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What was the most innovative Windows release?

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Best 5.1 speakers for PC gaming (Image credit: Microsoft)

We recently celebrated the 30th birthday of Windows 3.1. To celebrate the occasion, our poll this week focuses on the history of Windows as an operating system. Rather than asking which version of Windows was your favorite, we'd like to know which one you thought was the most innovative. For example, you may not think Windows 95 was the best version of Windows, but it introduced a long list of features that have become mainstays on PCs and other operating systems.

There are plenty of candidates to choose from. We'll highlight a few of the biggest additions to Windows throughout the years and note which version they came with.

Windows 95 was the first version of the OS to look like what most people would identify as Windows. It had a Start menu, a simple interface, and was a 32-bit OS. While it didn't originally ship with the browser, Windows 95 was the first to support Internet Explorer, which opened up new computing possibilities.

Those looking for a bit of Windows history can check out the full Windows 95 launch keynote, which only recently became available in its entirety.

Windows 3.1 introduced the copy and paste shortcuts that are now ubiquitous. Some would argue that Windows 3 was more innovative than 3.1 though, since 3 brought clickable icons and support for CD-ROMs to Windows.

Windows 8 wasn't a popular version of Windows, but it was certainly different. Moving away from cascading windows that you could resize, Windows 8 featured an interface that focused on fullscreen applications and split-screen multitasking. It also had a charms bar, a tablet mode, and introduced Live Tiles.

Windows 7 wasn't as innovative in the way of new features. In many ways, it just delivered what people expected. But when stacked up against some of the failing versions of Windows that preceded it, it could be seen as innovative to have an OS custom-crafted to avoid drama.

Which version of Windows do you think was the biggest game-changer? Let us know in the poll above and in the comments below.

Sean Endicott
Sean Endicott

Sean Endicott is the news writer for Windows Central. If it runs Windows, is made by Microsoft, or has anything to do with either, he's on it. Sean's been with Windows Central since 2017 and is also our resident app expert. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com.

