Windows 3.0 is the third major release of Microsoft Windows, released in 1990. Like its predecessors, it is not an operating system, but rather a graphical operating environment that runs on top of DOS. It features a new graphical user interface where applications are represented as clickable icons, as opposed to a list of file names seen in its predecessors. Later updates would expand the software's capabilities, one of which added multimedia support for sound recording and playback, as well as support for CD-ROMs.

Windows 3.0
A version of the Microsoft Windows operating system
Windows logo and wordmark - 1985.svg
Windows 3.0 workspace.png
Screenshot of Windows 3.0
Source modelClosed source
Released to
May 22, 1990; 29 years ago (1990-05-22)
Latest release3.00a with Multimedia Extensions / October 20, 1991; 28 years ago (1991-10-20)[1]
LicenseCommercial software
Preceded byWindows 2.1x (1988)
Succeeded byWindows 3.1x (1992)
Support status
Unsupported as of December 31, 2001

Unlike the previous versions of Windows, Windows 3.0 performed well critically and commercially. Critics and users considered its graphical user interface to be a challenger to those of Apple Macintosh and Commodore.[2] Other praised features were the improved multitasking, customizability, and especially the utilitarian management of computer memory that troubles the users of Windows 3.0's predecessors. Microsoft was, however, criticized by third-party developers for the bundling of its separate software with the operating environment, which they viewed as anticompetitive. It sold 10 million licenses before it was succeeded by Windows 3.1 in 1992.


Before Windows 3.0, Microsoft had a joint relationship with IBM, where the latter had sold personal computers running on the former's MS-DOS since 1981. Microsoft had made previous attempts to develop a successful operating environment called Windows,[3] and IBM declined to include the project in its computers.[4] As MS-DOS was entering its fifth iteration, IBM demanded a version of DOS that could run in "protected mode", which would allow it to execute multiple programs at once. MS-DOS was originally designed to run in real mode and thus only one program at a time, due to the limited memory of the Intel 8088 microprocessor. Intel had later released the Intel 80286, which had enough memory to perform such multitasking. The two developed the next generation of DOS, OS/2. Software that was compatible with DOS was not with OS/2, giving IBM the upper hand.[5]

Windows 3.0 logo as it appears in the "About" dialog box[6]

As the rest of the Microsoft team moved on to the OS/2 project, David Weise, a member of the Windows development team and a critic of IBM, believed that he could restart the Windows project. Microsoft needed a debugging program that could run in protected mode, so it hired Murray Sargent, a physics professor from the University of Arizona whose own debugging program could emulate applications in protected mode. Windows 3.0 originated in 1988 as an independent project by Weise and Sargent, who used the latter's debugger to find problems with Windows. They cobbled together a rough prototype that contained three applications: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and PowerPoint. They then presented it to company executives, who were impressed enough to approve it as an official project. When IBM learned of Microsoft's upcoming project, their relationship was damaged, but Microsoft asserted that it would cancel Windows after it was released and that it would continue to develop OS/2.[7]

Windows 3.0 was the first version to be pre-installed on hard drives by PC-compatible manufacturers. Zenith Data Systems had previously shipped all of its computers with Windows 1.0 or later 2.x on diskettes, but committed early in the development of Windows 3.0 to shipping it pre-installed. Indeed, the Zenith division had pushed Microsoft hard to develop the graphical user interface because of Zenith's direct competition with Apple in the educational market. However, Zenith PCs had to run a proprietary OEM version of Windows, because they used hard disks with 1024 byte sectors instead of the normal 512 bytes, and could not use the standard SWAPFILE.EXE.[citation needed] The software was formally and officially announced on May 22, 1990, in the New York City Center Theater, where Microsoft released it worldwide. The event had 6,000 attendees, and it was broadcast live in the Microsoft social fairs of seven other North American cities and twelve major cities outside. It cost Microsoft US$3 million to host the festivities—something its founder, Bill Gates, referred to as the "most extravagant, extensive, and expensive software introduction ever."[8]

Microsoft had intended to make it attractive to homes and small businesses, rather than only large firms. That said, the company's "Entry Team", assigned to that task, was concerned that the public might perceive it to be no more than a tool used by large enterprises, due to the software's high system requirements. Major game publishers did not see it as a potential game platform, instead sticking to DOS. Microsoft's product manager Bruce Ryan compiled games that the Windows team had designed in its spare time to create Microsoft Entertainment Pack, which included Tetris and Minesweeper. There was little budget put in the project, and none of that was spent on quality testing. Nevertheless, the Entertainment Pack was sold as a paid add-on for Windows 3.0, and it became so popular that it was followed by three other Entertainment Packs.[9]


