What can we learn from software history?
On August 24th 1995, Microsoft released Windows 95 and it was absolutely mental. The world, quite simply, had never seen anything like it. It was Microsoft's iPhone moment and did exactly for them as the iPhone did for Apple - made them the biggest company in the world. Microsoft were richer than oil companies, banks and... some countries.
People actually stood outside shops in huge queues at midnight to buy Windows 95 (and you thought this only happened for Apple products). They even hired the cast of Friends to make an hour long instructional video on how it worked. Its hilariously bad and you should watch it by clicking here...
Microsoft supplied people with packs so they could have Windows 95 launch parties. Seriously, they did.
The Rolling Stones even made a reported 8 million dollars so Microsoft could use one of their worst songs as the music to the TV advert.
You may not have had a PC in your home in 1995, I certainly didn't, but regardless you really did know that Windows 95 was being released. It was, quite literally, everywhere.
You don't really need an iPhone or an Apple Watch, but it's highly likely when you didn't have one that you wanted one anyway. This is the genius of marketing, selling us things in such a way that even though we don't need one to live our lives, we want one anyway because we truly believe it will change the way we live. This is exactly what happened with Windows 95.
I can remember vividly talking to the one and only teacher in my secondary school that understood computing (he also ran the network) about it. We were about to get about 50 new computers, Pentium 166MMX with 32mb of RAM and Windows 95! I was excited and I didn't even understand why. As an aside, this was at a time when the technician at my school wore a white lab coat, like computers were some kind of secret, magic scientific experiment. The whole setup was quite amusing looking back.
Computing certainly wasn't new in 1995, but really there wasn't any kind of defined, world wide accepted standard. Without standards there will always be a struggle to educate people - which platform do you decide to learn? Which one should you use?
Computers were also still eye wateringly expensive, easily £1500 for a basic model. Most computers of the time were 486 machines running at about 66 - 100Mhz with 4-8mb of RAM. Windows 95 needed 16 to run relatively smoothly and this was a big deal because 8mb of EDO RAM at the time was a significant chunk of cash...
Consequently, PC's weren't really that popular in homes and you certainly didn't need one to get by, do your homework or browse a fledgling internet. Have a look at this graph from the National Statistics Office:
The graph shows the rise of home computing that I've talked about in a previous post, but it was relatively steady and quite stagnant until 1995, then look what happens - very suddenly the uptake of home computers goes through the roof. It's interesting as an aside to note that even in 2010, 20% of households reported owning no computer equipment, which is staggering when you think about it, but also goes to show why you shouldn't presume everyone has access to technology.
This up turn in the graph is, quite simply, the "Windows 95 Effect." Suddenly, because of a piece of software, you realised you needed a PC.
Microsoft had realised that computers were hard to use and needed to be simplified and this thing called the internet was coming...
Take a look at this:
This is Windows 3.1 - the predecessor to 95. I seriously doubt you'll ever have used it - French air traffic control still do, but that's another story. If you want, you can actually try it out in your web browser here and get a feeling for how awesome owning a 486 was back in the day - click here to try it out.
Windows 3 itself was a huge leap forward, but the world didn't take much notice. It wasn't great, the idea was to make DOS a bit more bearable. It was 16 bit (limited) and crashtastic. Even so, it was far more user friendly than a command line interface and allowed more people to just get things done, which is the whole point in having a machine - right?
Why did people get so excited about Windows 95, then?
Well, because it genuinely was a huge, huge leap forwards in so many areas. Like the micro computer, Nintendo Wii, iPod, iPhone to name a few, it did something truly new, truly revolutionary that changed the way people looked at hardware and, also, changed their expectations forever.
The Wii sold millions of units to older people because it was just so easy to use and found a niche in exercise and other physical games. No one had ever opened this door before. The iPhone was the same, suddenly people realised what a smartphone should be, but more than that, it introduced a whole new way of working that was so simple anyone from a 2 year old to your grandmother could use it. Again, this was all new.
The things that make a piece of software, or indeed hardware, such a big deal are surprisingly simple:
The only problem is, these things are actually incredibly difficult to achieve and are often reached by accident or curiosity rather than by design. Take Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin just joked about what would happen if they tried to download the whole internet, then they did. Then they changed the world and became billionaires.
Windows 95 introduced the following ideas:
Every single one of these was a big deal on their own, put them all together in one go and you begin to understand why it was such a monumental event.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't perfect. You would have to reinstall it almost weekly and it would crash if you even thought about doing something it didn't like. Sometimes it would just crash because it was bored.
However, fast forward 21 years and what's different?
Those fundamental design ideas haven't gone anywhere. In fact,, the start menu was such a big deal that when it disappeared in Windows 8, they had to bring it back again.
Of course, there have been improvements, least of all is stability. When Windows 2000 came along it was a revelation - you could leave your computer on all week and it would still work, which really was something of a novelty. Windows 98 was so buggy it needed fumigating and Microsoft released a second edition very quickly before users dropped it in their thousands. Windows 2000 wasn't even meant for home users but thousands made the switch when they realised how good it could be. Oh, and they'd upgraded their RAM again, of course!
Windows has reached and passed its maturity stage and is now in decline. No longer is the desktop or laptop the computing device of choice and you are far more likely to use Android or IOS to do your daily web browsing or YouTube watching. No longer is each release a big deal. I stopped getting excited by new versions of Windows at XP, especially when Microsoft planned a stunningly brilliant release (Longhorn, if you're interested) and then ditched literally all of it and released Vista, which is the most appalling piece of software ever written. It was at that point (2005 ish) that Microsoft lost control of the computer market.
Why did this happen? Well, its typical of any product lifecycle, but ever more so in computing. Around once every 10 years something amazing comes along which is then adopted by world + dog. Then begins a constant cycle of upgrades that don't add a great deal other than colour changes, new icons and a feature or two, but nothing which really blows your socks off after the third version (think about what's amazing from iPhone 4 onwards - not a great deal). Then begins a decline in interest before the next big thing.
In our recent past there has been Windows, Apple, Google and Facebook. The biggest problem for all of these is that they're mature, they're out of ground breaking ideas and no one, not even these huge companies have the faintest idea what the next big thing will be - they guessed at smart watches and that hasn't happened yet. The interesting thing is, whatever it is has just been thought up by someone and is about to happen...
So what can we learn from software development? From great ideas comes great software (given a chance), then comes improvement, refinement and mass adoption. Then... Well, inevitably they either miss the boat completely or ruin it. Look at Microsoft Office, I'm willing to bet every single one of you could use Office 1997 and have no issues at all. Microsoft are so desperate now their idea of a new version of office is to give you your colours back (why did they think we all want to work in dull tones of grey??) and change the menu text from lower case to all upper case. There's progress for you.
Not to mention Jonny Ive's appalling IOS7 which saw him take a set of highlighter pens to everything.
Everything you currently know will be nothing in 10 years time. What comes next... well, I'm excited to find out, it's time for something new and brilliant.
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