67 Comments
  • Windows 95 and Windows 8 both brought revolutions to the UI. Windows 95 also was the first real consumer-targeted multitasking OS. Before that Windows 3.1 ran on top of DOS. Windows 95 had a lot of security and stablility issues carried over from Windows 3.1 that were not issues with Windows NT 4.0, where the strengths of both finally merged in 2000 (still not really consumer-targeted) and finally Windows XP. So if it were a choice, Windows XP should get a lot of credit for being innovative too as the first true preemptive multitasking consumer-facing OS. 8, love it or hate it, was definitely different. Hard not to acknowledge how innovative it was. Windows 7 was really a fixed up Vista. Important, but not as innovative as the others. And Vista was really just an incremental advance on XP (file system improvements and better 64-bit support were the big improvements under the hood), but also with its share of new problems. Windows 10 fixed the UI concerns around 8 and introduced the first real usable touch and mouse based UI. But that's more like Windows 7 and Vista -- 10 and 7 finally got things right with features introduced in a prior version. Windows 11 is a further refinement on 10, shedding some of the old baggage and bringing back some of the touch features of 8. The big UI changes to Start are the biggest since 95, so from a UI perspective, it's innovative, but I wouldn't put it in the same league on that metric as Windows 95 and Windows 8. Windows 1 and 3 were important in their own way, but not really breakthrough innovations. Those were partially knock-offs of Apple and PARC work and really just a UI program that ran on top of DOS (though the tools for cooperative multitasking, DDE, OLE, and the shared clipboard in Windows 3.0 were absolutely important breakthroughs). If I had to pick just one as the "Most Innovative," I'd go with Windows 95, but 8 is close. Also, 8 was hated by many, where Windows 95 was the OS that started getting average non-techies interested in computers and tech. For societal impact, Windows 95 stands head and shoulders above the rest.
  • I agree with this
  • I picked 95 as well. However Windows for Workgroups 3.11 was a game changer. Native networking support. I was able to ditch a few installs of Novell Netware due the functionality. Getting TCP/IP support was a bit of work as you had to manually load the Winsock drivers. It was the beginning of the end for Novell.
  • Same goes, but I disagree with Vista being incremental. There is so much architectural changes and pretty much change the shell that we until now use it and some still based upon it fundamentally on our modern shell. Heck even the setup screen came from Vista. Windows 7 is far more incremental which is basically improvement and fixing some shortcomings from Vista. The biggest innovation that Windows 7 brought is that new Taskbar that basically forever change Windows shell again since Windows 95.
  • Windows NT probably would have been my top answer if it was available, but Windows 95 is a pretty easy answer otherwise. NT brought more of the foundation as we know it today whereas 95 brought more of the UI as we know it today, so more like #1 and #1A either way.
  • Innovation is highly overrated. It typically brings with it a host of bugs and feature failure.
  • Without innovation, we wouldn't have anything we think of as the defining aspects of civilization versus living in caves. Innovation is overrated in the same way that breathing and food are overrated. I get it, you just mean that change in an OS can bring more hassles than benefits. That's fair. But as with evolution, some of the changes will die off as unwanted, others will survive and become essential foundational pieces of future OS releases. Without innovation, that growth can never happen. Technical Darwinism.
  • Yeah, basically. What really bothers me is that so much change is simply for the sake of change. Coming from a mainframe and Unix world originally, I'm used to the more typical dev cycle of mods, releases, and versions--not the continual consumer rebranding that seems so prevalent with, for example, Windows (even though I've used Windows since its very beginnings). Nowadays these changes are driven more by marketing than engineering--or so it seems to me.
  • In the surface Yea it may seem that way that the changes are driven by marketing but if you look under the hood of windows 10 and windows 11 you'll see a different story. Unified core with windows server, a ton of security features that protect the average user from themselves, not to mention full windows running on arm hardware with 64bit support. Imo Win 10 was the most innovative not for what's on the surface but for what is underneath and honestly windows 11 is just windows 10 with a polished ui and the security features made mandatory instead of optional.
  • Spot the Windows 7 user.
  • That is just so... true!
  • Exactly, fire and the wheel should never have been invented...
  • Windows mobile anyone?
  • Good thought! - However, I don't find it /that/ innovative. I remember editing its Registry in an XP registry editor. (My first two smartphones ran different versions and names of mobile Windows.)
  • Windows 95, Vista, 8 and 11
  • It's sad that Vista wasn't even on the list. Despite the huge change it was from XP. Vista was first introduced so much changes that 7 only improved and added some and we still use until this day.
  • I gotta give the credit to windows XP , it moved consumers to the NT kernal and lasted with support for 13 years and 16-17 for some people. Windows XP brought computers to more households than ever when it was out and was the OS was in majority of schools when computer education was in it's infancy. Windows 95 and 98 may have set the standered for how windows was used but XP changed how the world saw computers.