Windows 3.0 succeeded Windows 2.1x and includes a significantly revamped user interface as well as technical improvements to make better use of the memory management capabilities of Intel's 80286 and 80386 processors. Text mode programs written for MS-DOS can be run within a window — a feature previously available in a more limited form with Windows/386 2.1 — making the system usable as a crude multitasking base for legacy programs. However, this was of limited use for the home market, where most games and entertainment programs continued to require raw DOS access.[citation needed] Due to its support for the 386 and later processors, Windows 3.0 can also use virtual memory, which is a portion of a hard disk drive that is used by the[10][11] Like its predecessors, Windows 3.0 is not an operating system per se, but rather an operating environment that is designed for DOS and controls its functions.[12][13]

The MS-DOS Executive file manager was replaced with Program Manager, the list-based File Manager, and Task List.[14] Program Manager is a graphical shell composed of icons, each with an underlying title. They can be moved and arranged in any order, and the icons' titles can be renamed. When double-clicked on, these icons open corresponding applications or smaller windows within the Program Manager window called group windows. These group windows contain such icons and can be minimized to prevent cluttering of the Program Manager window's space.[15] File Manager is another shell used to access or modify applications, but displays them as files contained in directories in a list format. Its purpose as an alternative to using DOS commands is to facilitate moving files and directories.[16] Task List displays all running applications and may also be used to terminate them, select a different program, cascade or tile the windows, and arrange minimized desktop icons.[17] The Control Panel, previously available as a standard-looking applet, was re-modeled after the one in the classic Mac OS. It centralized system settings, including control over the color scheme of the interface.[citation needed]

The drivers bundled with Windows 3.0 support up to 16 simultaneous colors from EGA or VGA palettes, as opposed to the previous maximum of eight colors,[18] though the operating environment itself supports graphics adapters that offer resolutions and the number of colors greater than VGA.[19] Windows 3.0 also introduced the Palette Manager, a set of functions that allow applications to change the lookup palette of graphics cards displaying up to 256 colors in order to use needed colors. When multiple displayed windows exceed the 256-color limit, Windows 3.0 prioritizes the active window to use that application's colors, without resorting to dithering and then filling in areas.[20][21]

Windows 3.0 retains many of simple applications from its predecessors, such as the text editor Notepad, the word processor Write, and the improved paint program Paintbrush. Calculator is expanded to include scientific calculations.[22][23] Recorder is a new program that records macros, or sequences of keystrokes and mouse movements, which are then assigned to keys as shortcuts to perform complex functions quickly.[23][24] Also, the earlier Reversi game was complemented with the card game Microsoft Solitaire,[25] which would eventually be inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2019.[26] Another notable program is Help. Unlike DOS programs, which had Help as part of them, Windows Help is a separate and readily accessible application that accompanies all Windows programs that support it.[23][27]

Windows 3.0 includes a Protected/Enhanced mode which allows Windows applications to use more memory in a more painless manner than their DOS counterparts could. It can run in any of Real, Standard, or 386 Enhanced modes, and is compatible with any Intel processor from the 8086/8088 up to 80286 and 80386.[28] Windows 3.0 tries to auto detect which mode to run in, although it can be forced to run in a specific mode using the switches: /r (real mode), /s ("standard" 286 protected mode) and /3 (386 enhanced protected mode) respectively.[29]


Windows 3.0aEdit

In December 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0a. This version contained an improved ability to move pieces of data greater than 64KB (the original release could only manipulate one segment of RAM at a time). It also improved stability by reducing Unrecoverable Application Errors (UAEs) associated with networking, printing, and low-memory conditions.[30] This version appears as "Windows 3.00a" in Help/About Windows system dialogs.

Windows 3.0 with Multimedia ExtensionsEdit

Based on Windows 3.0a,[citation needed] Windows 3.0 with Multimedia Extensions 1.0 was released to the public in October 1991[31] to support sound cards like the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Pro, as well as CD-ROM drives, which were then becoming increasingly available.[32] It was made available to personal computers and upgrade kits by third-party manufacturers.[31] This edition added basic multimedia support for audio input and output, along with screensavers[citation needed] and an alarm clock. HyperGuide is an online manual to multimedia. Music Box is used to play audio from CDs.[31] Sound Recorder records and allows simple editing of waveform files.[32] Media Player is used to run media files.[citation needed] These new features were integrated into Windows 3.1x. Microsoft developed the Windows Sound System sound card specification to complement these extensions. The new features were not accessible in Windows 3.0 Real Mode.[citation needed]

