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RIP Windows 3.1

When I read the news that Microsoft was officially ending the licensing of Windows 3.x earlier this month, my first surprised thought was: Microsoft still licenses Windows 3.x?

Windows 3.x, of course, was the last 16-bit operating environment designed to run atop the DOS operating system. Windows 3.0 was introduced in 1990 and it quickly captured broad market share for the struggling brand. Several updates, including Windows 3.1, Windows 3.11 and Windows for Workgroups, would follow over the next four years. By 1995, that run was over, as the vastly successful Windows 95 operating system introduced 32-bit computing to the consumer desktop.

But Windows 3.x wasn't dead. Far from it, the little operating environment that could continued to churn away in businesses and homes for years. Microsoft provided support for Windows 3.x through 2001, at which point the writing was on the wall for most client deployments -- it was high time to high-tail it over to Windows XP and its far more stable and capable, NT-derived, pure-32-bit code base.

And still, like William Shatner's improbable career, Windows 3.x continued to live on. As BBC News' Mark Ward reported, cash registers, ticketing systems, in-flight entertainment systems and sundry other embedded applications made use of the remarkable software that helped launch a juggernaut.

Today, Windows 3.x is a dim memory. And yet, it remains an archetype in the Microsoft pantheon. Its look and feel drove user interface design at Microsoft for years, and still lingers on millions of XP-based PCs. And the product's delayed-action success -- breaking through only on the third version -- established a well-earned industry meme that major Microsoft products take two, three or four versions before they can be considered mature and successful.

Heck, MSN is still trying to break through.

The passing of Windows 3.x honestly doesn't mean much. But it does beg the question: What were you doing in development when Windows 3.x was gracing everyone's desktop? E-mail me at [email protected] and tell your tales of writing software for Win3x.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 11/06/2008

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