By Jason Snell
August 24, 2020 10:28 AM PT
25 years of “So What?”
Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.
25 years ago, Windows 95 was released to great fanfare.
The magazine I worked at back then, MacUser, decided to offer up as a rejoinder a cover that said “Windows 95: So What?” It was originally intended to feature the Windows logo instead of “Windows 95” in type inside a big yellow circle, but the corporate lawyers intervened and said we couldn’t use the logo on our cover. (I always figured that the lawyers were just an excuse, and that our owner didn’t want to overly antagonize Microsoft, since Ziff-Davis also published both PC Magazine and PC/Computing magazine.)
Here’s the truth about Windows 95, though: it was devastating to the Mac. Before Windows 95, PCs were spectacularly bad. (Sorry, fans of Windows 3.1, but it was garbage.) Windows 95, on the other hand, lifted an enormous amount of features from the Mac and drastically improved usability. Long filenames, trash can, aliases, a desktop, easy app switching, the promise of plug-and-play peripherals—these are all things the Mac had and that PCs didn’t, and with the release of Windows 95, the gap between the operating systems closed substantially.
Was Windows 95 better than the Mac? Any Mac user at the time will tell you it absolutely wasn’t. But Windows just being decent made it that much harder to justify buying a Mac in an increasingly Windows-centric environment. Windows 95 didn’t make Windows good, but it made it good enough.
And the technical underpinnings of Windows 95, most notably its support for pre-emptive multitasking, was a shot to the heart of Mac OS. This is a feature that every operating system today has, where the system arbitrates between different processes and doles out processor time. But the classic Mac OS did no such thing. Once an app grabbed control of the processor, it kept it until it relinquished control. If you were downloading a file in the background and then did something in the foreground, that download would just… stop. It was very bad.
At the time Apple was desperately trying to create a re-archictected Mac OS called Copland, which would offer limited preemptive multitasking, with the promise to follow it up with a more robust OS version called Gershwin. A Copland developer preview appeared at WWDC one year—I got the t-shirt!—but was ultimately scrapped. Apple had to turn to outsiders to find a solution to its operating system problems, auditioning BeOS before finally purchasing Next and getting both the foundations of Mac OS X and Steve Jobs at once.
Mac OS X helped Apple build back up the Mac, but in the intervening years, the dominance of Windows accelerated, to the point where Microsoft essentially needed to prop up Apple with investment and promises of future Microsoft Office development in order to prevent the Mac from fading away entirely and giving Microsoft a complete PC monopoly.
Windows 95: So what? It made a huge impact on the Mac, driving Apple to the edge of oblivion. It’s kind of a miracle that the Mac survived it. So there.
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