The MME API was the first universal and standardized Windows audio API. Wave sound events played in Windows (up to Windows XP) and MIDI I/O use MME. The devices listed in the Multimedia/Sounds and Audio control panel applet represent the MME API of the sound card driver.[citation needed]

MME lacks channel mixing, so only one audio stream can be rendered at a time. MME supports sharing the audio device for playback between multiple applications starting with Windows 2000, stereo sound,[33] and 16-bit audio bit depth and sampling rates of up to 44.1 kHz.[34]

System requirementsEdit

The official system requirements for Windows 3.0:

  • 8086/8088 processor or better[12]
  • 1 MB of RAM (640 KB and 384 KB of conventional and extended memory, respectively)[12]
  • Hard disk with 6–8 MB of free space and at least one floppy drive for the installation disks[12]
  • CGA, EGA, MCGA, VGA, Hercules, 8514/A or XGA graphics and an appropriate and compatible monitor
  • MS- or PC DOS version 3.1 or higher[35]
  • A Microsoft-compatible pointing device is recommended.[35]

Windows 3.0 cannot run in full color on most 8086/88 machines, as the built-in 640×350 (16 color) EGA and 640×480 (16 color) VGA drivers contained Intel 80186 instructions. The monochrome drivers did not contain these instructions. This could be worked around by installing the Windows 2.x EGA/VGA drivers (which support color menus and frames, but not in-program graphics), replacing the CPU with an NEC V20/V30 (8086/88 pin-compatible chips with an 80186 instruction set), or by using a modified VGA driver that supports the 8086/88 (originally written well after Windows 3.0 being out of support, in 2013).[citation needed] Microsoft had dropped support for the Tandy 1000 line by 1990, so a Tandy graphics driver was not provided for Windows 3.0, but the Windows 2.x Tandy driver could be copied into the target system and used.[citation needed]

Memory modesEdit

Windows 3.0 was the only version of Windows that could be run in three different memory modes:

  • Real mode, intended for older computers with a CPU below Intel 80286, and corresponding to its real mode;
  • Standard mode, intended for computers with an 80286 processor, and corresponding to its protected mode;
  • 386 Enhanced mode, intended for newer computers with an Intel 80386 processor or above, and corresponding to its protected mode and virtual 8086 mode.[36]

Real mode primarily existed as a way to run Windows 2.x applications. It was removed in Windows 3.1x. Almost all applications designed for Windows 3.0 had to be run in standard or 386 enhanced modes. (Microsoft Word 1.x and Excel 2.x would work in real mode as they were actually designed for Windows 2.x). However, it was necessary to load Windows 3.0 in real mode to run SWAPFILE.EXE, which allowed users to change virtual memory settings. Officially, Microsoft stated that an 8Mhz turbo 8086 was the minimum CPU needed to run Windows 3.0. It could be run on 4.77 MHz 8088 machines, but performance was so slow as to render the OS almost unusable. Up to 4 MB of EMS memory is supported in real mode.

Standard mode was used most often as its requirements were more in-line with an average PC of that era — an 80286 processor with at least 1 MB of memory. Since some PCs (notably Compaqs) did not place extended memory at the 1MB line and instead left a hole between the end of conventional memory and the start of XMS, Windows could not work on them except in real mode.

386 Enhanced mode was a 32-bit virtual machine that ran a copy of 16-bit Standard mode, and multiple copies of MS-DOS in virtual 8086 mode.[37] In 286 mode, the CPU temporarily switches back into real mode when a DOS application is run, thus they cannot be windowed or switched into the background, and all Windows processes are suspended while the DOS application is in use. 386 enhanced mode by comparison uses virtual 8086 mode to allow multiple DOS programs to run (each DOS session takes 1MB of memory) along with being windowed and allowing multitasking to continue. Virtual memory support allows the user to employ the hard disk as a temporary storage space if applications use more memory than exists in the system.

Normally, Windows will start in the highest operating mode the computer can use, but the user may force it into lower modes by typing WIN /R or WIN /S at the DOS command prompt. If the user selects an operating mode that cannot be used due to lack of RAM or CPU support, Windows merely boots into the next lowest one.

