Remembering Windows 3.1: The Beginning of the Windows Era

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Windows 3.1's startup screen

My fellow eHow writers have remembered the Commodore 64 and looked back at the Commodore Amiga. I suppose I’m a bit younger — the first PC I used came with DOS, and I remember typing commands to run programs and launch DOS games — mostly the games. Windows 3.1 was my first introduction to Windows and a graphical computer desktop.

Windows 3.0 was technically the first big consumer version of Windows, but Windows 3.1 is very similar and was the first version of Windows I used as a kid.

Windows 3.1 Was a DOS Program

Windows 3.1 was a bit weird because it wasn’t an operating system like we’d think of it today. DOS was the operating system. To run Windows 3.1, you booted into your DOS environment and ran the win command at a DOS prompt. Sure, you could set up your computer to automatically run the command when it started and go straight to the Windows desktop, but DOS was always running underneath.

In fact, there was a File, Exit Windows option on the Windows desktop you could use. This allowed you to leave Windows and get back to DOS for maximum compatibility with your DOS applications.

The Exit Windows option in Windows 3.1

The Program Manager and Graphical Windows

Windows 3.1 had one thing in common with Windows 8 today — it didn’t have a Start menu. The Start menu would arrive in Windows 95 along with Microsoft’s “Start Me Up” advertisement campaign.

Instead, it used the “Program Manager” interface. The Program Manager was a sort of desktop window. It contained program icons organized into program groups. Each program group had an icon in the Program Manager that could be double-clicked to view the programs inside it. They worked a bit like the desktop folders we have today.

This interface was a big change at the time. Just click to view and launch applications — no more remembering and typing commands!

The Program Manager in Windows 3.1

All applications could be controlled with the mouse. Each one had standard window buttons that allowed you to easily close and minimize them. You could also have multiple windows open at once, using multiple applications without resorting to DOS’s hacky terminate-and-stay-resident functions. Programs could share your computer and its resources rather than demanding your full screen and your system’s entire attention.

The Paintbrush program in Windows 3.1

What more is there to say about Windows 3.1? When I look back at it, I don’t remember any particularly iconic programs — aside from Microsoft Word for Windows, the graphical evolution of Microsoft’s DOS-based word processor that’s still popular today. What I do remember was the interface itself. It was such a huge leap forward from DOS. It straddled the old world of DOS and the new world of Windows that would mature in Windows 95.

Honestly, there’s nothing too special about Windows 3.1. Many people had their first experiences with graphical desktops with Mac OS, or with AmigaOS. But I used Windows 3.1 before I used anything else, and I still remember graduating from the DOS prompt to a graphical desktop today. Windows 3.1 was where it all began for me and for many other PC users who had only used DOS before it. It began the chain of consumer Windows operating systems that continued through Windows 95, 98, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8, and 8.1 today.

The File Manager program in Windows 3.1

Play With It Yourself

But why reminisce when you can go back and use the software? Obviously, you’re not going to install Windows 3.1 on a modern PC and use it as your operating system — but you can still play with it.

To experience the Windows 3.1 interface in your browser without installing anything, visit MichaelV’s Windows 3.1 simulator. This simulator isn’t perfectly identical. It’s not the real Windows 3.1 operating system; it’s just an imitation designed to run in a browser. Yet, it will let you experience how Windows 3.1 worked.

If you’re a geek who really wants to use the real Windows 3.1, you’ll need to install it in DOSBox or a virtual machine program like VirtualBox. You’ll need a bit more technical know-how for this. You’ll also need some Windows 3.1 installation floppy disks, which are still copyrighted by Microsoft. While you can easily find them online, you aren’t technically allowed to download them, so do so at your own risk.

Image Credit: Microsoft

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