Jason Snell on Windows 95

Jason Snell, representing the Mac users’ side:

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.)

I haven’t thought about it in a long time but I remember that issue, and that cover, and always thought it was a cover that looked like it was designed using Windows. Not the Mac’s nor MacUser’s best moment.

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.

It wasn’t so much that Windows 95 got good enough, but that the Mac circa 1995 had been so technically stagnant. To make a very long story very short, John Sculley’s Apple had devoted itself to coming up with something new to replace the Mac, rather than devoting itself to the sort of incremental improvement to the Mac that has defined the platform (and defined Apple itself) post-reunification with Steve Jobs and NeXT.

None of Apple’s “next big thing to replace the Mac” projects ever came close to fruition. So it’s not just that they let Microsoft catch up with Windows 95, but that by the time Windows 95 shipped, Microsoft had momentum and Apple had none. There really were a lot of things about a state of the art Mac in August 1995 that were better than a state of the art PC running Windows 95, but it was inarguable, to anyone who took an honest look at where both platforms were heading, that the Mac was on course to fall hopelessly behind.

Windows 95 even looked better, and inarguably looked more modern (the Mac system UI was still largely black and white and flat — what comes around goes around, huh?) because Microsoft ripped off the look not of the Mac but of NeXTStep.

Thursday, 27 August 2020