 8th of November in 1993 and offered numerous bug fixes and was offered as a free upgrade for users of Windows 3.1. For the Workgroups version, there were network improvements. TCP/IP support, fax capabilities, better NetWare support, and a 32 bit file access, drive sharing, calendaring, and networking all came to Windows for Workgroups 3.11.
Windows 3 was undoubtedly a major technological and commercial success. The computing world was now decidedly graphical. It built upon the technologies of Windows 1 and 2, and it improved those technologies while bringing innovations all its own. It helped to make Microsoft one of the most financially successful companies in history, and it transformed common culture; making our culture a technological one. Adding to all of that Windows 3 had the seeds of the future within it; a change seen by software developers but not many others: source level API compatibility with Windows NT. Yet another new vision of the future was being built, but that’s for another day.
On a side note, I now have readers from many of the companies whose history I cover, and many of you were present for time periods I cover. A few of you are mentioned by name in my articles. All corrections to the record are welcome, feel free to leave a comment.