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Happy 23rd birthday, Windows 3.0

The OS with three different memory modes chalks up another anniversary

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This week marks the 23rd birthday of Windows 3.0, which came into this world on May 22nd, 1990, and gave the world improved colour graphics and the infamous File Manager.

Windows 3.0 was all about getting closer to Apple’s Macintosh after Windows 1.0 and 2.0 fell a long way short of Jobs and Co's WIMPy UI.

The MSDOS Executive file manager was replaced with the icon-based Program Manager alongside File Manager, greatly enhancing the user experience and giving Windows the look and feel that would persist until the advent of Windows 95.

The Control Panel was re-designed to look a lot like Apple’s and graphics were enhanced to support a whopping 16 colours.

Under the covers, performance was also improved by Gates and co. with support for the faster Intel 386 processor, helping cement the burgeoning Wintel partnership which would come to dominate the PC space for years to come.

Windows 3 and its much-improved successor 3.1 managed to ride the wave of new 386-powered PCs introduced to the market, propelling the OS to sales of 10 million copies in the first two years to become Microsoft’s most popular operating system at the time, Redmond says.

Minimum system requirements for a Windows 3.0-powered PC were MS-DOS 3.1 or later a hard drive with 6MB free space and at least 384K of RAM. The "at least" was important, because the OS had three memory modes. Real mode could run on anything up to a 286. Standard mode could handle a 286 while Enhanced mode purred when paired with a 386. The latter two modes required more than 384K.

As well as the first appearance of Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager, Windows 3 saw the introduction of popular apps Notepad and Paintbrush alongside that slacker staple Solitaire, making it increasingly popular with home users.

A new Windows SDK, meanwhile, got the developer community on board by encouraging more enthusiasts to write programs for the OS.

Windows 3.0 quickly made way for Windows 3.1, which was more stable, and Windows for Workgroups, which had far stronger networking features that made it an even bigger hit. We covered that in this 20th-birthday retrospective of the OS last year.

Have a look at this wonderfully dated video clip to see Windows systems engineer Margaret Johnson run through the operating system and its features. ®

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