Start! Me up! Windows 95 hits 20

IWindows-95n early 1995, I saw on America Online that, for $15, you could join the ‘open public beta’ program that Microsoft was starting for something called ‘Chicago’, aka the next version of Windows.  Boy, was I excited.  I eagerly handed them the money and awaited my DISKS. Yes, disks.  For another five bucks, I could get a CD ROM.  I think I did that too, I am pretty sure I did.  After two agonizing weeks, I got my disks.

I carefully backed up my Windows for Workgroups installation and files.  To TAPE.  Oh boy.  Then, following the instructions, I installed Windows 95 on my homebrew computer.  I had upgraded my memory to a full gigabyte of RAM AND had a spiffy new 500 megabyte (I think it was 500, might have been 420, not sure) hard disk and a new-ish Local Bus video card. I was ready.

The installation took several hours, but went smoothly.  That last reboot was very exciting. This Chicago thing already looked cool.  I think I had every computer magazine printed at the time, in front of me, opened to the lead articles about this Chicago thing. Since the public beta had been out for weeks or even months, the magazines had screenshots of what it looked like. It was sleek, three d like, cool iconography, and this thing called ‘START’. What the hell was that? Oh, and this other thing called ‘The Microsoft Network.’

The computer rebooted and Chicago – er, Windows 95, booted for the first time on my computer. WOW.  What was this magic?  Oh my.  It had a green desktop.  Battleship gray controls and…the START Button. I click it. Wow, my programs were listed there and some other things called shortcuts.  WFW 3.11, you are so yesterday! 

After getting to know the user interface, I immediately tried the one feature that I was dying to have:  LONG FILENAMES. Yes, the only thing that really drew me to the this new operating system were the long filenames.  I wanted ‘georges resume for 1995.doc’ instead of gresu95.doc.  I mean, really, gresu95.doc? Long filenames, to me, were the biggest improvement to Windows.  Oh, sure, there was all that stuff about new API’s, something called DirectX coming out soon, a new audio system, a new rendering engine, networking that was ‘easy’, and other cool things, but all I cared about were the long filenames.  And, they worked well.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that my Windows 3.11 applications looked like natvie Windows 95 apps and I got all giddy.  COOL! I don’t need to buy new stuff.  Well, yeah, I sort of did have to buy new stuff. Some could wait, but others could not.  None of the Windows 3.x software was long file name aware, so, I really had the same situation as before, only it looked way better now.  No problem, I bought a program that faked it for those applications and it worked well, until the database got corrupted.

My twenty bucks also got me into the Microsoft Network, aka MSN.  MSN was an America Online wannabe.  It wasn’t really. It was cool, until the beta ended and I had to pay for it. Once I got a bill, I dropped it. Wasn’t worth it and, after all, I had AOL AND Bell Atlantic dial up, so why would I need MSN?  Problem was, most people did not need or want MSN and it did not last long.

As the release date drew closer, there was a frenzy around the OS building.  The Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’ song became the Windows 95 theme, commercials abound and, OS2 Warp trying to make a big splash before Windows 95 hit shelves.  IBM’s last stand.  It failed.  OS/2 was relegated to the dust bin.  But, Windows 95? It was everywhere. Seeing that big START button on a billboard? That was cool. Hearing people talk about this Windows 95 thing was tremendous.

During this time, I entered a contest, by Microsoft, whereby I had to write about how Windows 95 changed my life.  I wrote it, took pictures of my computer running it and submitted it.  Weeks later, just prior to the launch, I was notified that I had placed in a tie with an undisclosed number of people. My prize was a legal, boxed copy of Windows 95 AND something called Windows 95 PLUS! pack.  I got both of them on launch day.

August 24, 1995.  Lines wrapping around buildings. Entire newspapers devoted to the operating system.  Product placement everywhere.  Microsoft held an event to officially kick off the OS.  On stage, Jay Leno emceed the event. He read off quotes from the testimonials-actually from the contestant entries-and I was quoted by him.  Supposedly, the essays were framed and lined halls at the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I want to think it was. Yeah, we’ll go with that.

Anyway, the hype was so great, people who did not even have a Windows computer were buying Windows 95.  That’s all you heard on the news, was this new computer program was out and would make life so much easier. While, it did make computers easier to use, I don’t know that it was killer app for life.

My favorite product placement was the Windows 95 box on Seinfeld’s desk, next to his Macintosh—which could not run PC software at that time.

Windows 95 was a huge advancement for home computers. As much as the iPhone was important for smartphones, Windows 95 introduced computing people who would not otherwise have bothered.  It took computers mainstream.  It jumpstarted careers, indeed, created an entire industry. While that industry today is changing, in 1995, it was just starting and ‘Start me up’ is, indeed, what it did. 

Looking back, I was not as excited on launch day as others were. Oh, sure, I enjoyed the day, as any geek might, but the excitement of putting the disks in the computer, following prompts, installing the OS was gone because I already experienced it, months prior to that day.  There were a few things on the shipping CD that I had not seen, mainly the two music videos-The New Bohemians and the ‘Happy Days’ video. I think there were a few games and some demos. But the core OS was the same.  No matter, I was now eager for the NEXT version, Windows 96. Only, that would be nearly three years later and called Windows 98.  But, it didn’t come close to the excitement that was Windows 95.

Yep, the Start button, fancy new themes, something called ‘Internet Explorer’ (which was on the Plus! pack) and the Long FileNames. Those were killer.  Oh, sure, having Leno quote ME, a shmoe from Richmond, Virginia, well, that was OK too.

