Skip to comments.Windows 3.1 rebooted: Microsoft's DOS destroyer turns 20
Posted on 04/06/2012 10:30:40 AM PDT by ShadowAce
Yes it crashed a lot. It crashed less than its predecessor though, and kept Microsoft on the path to desktop domination. This was Windows 3.1, released on 6 April 1992, nearly two years after Windows 3.0 was pushed out in May 1990.
Minimum system requirements are MS-DOS 3.1 or later, 2MB RAM, and a hard drive with 6MB free. This means a modern PC with, say, 2GB of RAM exceeds the minimum requirements by around 1,000 times.
The improvements in Windows 3.1 were incremental rather than dramatic, though Microsoft claimed there were altogether over 1,000 changes. The user interface is the same as 3.0, but 3.1 supports TrueType scalable fonts, enabling desktop publishing applications to work without Adobe Type Manager. Support for x86 Real mode was removed, multimedia extensions were added, windowed DOS applications supported graphics, and 32-bit disk access in 386 enhanced mode offered faster hard drive performance through bypassing the BIOS. SmartDrive 4.0 disk caching gave 3.1 a further performance boost.
Word for Windows 2.0 a great word processor
Overall, Windows 3.1 worked substantially better than Windows 3.0, winning over DOS diehards and providing a platform for a ton of compelling applications. It was long-lived, and many did not bother to upgrade until Windows 95 appeared over three years later. Windows NT, released in July 1993, was technically a huge improvement, but heavy system requirements along with compatibility issues deterred upgrades.
Twenty years on, what better time to fire up the code with a trip down I/O lane?
Windows 3.1 is no longer available on Microsoft's download sites MSDN and TechNet, though you can get its later variant Windows for Workgroups 3.11. Our copy came from some ancient original floppy disks that surprisingly are still readable.
I loaded it into Oracle's Virtual Box emulator, which runs it reasonably well if you can put up with the mouse jumping around randomly on occasion.
Running Windows 3.1 now is thought-provoking. Some aspects are impressive. The Microsoft Office software of the era Word 2.0 and Excel 4.0 is excellent. The speed and capability of Word 2.0 in just 4MB RAM is depressing: what have we done with all the storage and processing power that has come to us since?
I had intended to write this review using Word 2.0 but things didn't quite work out as planned. It proved tricky to prise my words from the VM because the clipboard didn't work properly with the VM host, while writing to the floppy drive proved a challenge. Not a priority for me here.
Word 2.0 does serve to remind you, though, just how this version of Microsoft's signature app is lacking the bloat that afflicts today's Office applications and yet is still a mature product. Word 2.0 comes with spell-check, thesaurus, grammar checking, indexing and tables of contents, rich graphical formatting, paragraph styles, charts, footnotes, fields, macro programming with WordBasic and much more.
Working with Microsoft's old operating system, it was also fun to run up Visual Basic 1.0 released in 1991 on just three 720K floppy disks. With VB anyone could write a Windows application. Then, as now, it was applications that defined the success of an operating system, and it was obvious that Windows had all the momentum both for internal and shrink-wrap software.
Visual Basic 1.0 enabled Windows programming for everyone
Programming Windows with C or C++ was hard, but the flat memory model and operating system services for printing and graphics solved so many problems for developers that it was worth the effort of struggling with arcane concepts like GDI mapping modes, and the limitations of non-preemptive multitasking, which meant that badly behaved applications could seize up Windows.
Annoyances also abound. My first go at installing Word for Windows 2.0 failed on a clean install with an Insufficient memory or disk space error. A dusty memory floated up to the surface, prompting me to exit Windows and run Memmaker, following which it all started working.
A typical error message said you lacked memory when you had plenty installed
Hitting Save for the first time in Word is revealing. The location defaults to c:\winword, which is the application directory. There is no Program Files nor My Documents. Every user had to devise their own organisation schemes. At the time it did not seem to matter much, but the intermingling of user data and application binaries, and the way application installs can trample over operating system files, made Windows hard to secure and hard to keep stable. It was poor design, for which Microsoft and its users paid a heavy price in subsequent decades.
Program Manager is another irritation. Users rarely found it easy to navigate. Another common problem was that users would lose one application behind another, presume it had closed, and then launch a further instance. This might continue over the day until Windows ran out of memory.
Savvy users knew about alt-tab of course, and did not have this problem, but Microsoft did not come up with a satisfactory user interface for multiple overlapping windows until Windows 95. Win 95 had a taskbar, making it easy to see what was running as well as to switch between applications.
It is an interesting thought as the launch of Windows 8 approaches. Windows 8 in Metro mode has lost the taskbar, and once again alt-tab is the best way to switch between applications, which makes you wonder if a lesson has been forgotten.
The Windows 3.1 desktop showing Program Manager
Charles Petzold, in his 1992 book Programming Windows 3.1, remarks that:
Windows now forms the center of Microsofts strategy for operating systems. Microsoft has targeted Windows for everything from small, hand-held, stylus-based machines to powerful RISC workstations.
The benefit of 20 years of hindsight shows how right and how wrong Petzold was in his pronouncement. He was correct about the strategy, but he did not foresee how Microsoft would struggle to adapt the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) design of Windows to work well on a hand-held device.
in 1992, Microsoft had around 11,000 employees and executed its desktop Windows strategy to perfection. Today it has more than 90,000, but keeping Windows on top and application developers happy will be a harder task than it was 20 years ago. ®
Office 2010 is bloatware. Almost any and every app takes 5 minutes to load.