  • Yeah, Windows XP was a pivotal release. Too bad that wasn't one of the choices.
  • Yeah I notice that, the list is so incomplete. Windows XP seems don't bring much changes coming from 2000 except that introduction of Theming engine but going NT is a big deal and fundamentally change Windows since then.
  • XP was solid enough for a lot of ATMs
  • Absolutely XP. Don't understand it not being on the list, and I don't think it's close. Unifying the code base, plug and play (although not fully realized until SP2) - it was a complete change in perspective, both consumer and commercial.
  • Where is the option for Windows NT? Without Windows NT there would be no Windows 7, 10 or 11. What about Windows XP where they finally merged Windows 9x and Windows NT based OS.
  • I think they left out NT, because it wasn't intended for consumers. As you rightly point out XP was the first consumer-targeted Windows using the NT Kernel (though a lot of us probably used Windows 2000 in that way as the first NT-based Windows to include the Windows 95-style UI).
  • I thought NT was an architecture change ("new technology") and (despite there being a short-lived OS that was actually called Windows NT) wasn't actually an OS in itself. That was more of a question than a statement. I'm no software engineer and I was a teenager at the time.
  • I think the first "NT" Windows was Windows NT 3.5 (technically, NT 3.1, but that was very brief and almost immediately replaced with NT 3.5), which looked almost exactly like Windows 3.1. If I recall correctly (far from certain), the main UI difference was that when you dragged a window, it would move the frame and the contents of the window, where in Windows 3.1, it would just move an outline of the outside of the window. I LOVED that little touch about NT. But you're basically right that NT was a massive architectural change and never had its own UI until XP, but it was a purchasable and installable OS, widely used in enterprises, mostly as a server or high end workstation. It was the preemptive multitasking full OS (as opposed to Windows 95, which was a cooperative multitasking OS, meaning it was up to each application to cede control back to the OS after performing a task -- not really worthy of being considered a multitasking OS if the OS doesn't control the time slicing). It emerged from much of the same work that went into IBM's OS/2 2.0, another true preemptive multitasking OS, during the falling out between MS and IBM. From a UI perspective: NT 3.1, 3.5, 4.0 = Windows 3.1
    Windows 4.0 = Windows 95
    Windows 2000 = Windows 98
    Windows XP finally brought full unification
  • This right there. ^^
  • Only one mistake. Windows NT 4.0 had the Windows 95 UI i.e. it had the Start menu, Taskbar, and System Tray that we know and love.
  • I'd like to know why Windows XP isn't an option. It's the first version of Windows NT designated for the masses. It had full driver support for all current devices, something no previous version of Windows NT could do, and it had an updated UI that rivaled anything else on the planet. It was my Windows for more than a decade.
  • I agree. However, if they left it off intentionally, maybe it was because XP was really a synthesis of NT/2000 with Windows 95/95, with only a slight change to the UI (that bigger Start button).
  • You forgetting the mess of ME (Millenial Edition)? That was the alternative to Win 2000 at the time and what drove me to Win2000 for home use (especially since it was what we used at the desktop for work).
  • The poll is inconsistent though since if XP is "slight changes", then how come Windows 7 manage on the list and not Vista. Comparing the two Vista introduced far more changes that basically build the foundation of modern Windows while 7 was just improved upon it, only that Taskbar were the biggest change that we still use today. XP despite being more like 2000 with new Theming engine and consumer related features and built in media and internet apps. Still brought NT to the masses and unified the kernel for Windows desktop. This under the hood change is really fundamental that modern Windows is still based upon NT, that includes Windows Phone 8.x, Windows 10 Mobile, Windows 10X and even Xbox.
  • I voted "Windows 3". I had started with Windows 2 (386-edition, whatever its name), and v3.11 had peak performance. (YMMV) Windows 98 brought USB connectivity, which has proven rather important. Windows ME was great with me. I have a 2009 notebook dual-boot into Linux or Windows 7 (to run obsolete software). It exposes Windows as a sluggish memory hog. Besides, the "drive letter" has become ever more of a drawback as I use more clouds more frequently. Abolishing the "drive letter" would likely have me vote such Windows version "the most innovative".
  • My vote would go to Windows XP. But it's not an available option? And where is Windows 98, NT 4, or Windows 2000? XP was when the NT kernel went mainstream for consumers.
  • I'm not sure I know what constitutes innovation in an OS. All I can say is Windows 7 had the innovation of not crashing on me nearly as often as previous versions. My main OS was still some version of GNU/Linux, usually with KDE. As others have said, I liked W8/8.1 for its innovative UI, but I could also see why people would hate it. W10 brought me back to Windows. Was it "innovation" or just getting rid of some crap elements of previous versions? I'm not sure, but no more Linux. But the biggest selling point was form factor (it was around the time of the maturing of the Surface line).
  • True multithreading, ability to take advantage of SMT which was a big bottleneck on system performance. The driver standardization at the OS level was a big change vs dealing with vendor support for video, soundcards, etc. NTFS filesystem stability over FAT. UUID for security. TCPIP.
