Microsoft Windows 95 was a landmark piece of software in the history of personal computing. Not only was the marketing blitz itself far reaching and the media buzzing with hype, but the actual software delivered on most fronts introducing millions of people to the world of computing and eventually to their first experiences on the internet. It was during this era that Microsoft became a household name and Windows synonymous with computers as the operating system that came pre-loaded. Microsoft stock prices soared and accusations of antitrust law violations were being hurled at the company as their prominence in the collective culture continued to rise.
Although Windows 95 was widely popular among new computer users and considered a major improvement over Windows 3.1 in the office world, there was still room for improvement. One of the key issues with the operating system was the infamous “Blue Screen of Death” which occurred with infuriating regularity due to instability issues inherent in the initial release builds. Although the final release version of Windows 95 (4.0.950 C, November 26, 1997) fixed a lot of earlier problems, the ability to update software wasn’t quite as straight forward in the 1990’s as it is today. Internet use wasn’t a given and the Microsoft website often required the user to insert a Windows CD which often wasn’t included with retail PC’s. On top of that, more cash can be made with new software releases as opposed to endlessly updating and supporting prior purchases.
Therefore with much fanfare Microsoft replaced Windows 95 three years after its unveiling with Windows 98 on June 25, 1998. On the surface, Windows 98 only included minor graphical enhancements with most of the important upgrades coming “under the hood” to improve stability. Honestly I didn’t understand all of the upgrades for hardware support at the time (such as USB support, driver enhancements, ACPI support) and I dare say a large portion of the prospective buying market didn’t either. For most users the biggest difference was the integration of internet software into the operating system, most notably the inclusion of Internet Explorer 4.0.
Windows 98 also included all of the content that was previously only available with the Windows 95 Plus Pack which not only included improved Desktop Themes but the popular Space Cadet Pinball Game and system utilities such as the Task Scheduler (which I immediately turned off). Not to miss out on a sales opportunity however, Windows 98 had it’s own Plus Pack release which included additional themes, games with the notable first appearance of Spider Solitaire, screen savers, a file compression utility, an improved CD player, and McAfee VirusScan.
Enhancements aside, Windows 98 was more of an evolution of the Windows 95 operating system than a completely new release. Although it was more polished, it would be difficult for most users to notice a difference between the two operating systems in a side by side comparison. That said, I badly wanted Windows 98 upon release; not because of the improvements in stability but because I could make the title bars of the windows gradually change from one color to another and because of the quick launch bar. Awesome!
On May 5 1999, Windows 98 Second Edition was released which is the build that I eventually upgraded to. Pre-bundled with Internet Explorer 5.0 and foregoing RealPlayer for Windows Media Player, most of the improvements were again bug fixes. Windows 98 SE was extremely popular at a time when PC’s were beginning to become more affordable and the popularity of the internet began to explode at an incredible rate. I mainly remember Windows 98 SE for the product videos and bonuses I used to play with on the CD.
Having used Windows 98 from 1999 until 2004 most of my early memories of the internet were experienced through the OS leaving me with a major sense of nostalgia when I reflect upon it or hear the startup sound:
Windows 98 was the OS I was using when I was first introduced to another burgeoning website of the era; eBay. Although I was too young to sign up for my own account, I would frequently shop using an account my parents had registered and give them cash in exchange for the required money orders or personal checks needed to send the seller to have my items shipped. This is how I began collecting NES games and Coliseum Video’s. Unlike the eBay of today, it was more like the wild west. Deals could be had if you were lucky enough to stumble on an auction with a misspelling in the title. Shipping was cheap and fees were low so sellers were more willing to list items that would likely not yield much profit making the site a virtual garage sale. I recall buying an enormous box of Star Wars figures and vehicles which took up the entire back seat of my parents’ Ford Taurus. The cost of shipping? Ten dollars. The guy even shipped it prior to receiving payment because we had a solid feedback rating.
The Windows 9X family which continued to build on the Windows 95 core would see one final updated release on September 14, 2000 as Windows Millennium Edition (ME). Unlike Windows 98, Windows ME was heavily panned at release and is generally regarded as a major misstep by Microsoft who quickly worked to replace it with the more well regarded Windows XP, ending the 9X series.
Although Windows 98 did not introduce the groundbreaking elements that Windows 95 did, it refined those elements and the improvements did make setup easier for the novice user which helped to expand the proliferation of personal computers into the average home. During the late 90’s we saw the internet morph from a series of message boards which allowed post grad university students to argue about their favorite Star Trek captain into a more user friendly graphical interface. Had PC’s still required users to endlessly tinker with I/O configurations, device drivers, and jumper settings to upgrade their hardware, we would not have seen the popularity of household PC’s skyrocket. The internet could not have changed so many lives if people weren’t willing to purchase the required hardware due to frustration. Windows 98 continued to make computing more accessible to the masses which has vastly changed the world we live in today.