Windows 3.1x: How Microsoft introduced the world to computing in the early ‘90s.

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Where were you in the early 90s? More specifically 1992, yes, that is over 29 years ago. That is when Microsoft introduced us to the click–drag-drop kind of life. A life that we have lived to be dependent on over 3 decades later.

In the early 90s, technology was rapidly developing all over the world. The Silicon Valley giants were working overtime to beat each other in releasing the latest piece of technology that they thought will change the way we lived. It is around this time that Microsoft made some big changes in the user interface and the working of their already popular Microsoft Windows operating system.

Windows 10 as we know it today, was designed on the basis of Windows 3.1x. That simply illustrates how far technology has come. And the evolution of technology has been changing since then, with massive improvement additions throughout the decades. Recently, the operating systems have received a major transition from just point and click as many techs first are venturing into voice-activated technology. This is the necessary step in the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) which is the direction in which all the technology development is heading.

Back in March of 1992, Microsoft began selling the new 16-bit operating system Windows 3.1 which was the successor of Windows 3. Before the days of the Start Menu, Microsoft had an app called the Program Manager which was introduced back in Windows 3 which allowed users to launch other programs without using the command line. Multitasking was also supported in Windows 3.1. Users could use the task list to switch between applications and the tasks even had an option to tile applications and this is similar to how we look at windows snap in newer versions of windows.
This menu provided access to the task list or users could press ctrl-ESC as a keyboard shortcut. Other Apps such as Windows Write were included with Windows 3.1 which offered basic Word Processing capabilities. Windows 3.1 also ushered in the TrueType era for Windows. Windows 3.1 also came with the paint program although what is know as paint today, was known as paintbrush back in the days. Since windows were making its way to Personal computers, Microsoft wanted to make the system easy to use.

Microsoft Windows 3.1 had a clearer interface compared to other versions of windows, but they included some very useful tutorials that helped users learn how to use the environment. And if you are lost using the Help application, you could get it at the top tab with a “how to use the help”. Just in case. And of course, what would Windows be without fun colors to customize their environment? Windows offered a pallet with different shades of colors.

How about getting a Windows 3.1 laptop in the 21st Century?
If you miss the retro look and feel of Windows 3.1, then you should get one. These systems have been archives in many parts of the world. But you can still get a few Windows 3.1 laptops in some select shops and online stores that keep retro gadgets.

Well, it will not be of any productive use to you other than getting the retro-feel of what people used before the advanced piece of technology that you are currently using was invented. The machines were big and the laptops were thick with a blazing Pentium 90 Mhz processor, 40 MB RAM, and a 1MB graphic card. The had a 640 by 480 LCD display, Dual PCMCIA expansion slots, and a 32 GB solid-state drive. Such devices were a gem back then.

The systems were good at running the triple-A (AAA) titles 3 decades ago. Owning such a laptop or desktop computer running on Windows 3.1 can be a nostalgic and truly retro thing to do. I wish I could get one myself. I have placed an order on Craigslist from someone who was disposing of the junks in his backyard. He happened to have this 90s gem. Am not sure how the condition will be when he finally ships it to me.

Windows was the best operating system at the time with other competing Operating Systems (OS) like Linux and Macintosh slowly coming up. Microsoft was of course ahead of the pack with their innovative products at the time and easily adaptable operating system. Windows was designed to be the perfect companion as a personal computer for home use. It was the best fit for both office and home use since it was easy to operate with a simple and engaging user interface. Not forgetting that third-party apps like Adobe Photoshop could be run on Windows 3.1 and you could actually make some nice artwork using them.

The Background History of the Windows 3.1.
The development of Windows 3.1 to succeed Windows 3.1 started way back. A lot has changed since its first release, in terms of usability, GUI, operability, and speeds of operation. But how did it all start?

Let’s start from the top...

What is Windows 3.1x?
Windows 3.1 is a 16-bit series of Microsoft-generated operating environments that was released on April 6th, 1992 for personal computers. The series was started with Windows 3.1, which preceded Windows 3.0 in April 1992. From 1992 to 1993, the following version, in particular, Windows 3.11 was released before the Windows 9x series was superseded by Windows 95 in 1995.
Windows 3.1 OS saw lots of improvements to the MS-DOS-based platform over its entire life cycle including enhanced device stability, increased multimedia support, TrueType fonts, and networking of a workgroup.