  • Windows 8 for sure
  • To me, an OS is software to interface with hardware. I know that's the basic definition, but all the window dressing and features Windows has introduced over the years have been so basic that I would hardly call them innovative. Basically, they took features and apps that existed in other pieces of software and integrated them into Windows. So, the Windows releases that were most innovative were the ones that added more support to hardware. So that would be 95 (for full x86 32-bit support), XP (for full x86 64-bit support), and 11 (for full ARM 64-bit support). And I'd rank them in that order.
  • Michael, I like your hardware alignment view. By that categorization, 8 really brought touch support to the forefront. Note that while there was a 64-bit version of XP, it was rare and not compatible with the 32-bit version (which, to your point, tied to the hardware of the time -- early x64 chips couldn't run x86 code well, AMD actually cracked this before Intel). Very few people used the 64-bit version. Only if they needed it for something very specific (like applications that needed access to more than 4GB of RAM, which no normal app needed in XP's day). The real first 64 bit Windows that was invisibly compatible to users with 32-bit apps (nearly all apps at the time) was Vista (mostly) and 7 (fully). The real big deal with XP was that it finally unified the NT OS kernel with the friendly consumer UI of Windows 95 and 98 into a single OS. Windows NT 4 and 2000 sort of did this too, but they had different driver models that made hardware management unfriendly and couldn't play all the PC games at the time. By the time XP came out, game devs had almost entirely stopped writing DOS games, which meant PC games were Windows games and would work with the NT kernel. Finally, it could be a true consumer OS on the NT kernel.
  • Arm support may be a bit premature. We'll have to see how stable the port is and its uptake with consumers. We are talking gen1 and not everyone is going to go for it. NT on Alpha/PowerPC, Itanium, etc. all were the future until they were not.
  • Hands down, Windows 8. It actually tried to do something different in the personal computer space.
  • The Win 2000 line for SMP, AD, and support for a huge amount of connections at the time. Surprised it is not on the list but it was geared more towards business. It was also the beginning of the end for Novell file servers.
  • Easy one for me. That would be Windows 8 by a mile. Running in a not to close second would be Windows 95.
  • Gotta admit, Windows 95 was the most innovative for me. The UI change from Win 3 was revolutionary. That aspect is still retained today. Windows versions afterwards were more under the hood changes for me. However, Win 8 brought more innovative changes such as multi UI with tablet mode.
  • If we focus on the past, it's because we are not so happy about the present. (Let's be honest.)
    Windows XP and Windows 7 worked very well for me. The Start menu that came with every version after Win 7 was too different for my liking.
    Coming from Windows 10, calling Windows 11 a new version of Windows was always a stretch of the imagination. It's just a skin or theme.
    Windows 11 is only attractive to me if I use a third-party Start menu.
    I currently use Start11, and with a bit of customization, it makes Windows 11 look, feel, and function in the friendly and familiar way I got used to over the years.
    I'm very much a Windows enthusiast, but unfortunately, it has been necessary to call out Microsoft for their decisions since Windows 8. It got to the point where I can only assume that the young designers of Windows secretly use Macs at home.
  • One can be a historian and not be happy/unhappy about the present. There is value knowing how we got to this point in time and see and give credit to the arc of progress. Windows isn't great because its finally getting a consistent UI and light/dark themes. It is great because all the older problems got fixed along the way and there is nothing critical left to take the hammer to. One of the bigger problems today is taking today's sensibilities, applying them to the past and claiming the engineers (or founding fathers) didn't have a clue. They had a clue but had bigger issues that needed to be addressed first.
  • Cheers. I appreciate your cup is half-full opinion and understand your points. I don't oppose what you say. My points haven't even directly addressed this article. I spent years feeling the need to publicly favor each and every direction Microsoft took with Windows. (I even remember feeling let down when Winsupersite was let go of by Paul Thurrott, and he started talking about other OSs too.) I also spent years knowing and feeling that being positive was always the right way to be, until something hurts. I have blogged about Windows for years (as a hobbyist) and I would consider myself quite the Windows enthusiast and advocate. (I still use Windows, although, with various things, it took me most of my life to realize that loyalty can restrict growth.) As time has moved on (or the illusion of it for some spiritual seekers), I have disliked the huge Start menu redesigns that have jarred the usual (like years) Windows desktop experience for regular Windows users and adopters. Microsoft could have tried to offer us various Start Menu options as opposed to taking away the main way we interact with the system. Quite simply, I enjoy Windows, but I have to use a third-party Start menu to do so. Maybe history will repeat itself and a decent Start menu will come back to Windows one day..