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Happy Birthday, BASIC, you wonderful language you!

I remember when I was ten or so years old. I asked my father a question that changed both of our lives. My Dad was an engineer. He was also what we would consider now to be a nerd. A geek.  Above all, though, he was very smart and he was MY Dad.  He could build anything out of what seemed to be random little bits of stuff.  To a ten year old, it was akin to magic.

So, what was that question?

“Dad, what’s a computer and how does it work?”

He didn’t give me a whole answer right away. If I remember, it was something like ‘a machine that can think, sort of.’ ‘Lets find out.’

Weeks later, he started getting packages. Those packages contained the magic wand, magic dust and … paper. Manuals, to be specific.

Out of those packages, my Dad built the Mark IV Mini-Computer, as written about in Radio-Electronics Magazine.  Now, this computer was primitive, even then. Something like 128 bytes of memory, which he expanded to 1K or something like that.  Anyway, that computer didn’t  answer our question.

So, he built another. And another.  That third computer, based on the Signetics 2650 microprocessor, was THE ticket.  This computer, had lots of memory (4K?) and, most importantly, had a keyboard and tv like screen. Oh, this thing called ‘Tiny Basic’.

I was hooked.  I eagerly soaked in all I could about this ‘Tiny Basic.’  I quickly learned that there were LOTS of Tiny Basics and even something just called ‘BASIC.’  So, what was this ‘BASIC’?

Simply put, BASIC was (well, IS) a computer programming language. And, during the 1970’s, it was pretty much the only way someone like myself could interact with the computer. It was easy to learn and use. I was typing in programs from my Dad’s books and magazine, having to alter them to work with the primitive version I had to use.  One day, I decided to start writing my own.  Finally, we had our answer. Collectively, we figured out what these computers were and what one could do with them. My Dad tackled the hardware, I tackled the software and, in the process, laid the foundation for my career.

And, it was all because of BASIC.

BASIC, developed in 1964 at Dartmouth University by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz. BASIC was designed for teaching the fundamentals of programming and to make the computer more accessible to non-programmer types.  It slowly grew out of Dartmouth and, by 1970, had spread all over the country.  It gained so much popularity, that it caught the eye and wrath of many professional who held it high in disdain. No matter, the genie was out of the bottle.

In the early 1970’s, when microprocessors became affordable and home computers took off, others were writing dialects of the language to run on these tiny machines.  The most notable being Micro-Soft Basic, co-developed by Bill Gates and Paul Allen and sold by MITS for the Altair computer. Unfortunately, it was priced so high that a black market for the language began, prompting a whiny ‘don’t copy our software’ letter from Bill Gates.  Whiny, but necessary. Software piracy was a huge deal at the time.

Around 1975-76, another dialect of the language came out and this one was affordable. Tiny Basic was a grass roots effort to develop the language so that it would work in very small memory footprints and on pretty much any computer.  Numerous version were released by companies and individuals.  Tom Pittman’s Tiny Basic was probably the most notable, followed by Lawrence Livermore Labs.  Oh, and the one that Steve Wozniak wrote for the Apple ][.

Kemeny and Kurtz hated the versions of their language for microcomputers, especially those of the ‘Tiny’ variety and anything out of Micro-Soft.  See, Micro-Soft, soon to be Microsoft, supplied a version of the language for pretty much all of the big commercial home computers: Apple, Atari, Tandy, Commodore, TI, Mattel and more.  Kemeny and Kurtz wanted to reel it back in with ‘True Basic’. Unfortunately, they discovered it was not that easy to do.

As time went on, however, the language grew and became a powerhouse for professional developers thanks to the efforts of Microsoft.

Microsoft included QBasic in its DOS product. They also had QuickBasic, which could compile code into true executables. For professional development, they had the Professional Development System, sort of a forerunner to todays Visual Studio product, only it was DOS based and character mode.

In the early nineties, they introduced Visual Basic, a Windows programming environment.  Shortly afterwards, Visual Basic for MSDOS was released. I had the opportunity to develop with this version for about two years. It was such a difference from what I was used to: object oriented and event driven. Suddenly, I had to think in terms of USER control of the application and not vice-versa.  It really opened my eyes as to how truly interactive computers could be.  Its overlapping text mode windows, mouse and relational database allowed me to create some really nice front end software for the video rental chain that employed me. It was a treat.

VBDOS didn’t live long.  Time and technology quickly outdated it.  VB for Windows evolved.  VB6 became THE development platform.  VB.NET was the future. Or, so we thought.

Microsoft’s run in with Sun Microsystems over Java led to the creation of C#: a modern programming language that was modeled after java with roots in C.  Interesting combo, but it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Microsoft was just trying to rattle Sun’s chains. That was my thinking. Boy, was I wrong.  Soon, the call for C# was on the rise while VB waned.

While BASIC no longer has the draw or the need, it is still there.  There’s a growing rank of people who are using as a hobby language again.  VBScript and VBA continue to dominate in the scripting arena. You really cannot beat it to do quick, repetitive tasks. It is great for automating mundane things.

And, Tiny Basic has made a come back of sorts. It is used on microcontrollers like the BasicStamp, Arduino and the PIC family of controllers.

While many probably wished it had died fifty years ago on May 1, it is far from death. In fact, this post is a celebration of not only its birthday, but the life it gave to an entire industry and its active future. 

I can’t say how much I owe this terrific language, it is truly immense. My life has been driven by many things, but I’d say BASIC was right up there with my parents and family as the most influential thing in my life.

Happy Birthday, BASIC!