Windows 3.1 support was official terminated on 31st December of 2001. However, OEM licensing on embedded systems for Windows for Workgroups 3.11 continued until the 1st of November 2008. The backward compatibility of older Windows platforms was the big plus for Windows 3.1. As with Windows 3.0, File Manager and Program Manager have version 3.1, but Windows 3.1 does not work in real mode, unlike previous versions. Minesweeper was included to substitute Reversi. Although Reversi still featured in some copies of Windows that were released.

How different was Windows 3.1x from windows 3.0?
Image courtesy: Habr
The real mode support for Windows 3.1 was dropped, and the system required at least 1 MB of RAM from a 286 PC. This increased system stability over Windows 3.0 which was prone to crashing. Some older features have been withdrawn, such as support for CGA graphics and real mode Windows 2.x applications. CGA driver from Windows 3.0 is still working on Windows 3.1.

If installed with the VGA display driver, Windows 3.1 will run in Standard mode. Only 386 enhanced modes is used when equipped with a high resolution/ high color engine. Added support for Truetype font that provides Windows apps with scalable fonts without having to use a third-party font technology like adobe Type manager.

Also, Windows 3.1 featured standard, bold, italic, and bold-italic fonts, Arial Courier New and Times New Roman, as well as icons, which were at the time (and still are) a collection of scalable symbols depending on the calling application, Truetype fonts can be scaled to any size and even rotated.

Windowed DOS applications were given 386 enhanced modes for the software user, provided the DOS application supported mice, the ability to use a Windows mouse pointer to handle menus and other objects. Windows Clipboard may have access to certain DOS programs, including late Microsoft Word releases. Windows’ own drivers did not operate on DOS applications directly; hardware like mice needed to load a DOS driver before starting Windows.

In addition to a more detailed look, icons could be dragged around and dropped for the first time in Windows 3.1. A file could be dragged on to the Print Manager icon and the file is printed on the printer as long as the program like a word processor has been connected to it. Alternatively, the file can be removed from the File Manager and dropped into a processing program icon or window.

Windows 3.0 had a small memory of 16MB, whereas Windows 3.1 could access the enhanced model of the theoretical 4GB in 386. The ceiling at the time was 256MB. However, only 16MB can be used for a single operation. In Windows 3.0 the file manager was enhanced significantly. Multimedia support was improved by Multimedia Extensions available in Windows 3.0 which were also made available to users of Windows 3.1.

The 720KB, 1.2 MB, and 1.44 MB distribution systems for Windows 3.1 were also provided. This was also the first CDROM version of Windows but for Workgroups 3.11 it was popular for Windows. The hard disk size installed was from 10MB to 15MB. Windows 3.1 used a 32-bit drive safe mode driver instead of the 16-bit BIOS function which saw it have improved performance compared to when it was running on a 386 Enhanced mode only. This necessitates Windows temporarily dropping out of protected mode.

Also, Windows 3.1 used a calendar with the .cal filename extension and introduced a centralized database, Windows registry, which can store configurations and datasets for different components and applications of the operating system. Windows 3.1 was the first version that was also capable (by of starting Windows programs.

Windows for workgroups is a Windows extension for Windows 3.1 that allowed users to share resources and request those of others without a centralized authentication server. It was made of SMB protocol over the NetBIOS. They fall into several types: Windows for Workgroups 3.1 and WG for 3.11.

New Features of Windows 3.1
Here are some of the unique features that came with Windows 3.1, which made it stand out from previous operating systems like the MS-DOS:

  • The Graphic User Interface (GUI) of Windows 3.1 was designed to display apps that can be resized and organized in any way in individual windows.
  • The Virtual memory of the Windows 3.1 systems, a swap between RAM and disk space, was a new technique that tremendously increased the number of applications that could be run on Win 3.1 simultaneously.
  • Windows 3.1 came equipped with a user interface that could easily be customized using UI components such as color, scheme, font, windows, and variable mouse configurations.
  • Sharing of data through Dynamic Data Exchange and object connection and embedding applications DDE (OLE).
  • Windows 3.1 had TrueType fonts, shown in WYSIWYG mode and available in different sizes.
  • Software independence, which makes writing programs easier for hardware manufacturers.
  • File manager and Print manager utilities are some of the new additions that allowed the system to access shared disks and printers.
The structure and design of Windows 3.1 Operating System.