Support lifecycleEdit

Windows 3.0 had a software update that was never released, increasing the speed of the floppy disk drive. By the time it was ready to be launched, a new version of Windows was released.[citation needed]

On December 31, 2001, Microsoft dropped support for Windows 3.0, along with previous versions of Windows and Windows 95, Windows for Workgroups, and MS-DOS versions up to 6.22.[38]:73


Windows 3.0 is considered to be the first version of Windows to receive critical acclaim.[3] Users and critics universally lauded its icon-based interface and the ensuing ease of performing operations,[18][23][39][40] as well as the improved multitasking and greater control over customizing their environments.[39][41][14] In his positive review, the editor of InfoWorld, Michael J. Miller, had faith that PC users would fully transition from the preceding text-only environment to the graphical user interface with Windows 3.0 as their primary choice.[42]

One critical aspect of Windows 3.0 is how it managed memory. Before its release, users of previous versions of Windows were burdened with trying to circumvent memory constraints to utilize those versions' touted capabilities. The Windows software occupied a large amount of memory, and users regularly experienced system slowdowns and often exceeded memory limits. Windows 3.0 also had relatively high memory requirements by 1990's standards, but with the three memory modes, it was praised for using memory more efficiently, removing the 640–kilobyte limit that had existed in computers running on Microsoft software since DOS, and supporting more powerful CPUs.[23][39][40][42]

Ted Needleman of the computer magazine Modern Electronics called Windows 3.0's GUI "state-of-the-art" and compared Microsoft's previous attempts to produce such a GUI to Apple Lisa, Apple's early such attempt and the predecessor to its far more successful Macintosh. He cautioned about the seemingly cheap upgrade cost of USD$50 when the system requirements and the need to upgrade any installed applications for compatibility are considered. He also cautioned that the software's advantages could be taken only by running Windows applications.[13] However, in February 1991, PC Magazine noted a vast array of applications designed specifically for Windows 3.0, including many that had yet to be available for OS/2. It also cited two other factors leading to the operating environment's success: one of them was the inexpensive cost of the hardware needed to run it compared to the Macintosh, and the other was its focus on fully utilizing hardware components that were relatively powerful by its time's standards.[43]

Amid the unprecedented success of Windows 3.0, Microsoft came under attack by critics as well as the United States Federal Trade Commission, who alleged that the company had attempted to dominate the applications market by luring its competitors into developing software for IBM'S OS/2 while it was developing its own for Windows.[44] At the time of Windows 3.0's release, Microsoft had only 10 and 15 percent of the market shares on spreadsheets and word processors, respectively, but those figures had risen to over 60 percent in 1995,[45] overtaking previously dominant competitors such as Lotus Development Corporation and WordPerfect.[46] Microsoft did indeed suggest developers to write applications for the OS/2, but it also intended Windows 3.0 to be a "low-end" alternative to the latter, with Gates referring to the OS/2 as the operating system of the 1990s. The Windows brand was also intended to be canceled after this version's release.[47] The investigations into—and the eventual subsequent suing of—Microsoft led to a settlement in July 15, 1994, where Microsoft agreed not to bundle separate software packages with its operating products.[48] It marked the first time that the company had ever been investigated for anticompetitive practices.[44]


Windows 3.0 is also considered the first Windows to see commercial success.[3] At the time of release, of the 40 million personal computers installed, only five percent used either previous version of Windows.[49] Within its first week of availability, it rose as the top-selling business software,[50] and after six months, two million licenses were sold.[44] When its successor, Windows 3.1, was released, sales totaled about 10 million licenses,[3] and a year later the Windows series would overtake DOS as the bestselling application of all time.[46]

