Windows 3.1: Microsoft's milestone, 25 years on

Twenty-five years ago, Microsoft launched Windows 3.1. This first attempt to move beyond the operating system's DOS roots introduced many features we recognize in Windows today

Microsoft Windows 3.1

Happy birthday, Windows 3.1

Imagine a world without the Start button. No, I'm not talking about Windows 8. Dig deep into your memory and you may recall a time when Windows 3.1 ruled the earth.

Twenty-five years ago this month, Microsoft released Version 3.1 of its MS-DOS graphical-shell-turned-operating-system. Windows 3.1 became the first version of Windows to be widely distributed with new PCs, cementing the dominance of Microsoft's OS on the IBM PC platform and signaling the dawn of the Golden Age of Windows.

In honor of this anniversary, let's take a visual tour through Windows 3.1. In the following slides, I'll highlight many of the innovations this colorful GUI brought to Windows for the first time.

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Program Manager

Program Manager

Before Windows Explorer, there was Program Manager, where you could group application icons together any way you wanted and therefore allowing for primitive program organization. (For viewing files on your computer, you ran File Manager.) It worked well enough, but juggling the many windows could prove tricky—and you could end up with 50-plus program groups filling your screen.

File Manager

File Manager

File Manager let you explore the file system of your computer visually, using a directory tree and an icon-based view of files. Copying between folders was as easy as a drag and drop, which attracted many novice PC users to Windows.

Microsoft combined File Manager and Program Manager into Windows Explorer in Windows 95, and the arrangement has been that way ever since.

TrueType fonts

TrueType fonts

The TrueType font system marked the most important visual innovation in Windows 3.1. True Type was actually developed by Apple Computer, which, if you can believe it, licensed the technology to Microsoft for free. Why? Apple didn't want Adobe to monopolize digital type.

Rather than using blocky pixels in a bitmap, TrueType described fonts as curves and lines, which allowed fonts to scale smoothly to any size. This capability produced amazing printed documents, a big reason why Windows 3.1 flourished as a desktop publishing platform. Win 3.1 included 15 fonts with now-familiar names such as Arial, Courier, System, and Times New Roman.

Built-in screensavers

Built-in screensavers

Prior to Windows 3.1, if you wanted to save your monitor from CRT burn-in, you either turned it off or installed a third-party screensaver such as After Dark. In Version 3.1, Microsoft included four screensavers: Blank Screen (oooh!), Flying Windows (assorted Windows logos soaring by), Marquee (a phrase of your choice scrolling across the screen), and Starfield Simulation (a flight through space, with the stars streaking past).

Of course, users could install many more screensavers, which spawned a back-of-the-magazine cottage industry of screensaver plugins that functioned more as eye candy than as a genuine means to protect your monitor.

Minesweeper and Solitaire

Minesweeper and Solitaire

In the days before easy and ubiquitous access to celebrity news blogs, office workers often whiled away their idle hours with games of Solitaire and Minesweeper (well, that and doodling with Paintbrush). Solitaire first appeared in Windows 3.0, but Microsoft introduced the puzzle classic Minesweeper in 3.1, replacing 3.0's Reversi. Some people claim that Windows Solitaire has wasted more hours of productivity than any other PC application.

The Registry is born

The Registry is born

Windows 3.1 brought many improvements, but it also introduced a feature that would become the bane of many Windows users: the Registry. We all know how easy it is for this custom database of hidden system settings to become jumbled and wreak havoc on our machines. The Registry has survived all the complaints, though: Behind the modern-looking, Metro touch interface of Windows 8, the Registry still lurks.

Control Panel

Control Panel

Back in the days of 3.1, you needed only 12 icons in the Control Panel to configure all of Windows; in my Windows 7 Control Panel, I count 52 icons. (Of course, Windows 3.1 took up just 11MB of disk space, versus 23GB for my Windows 7 install—a good indication of the OS's increasing complexity over the years.)

Windows 3.1 was the first version of Windows to have a modular Control Panel. You could add new panels to the window shown here simply by copying a special CPL file into the Windows system folder.

Embedded images

Embedded images

Windows 3.1 introduced a systemwide means of embedding and linking different types of files together called OLE (Object Linking and Embedding). What does that mean? For example, you could take a Paintbrush bitmap file and embed it into a Write word processing file, as shown here. But if the bitmap were "linked" instead, any external changes in the bitmap would be reflected in the Write file. We take such functionality for granted these days, but 25 years ago this was a major convenience.

Uniform Open/Save dialog boxes

Uniform Open/Save dialog boxes

Prior to Windows 3.1, application authors had to code their own Open/Save file dialog boxes from scratch for every program, which led to confusing inconsistencies. Microsoft remedied that in 3.1 by introducing a systemwide Open/Save dialog box system (shown here in Paintbrush) that developers could plug into their products.

Multimedia support

Multimedia support

Microsoft first supported sound and video playback as part of Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions, released in 1991, but only on new machines. The company made those additions standard in Windows 3.1, allowing users to play and record high-quality digitized audio files using sound cards such as the popular SoundBlaster Pro. And in Media Player, users could watch AVI video files—if their hardware could handle the video without choking.

Notepad and Calculator

Notepad and Calculator

Neither Notepad nor Calculator originated with Windows 3.1, but these often-used accessories are worth a look anyway. Though the appearance of Notepad should be familiar to most modern Windows users, the colorful, flat buttons of Calculator may seem a little strange. Those buttons are a vestige of the time before the shaded, 3D-button look of 1990s Windows 3.0 became standard. Windows 95 introduced a more "Windows-looking" Calculator three years later.

Task List

Task List

In modern versions of Windows, you hold down Ctrl-Alt-Delete to access Task Manager. In Windows 3.1, you pressed Ctrl-Esc or double-clicked on the desktop to bring up the precursor of Task Manager, called Task List. The utility let you view all open applications and close one if it became unruly. (That wasn't as useful as it sounds, though, since most application crashes at the time took Windows down with them.)

Digital doodles

Digital doodles

We'll end our tour of 3.1 with an abstract illustration created by my brother in Paintbrush, the ancestor of today's Paint. At a time when most Windows PCs supported only 16 colors, Paintbrush functioned as a versatile Swiss Army knife for quick graphics-editing tasks.

The era of Windows 3.1 was a simpler time, but not necessarily a bad one. After all, if Windows misbehaved—and believe me, that happened a lot—you could simply quit to MS-DOS and pretend that Windows didn't exist.