Windows turns 30, but will it reach 40?

Windows has been a career-maker for many of us in IT, and just like us, it must change with the times

Windows turns 30, but will it reach 40?
Credit: IDG

I was 19 years old, working in downtown Manhattan for Goldman Sachs, when I first saw Windows. The WordPerfect for DOS master in me was floored. Windows and the Office suite, first released in 1990, were about to become my future.

Pre-Windows 95, we were working with 16-bit applications in a cooperative multitasking world. "Cooperative multitasking" meant that if Word crashed while you had Excel and PowerPoint open, everything was toast. Saving your work every five minutes became routine. Imagine being on the night shift in the document processing department at an investment banking firm and having to tell a banker (who hasn't slept in days) that the document he needs sent to Hong Kong is missing your last two hours of work thanks to a crash while cooperative multitasking.

Win95 brought 32-bit preemptive multitasking to my world, and I was sold for life. Like most techies, I've found the behind-the-scenes, in-the-weeds enhancements most compelling in half a lifetime of Windows releases.

The history of Windows has been filled with successes and failures, following a "Star Trek" release cadence. Every other release was good: Windows XP was a winner; Windows Vista not so much. Windows 7 was solid; Windows 8 bombed. Windows 10 has garnered positive feedback.

Microsoft looks to be on an upswing again, avoiding, once again, back-to-back release failures to turn the franchise back around. The return of the Start menu, new features like Continuum, a whole new browser to kick IE to the curb -- the future looks bright again for Windows fans

Or is it?

We're on the cusp of a paradigm shift for Windows. Look no further than Microsoft handing out Windows 10 for free and you'll see. Once you do that, can you go back to charging for the OS? We'll see what happens when Windows 11 (or whatever they'll call it) comes up. Perhaps, as my colleague Woody Leonhard suggests, Windows will become a subscription "Windows as a service" even before the next iteration goes live.

Microsoft is focusing more heavily on cloud-based solutions for infrastructure (Azure) and services (Office 365), but there is a need for computers of all types (PCs, tablets, mobile devices) to have an operating system. As long as that need continues, whether it's installed locally or connects via desktop as a service, Windows will continue to thrive. It's familiar, it's easy to use, it's comfortable for users regardless of age. At the same time, it's obvious that Microsoft sees the need to let go of its "one OS for Office" mentality as it puts more effort into releasing applications for iOS/Mac and Android.

We're seeing an infrastructure shift where Windows servers run in the cloud. Cloud or not, they're still running Windows. The near future has a good deal of hybrid on-premises/cloud interaction, and again, those systems often run Windows. On both the enterprise desktop and back-end server side of the discussion there are no major contenders to end the reign of Windows on the PC. However, in an increasingly tablet-driven world, Microsoft will have to divide its interests to provide applications to multiple OS vendors for the sake of retaining the Office/Office 365 connection. It's a smart move, really.

I've spent more than 20 years of my life working on a Windows PC. I tried Mac and didn't like it. I've tried tablets, and they're decent for reading books and articles and for watching Netflix, but through and through, I remain a PC and a Windows guy. I welcome the changes to come but not without nostalgia. There was a time when Microsoft was cool -- when people lined up around the block for Windows 95, when Bill Gates ran the company he started. Those times have passed, but Windows burns on.

Thirty years is a long time in the software game. While Windows will undoubtedly look very different in the next decade, Microsoft remains strong and continues to reinvent itself for the future. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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