Windows 3.0 is regarded in retrospect as a turning point in the future of Microsoft, being attributed to its later dominance in the operating system market and to the company's improved applications market share.[45] The company used to have close ties with IBM since the former's inception,[51] but the unexpected[44] success of its new product would lead to the two companies recasting their relationship, where they would continue to sell each other's operating products until 1993.[51] After the fiscal year of 1990, Microsoft reported revenues of US$1.18 billion, with $337 million appearing in the fourth quarter. This annual statistic is up from $803.5 million in fiscal 1989, and it made Microsoft the first microcomputer software company to reach the $1 billion mark in one year. Microsoft officials attributed the results to the sales of Windows 3.0.[52]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Windows Version History". Support. Microsoft. July 19, 2005. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  2. ^ Gibbs, Samuel (October 2, 2014). "From Windows 1 to Windows 10: 29 years of Windows evolution". The Guardian. Retrieved January 6, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d Lendino, Jamie (November 20, 2015). "Microsoft Windows turns 30: A brief retrospective". ExtremeTech. Retrieved December 22, 2019.
  4. ^ Edstrom & Eller 1998, p. 60.
  5. ^ Edstrom & Eller 1998, pp. 74–76.
  6. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 472.
  7. ^ Edstrom & Eller 1998, pp. 87–95.
  8. ^ "Vision for the Future". The Making of Microsoft: How Bill Gates and His Team Created the World's Most Successful Software Company. Prima Publishing. 1991. p. 239. ISBN 1-55958-071-2. Retrieved January 14, 2020.
  9. ^ Weinberger, Matt (August 17, 2015). "Bill Gates was so addicted to Minesweeper, he used to sneak into a colleague's office after work to play". Business Insider. Retrieved January 13, 2020.
  10. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 405.
  11. ^ InfoWorld, May 1990, p. S3.
  12. ^ a b c d Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 3.
  13. ^ a b Needleman, Ted (September 1990). "The Real Windows Finally Arrives". Modern Electronics. 7 (9). CQ Communications. pp. 64–65, 68. ISSN 0748-9889. Retrieved January 4, 2020.
  14. ^ a b InfoWorld, May 1990, p. S7.
  15. ^ Windows 3 Companion, pp. 101–102.
  16. ^ Windows 3 Companion, pp. 121–122.
  17. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, pp. 26–27.
  18. ^ a b InfoWorld, May 1990, p. S4
  19. ^ Poor, Alfred (June 25, 1991). "High Resolution And High Speed". PC Magazine. 10 (12). pp. 103–104. Retrieved December 28, 2019.
  20. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 49.
  21. ^ PC Magazine, February 1991, pp. 375–376.
  22. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 365.
  23. ^ a b c d e "Windows 3.0 ends the wait". Computerworld. 24 (31). July 30, 1990. p. 33. Retrieved December 25, 2019.
  24. ^ Windows 3 Companion, p. 317.
  25. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 387.
  26. ^ Williams, David (May 3, 2019). "Microsoft Solitaire has been clicked and dragged into the World Video Game Hall of Fame". CNN Business. Retrieved December 21, 2019.
  27. ^ Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 87.
  28. ^ "For the Nitpickers: Enhanced-mode Windows 3.0 didn't exactly run a copy of standard-mode Windows inside virtual machine". MSDN. Old New Thing. February 8, 2013. Archived from the original on February 12, 2013. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
  29. ^ "Windows 3.x help and information". Computer Hope. Computer Hope. Archived from the original on August 4, 2013. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
  30. ^ Daly, James (April 29, 1991). "Windows 3.0A tackles UAE bug". Computerworld. 25 (17): 41. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  31. ^ a b c InfoWorld, October 1991, p. S90
  32. ^ a b InfoWorld, October 1991, p. S100.
  33. ^ InfoWorld, October 1991, p. S95.
  34. ^ InfoWorld, October 1991, p. S104.
  35. ^ a b Windows 3 Companion 1990, p. 4.
  36. ^ "Windows 3.0". Human Computer Interaction Lab of the University of Maryland. Human Computer Interaction Lab of the University of Maryland. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
  37. ^ Chen, Raymond (May 17, 2010). "If Windows 3.11 required a 32-bit processor, why was it called a 16-bit operating system?". Archived from the original on June 5, 2010. Retrieved January 21, 2017.
  38. ^ "Pulling the Plug". PC Magazine. 20 (11). June 13, 2001. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  39. ^ a b c Venditto, Gus (July 1990). "Windows 3.0 Brings Icons, Multitasking, and Ends DOS's 640K Program Limit". PC Magazine. 9 (13). pp. 33–35. Retrieved December 21, 2019.
  40. ^ a b Ray, Garry (July 1990). "Microsoft Windows 3.0". Lotus. 6 (7). IDG. p. 88–89. Retrieved December 25, 2019.
  41. ^ InfoWorld, May 1990, p. S1.
  42. ^ a b InfoWorld, May 1990, p. S12
  43. ^ PC Magazine, February 1991, p. 102.
  44. ^ a b c d Edstrom & Eller 1998, p. 97–98.
  45. ^ a b Edstrom & Eller 1998, p. 95.
  46. ^ a b Wallace, James (1997). "The Road Ahead". Overdrive: Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 24. ISBN 0-471-18041-6. Retrieved January 19, 2020.
  47. ^ Edstrom & Eller 1998, p. 94.
  48. ^ Department of Justice (August 21, 1995). "Final Judgment" (PDF). Archived from the original on January 19, 2020. Retrieved January 19, 2020.
  49. ^ InfoWorld, May 1990, p. 41.
  50. ^ Venditto, Gus (August 1990). "Pipeline". PC Magazine. 9 (14). p. 63. Retrieved December 22, 2019.
  51. ^ a b Edstrom & Eller 1998, p. 99.
  52. ^ Johnston, Stuart J.; Flynn, Laurie (July 30, 1990). "Microsoft Tops $1 billion in 1990". InfoWorld. 12 (31). p. 8. Retrieved December 28, 2019.

External linksEdit