Windows 3.1 was an MS-DOS-based, 16-bit co-operative graphics operating system that executes architecture similarities to the original MS-DOS. The multi-layered architecture of Windows 3.1 is comprised of three components, namely:

  • A Windows application programming interface (also known as API) that makes developers’ Windows programs smaller by relieving them of the burden of needing to know about the lower levels of the operating system and how it is configured, or how the drivers are implemented.
  • When you expand the middle layer, you will have Windows components and extensions. The Operating system is built on three primary parts. The three main building blocks constitute the main operating system i.e: Krnl386.exe, User.exe, Gdi.exe
  • Krnl386.exe – Used to administer basic operating system functions like managing memory, process, and thread scheduling, and I/O management.
  • User.exe – handles user input and output devices like keyboard and mouse, and has a library that keeps track of all the elements in the OS/Windows, dialog boxes, and menus.
  • Gdi.exe – Handles the design of the drawing screens, graphics and print operations. An optional feature of the core OS components includes dynamic-link libraries (DLLs) that add supplementary features to the Windows environments, like multimedia support and DDE. The operating system is made flexible through the use of dynamic link libraries and therefore makes it possible for software manufacturers to build custom software that can add new features. When a certain application calls a certain function, it improves memory use by making sure that only required DLLs are loaded.
Modes of Operation of Windows 3.1
Windows 3.1 Operating system had two modes of operation:

  • Standard Mode – Here, an operating system does not use virtual memory and cannot perform multitasking with MS-DOS applications. Windows apps can only run in the full-view mode in the MS-DOS environment.
  • 386 Enhanced Mode – in order to be used, this program requires an intel 386 or higher processor with support for Virtual memory and supports running MS-DOS apps in separate windows. This option includes the Virtual Machine Manager (VM), which is responsible for allocating and managing virtual machines (VMs) that use a single CPU. Each VM can assume full control of the resources of the system because it has the whole system at its disposal. Additional MS-DOS VMs allow one and 16-bit user applications to run in a single Windows 3.1 and DOS environment, whereas each application that is above MS-DOS limits is assigned its own MS-DOS system.
  • In virtual device (Vx) instances, more than one process can utilize the same system resources at a time with a single driver (instead of requiring each process to have its own driver section). Because most applications write to the code themselves for cooperatively sharing system resources, this is done via multitasking, rather than relying on Windows, some Windows applications will give control over to other applications. The 386 Enhanced mode system loader is launched from the MS-DOS command line (Win386.exe)
  • Do you remember the Windows 3.1 system requirements?
  • Here are the system requires for a Personal Computer to run Windows 3.1 in 1992 (at its release).
  • Required an IBM-compatible computer.
  • 80386 processor or above.
  • 2MB of RAM.
  • At least 8MB of Hard disk space, a 3.5 or 5.25-inch floppy drive.
  • Must have a Visual Graphics Array (VGA).
  • Should have the basic controls i.e., Keyboard and Mouse.

Final Thoughts.

Basically, all the features we have in our latest Windows systems (Windows 10), were first introduced at the release of Windows 3.1 which was later preceded by Windows 95. Over time, the system has kept improving to what we know of Windows today.

It has been an interesting tech trip over the 29 years since the first PCs to run on Windows 3.1 hit the market. A lot has changed but one thing has remained the same, the versatility and dynamic nature of the windows-based systems. That is a characteristic that Microsoft has for many years maintained. Windows-based systems exhibit a high level of flexibility and interoperability. No wonder no other OS manufacturer has ever beaten Bill Gates at the game.

Did you get a chance to play with Windows 3.1 back in the days? What is your feeling about it?
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