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Microsoft Windows

What do nearly all computers from Dell, HP, Compaq, Acer, Gateway, and hundreds of other manufacturers have in common? In fact, what do the vast majority of personal computers on Earth have in common? They each come with a version of Microsoft Windows. But what, exactly, is Windows?

It's an operating system. Which means:
  • It manages your computer's hardware
  • It gives programmers a set of "interfaces" and standards for writing their software
  • It gives you, the user, a consistent "look and feel." Your computer's personality and the way it behaves are largely created by Windows.

Most operating systems, including Windows, also give you a set of "bonus" programs – typically, anything from games to an Internet browser to technical troubleshooting tools.

Almost a quarter-century old

Incredible as it might seem, Windows has been around since 1985. The earliest versions of Windows merely sat on top of Microsoft's older operating system, MS-DOS, adding a consistent visual appearance. Gradually, Windows evolved, became more all-encompassing, and, slowly, more reliable. Millions of users came aboard with Windows 3.0 in 1990, Windows 3.1 in 1992, or the hugely successful Windows 95 in, yes, 1995.

As Windows became more popular, more and more software was written for it. Much of that software was only available for Windows, which made it even more dominant in the marketplace. (So did some controversial business practices. Microsoft has spent years in court defending federal anti-trust charges; even now, it's fighting European regulators over similar issues.)

With Windows NT and Windows 2000, Microsoft replaced most of the ancient underpinnings of Windows with new code that was reliable enough for businesses to be comfortable with. With Windows XP, all that code found its way into the typical "home" computer, too.

Loads of bonus software

For decades, Windows has come with a series of miniature programs for productivity, fun, and, boring system maintenance tasks. Most long-time Windows users have wasted some of that time with Solitaire. Many people get all the word processing they need with WordPad, and needn't buy anything fancier, like Microsoft Office.

As Windows has evolved, Microsoft has added more and more add-on programs and features. Among the most popular are the Internet Explorer web browser; and Windows Media Player for playing MP3s and videos and syncing with MP3 players. The latest version, Windows Vista, adds even more features. For instance, it provides Photo Gallery for managing your photos, and sophisticated Parental Controls for limiting how your children use your computer.

There are several versions of Windows 7 and 8. You're most likely to encounter "Home Premium," and "Home Basic" – a stripped down version that doesn't contain some of Window's more sophisticated visuals or multimedia tools. (If you're connecting to an office network, you might need the more expensive "Premium" or "Professional" versions.)

Do you need Windows 8?

If you think you will be buying new equipment within the next 18 months to 2 years, then you can probably wait for your Windows 8 initiation until then.

If you are still a Windows Vista, or more likely, a Windows XP holdout, then it could be time to get an upgrade. Besides, you can skip the learning curve that’s required for Windows 7 and throw yourself straight into the deep end of Windows 8. But first, you need to make sure that your creaky old desktop or notebook can run Windows 8.

Whatever you decide, Windows 8 is clearly the future for PC users. We will all get there eventually. As with most technologically innovative products, it’s just a question of when.

Of course, Microsoft Windows isn't the only operating system you can buy: there's Apple's Mac OS X, and there are also many free and low-cost versions of Linux or other Open Systems. Even so, some 90% of computers are still sold with Windows, and the vast majority of software is still written for Windows. Bottom line: even now that he's left his day-to-day responsibilities at Microsoft, Bill Gates casts a very long shadow!

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