Try copying shapes from one app to another in shape form (something you could do through 2007) — it defaults to metafiles which suck.
I wanted to export an mppx to xlsx yesterday — by the time I was done answer all the “wizard” questions, 10 minutes had gone by and the guy I was doing it for just write down the information into a legal pad.
That is only the beginning of the list of suckeosity I can produce on request.
“I still use the Cardfile program that came with Win 3.1. Believe it or not it works fine on XP.”
That’s kind of funny. There are so many apps that don’t work well with the never ending newer versions of windows. However, I was at one of our plants in Maryland recently, talking to the line manager. My eyes keep drifting to some charts and graphs on his desk. I finally can’t take it anymore and pick the reports up. Turns out they were reports generated from a program I had written for Windows 3.1 in 1993 in Borland Turbo C, while I was an engineer at a remote plant in Nevada. I was stunned, as it was running just dandy on windows 7. It was written in the days of dot matrix printers, and the charts and graphs were crisp and perfect printed on modern color printers. I have no idea where they got the program.
>>Or if they used assembler,<<
Z-80 assembler! Man, I loved that one! Talk about the ability to do tight coding...
“Aces over the Pascific”
lol, I wish!
I was still using “Tank” and then having to delete it to play a different game “Gunship 2000”.
I had like 100 MB total on that old Tandy 486SX, 25 mhz processor. I had to upgrade from about 2MB of RAM to 28MB and added a new soundcard and a new modem 33.6 kpbs.
I thought it was awesome at the time. I was poor, so by then everyone else was moving to the 90mhz Pentiums.
Nice flashback. I remember spending an entire day trying to get a mouse driver to work at the computer shop I worked at, and another guy working on EDSI graphics drivers, and another doing a Spinrite test on a gimped 40mb hard disk. Those were the days...the days I saved my cash to buy my first real computer from my earnings - a Mac //cx with a 40Mb hard disk and state of the art 1.44mb floppy disk drive. I actually bought a box of 10 floppies with my hard earned cash to get a box of those floppies and show off to my Sacramento MUPT friends that were doing the Atari Midi Maze gatherings.
Our Sacramento MUPTs were so awesome.
>>Office 2010 is bloatware. Almost any and every app takes 5 minutes to load.
You need to upgrade from your PII-400.
Heck, I’ve got an older corporate laptop and it does fine there. It is quite nice on my faster home machines.
Back in the day I liked Win 3.11 WFW since it worked with the Internet including web browsers. Also backing up the hard drive was simple since there was no extended file-names yet. But with the extended file-names, it is painful to do a backup. Usually if the drive goes out, this entails having to reload the software instead of a simple restore from tape.
I have a VM Ware drive setup w/ DOS 6.22 and Win 3.11 WFW. I have it set with Netscape 1.0 where it runs, the “N” is like a beating heart !
Man, the VB 1.0 screen brought back memories. I purchased VB 1.0 the week it was released. It was part of the beginning of the visual development paradigm and spread quickly. I was truly amazed at how quickly I could develop applications and it was capable of far more than it was rated to do. A contractor I worked with used VB 1.0 to develop a very sophisticated LAN sniffer application and another app that captured and collected raw satellite feeds for display and manipulation. He did all of this in just five days time from the day we installed the package. I still have a box stored away that has Win 3.1 and VB 1.0 on it. I wish I had the time to drag it out and fire it up again.
I’ve been using Visio and Word since the mid-1980’s. I can only say that after my initial frustration with this being a significant change in the user interface, I went from hating it to loving it.
Maybe it’s just me.
I had Netscape 1.22!!
I find the combination of Windows 7 and Office 97 to be excellent.
I bought Office 97 with a student discount and have installed it on every operating system since then. Win 7 is the most stable so far. I am dreading the day when it won’t install on a new OS. I do have a copy of Office 2003 stashed for that eventuality.
>>You need to upgrade from your PII-400.<<
Sometimes it seems like I have a TRS-80 and am loading from a cassette tape.
I have a corporate-issued fully-loaded Dell E4310 — memory at max (4G), plenty of available disk, math co-processor, bitslice enabled, DOS partition set at 64K, FAT turned on (OK, all the last are just old Windows jokes)...
But it is the latest and greatest and Office 2010 still drags it down lower than moochele at a Hawaiian buffet.
I still have copies of Windows and VB in shrink wrap. I’ll take what we have today over all that but it sure was fun and interesting times. I probably made more money and had better times then than I do now. Then it felt new and exciting while today things are serious and, well, boring.
But my Word Perfect 8 runs very well on them.
You should have jacked him up for a fiver for the rights to use it.
Windows 3.1 was not a true operating system (OS) It was an “operating environment” containing a graphical user interface (GUI), which sat on top of DOS, making it easier for the human user to interface with the computer. DOS still performed the underlying functions of the OS.
Windows 95 was the first true non-DOS Microsoft OS.
I’m trying to remember whether it was XP or Vista, Office 97 loaded fine but would tell me there was a problem with one of the files when I started the program. Closing the error box and moving on never seemed to be an issue, it ran fine despite the warning.
I’m running Office 97 at home on Win 7 with no problems.
Have you removed the trial version of Office on your computer?
Linux is cool b/c the older your hardware, the better it runs.
But my HW is corporate-issued and I like to keep my home machines compatible for a lot of practical reasons.
When I am ready to retire the desktop at home I will probably install Linux, which is a great OS that I loved working with (I am a secret overnight shell scripter).
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