  • Why isn't XP on your list? First to merge the NT/Consumer cores and way too many other things to name. I had to pick Win95, since it changed Windows significantly from 3.x. However, XP is as transformative for what it did under the hood as 95's UI improvements. I have a feeling that is why you have so many 'Other' votes.
  • 98, ME, XP. A decade of progress was dropped as the younger crowd never worked with them.
  • 10 should have been renamed to windows task manager and telemetry edition. Privacy destroyed. Corporate snooping normalized. And a half dozen processes/apps you couldn’t shut down (at first). Now "analytics" is ubiquitous. You are the metric. And data aggregation for marketing purposes is their entire focus ....and what drives UI/UX and feature development and removal. The 🤪 marketing team makes all the decisions on what gets put into windows now. "Can we profit off their clicks and content preferences" is the one driving force in every feature included in windows. So if you call data aggregation and marketing and blowing up digital privacy rights innovation....yeah 10 is the most innovative. ...Followed up by the worst OS ever to exist. 11. which was entirely conceived on the foundation of Digital Privacy Does Not Matter. I can’t wait for congress to do something about addressing BASIC privacy rights and user data aggregation. Yeah... I know I'll be waiting a long long looooooooong time. Yes, you should care but I know you don't.
  • Windows 8 for the tablet experience. I still prefer it's tablet experience over iPad OS any day.
  • I voted for Windows 95, but for me Vista has also been a big step forward. It was the first step into what we have today with multimedia, communication and work.
  • Aside from Windows 95, which was pretty innovative in terms of the UI, Vista was the most innovative. It really formed the basis for what we’re using today. It’s surprising that both it and XP aren’t on the list of choices.
  • Umm... anyone able to see the poll? It's not visible on Edge
  • Yes, worked fine on Edge for me.
  • yeah, i turned of tracking prevention. works fine now.
  • I think the answer depends on if we are talking about backend software stuff or the UI. But on the basis that the question is about UI then I'd say it's a close call between 95 and 8/8.1 but 95 pips it Win 95 introduced the start menu and taskbar that have come to define windows, versions since have just added gloss. I'd say Win 8 was the biggest innovation since although I think perhaps 8.1 is what they should have launched to start with. I wish the win 10 tablet mode had just been Win 8.1 as 10 was a real step backwards for tablets. Although maybe the most innovative Windows was never released cough Andromeda cough 🤔
  • Personally I find the list incomplete:
    Windows 95: the introduction of computing to the masses
    Windows XP: again the masses introduced to the NT core; a modern, secure and flexible kernel.
    Windows Vista: the OS introduced a huge amount of changes in the OS, it was indeed another cornerstone
  • Windows Vista was the most innovative (compared with any previous version). It was disruptive ,and yes,it had it's problems,as most new disruptive things . New WDM,new UI,superfetch,new DirectX,new requierements, it was not an incremental upgrade ,as some said,it was a complete rewrite,a rethink of Windows. After SP2 and all updates ,it.became usable,it was just too heavy on old HW,and it's superfetch too agressive/unoptimised. It strikes me that the author didnt include the most innovative Windows in the poll. Political corectness maybe,haha
  • Windows XP had the biggest impact.
  • Those who voted Windows 7, it looks like they thought the poll is asking which Windows version was the best, for otherwise Windows 7 might be the least innovative of all versions.
  • Yeah. Funny none of the comments say Windows 7, but somehow it's currently ahead in the poll.
  • Technically, it was NT 3.1 and Vista. Vista isn't even an option. Does the author (Sean) only consider new Emojis an innovation? ;) There was no other OS like NT 3.1 when it was designed. To this day, it still has things not in other OSes, like an object based kernel, and other theoretical concepts when NT was designed. It was heavy with a lot of features, and yet faster than even the NT team expected - as NT 4.0 in 'theory' shouldn't have been faster than Win95, and with 25MB of RAM, it was. Vista introduced several new paradigms, although I don't think most people could name them unless they are an actual engineer or scientist. The biggest are the new GPU technologies (innovations). This gives Windows the unique ability of GPU pre-emptive threading/scheduling - something desperately needed in other operating systems. If anyone ever wonders how/why Windows does well at gaming and other graphical tasks - it is because of the GPU scheduler and other GPU technologies added in Vista - that still don't exist in other OSes. GPU VRAM Virtualization, GPU Virtualization, GPU SMP, GPU sharing, GPU pre-emptive scheduling, etc. These are big features and why Windows is both fast and effortless when running games or other GPU heavy tasks. So NT 3.1 and Vista are both important and are massive innovations compared to other operating system technologies and models.
  • Windows 2000, then XP. then 10/11...Vista was a good try at innovation, but the graphics and CPU hardware at the time was not up to the task. Thus the result for our computer store was slooow work computers and pretty but not useful graphics.
  • Seriously, you put Windows 7 on there but not Vista? 7 is like a glorified service pack for Vista.
  • Totally agree here. Most of the major innovation come from Vista, for example, the new driver model that killed Vista is used in Win7 and beyond. The image-backup which labeled as Win7, is actually a Vista Business capability (and it is exactly the same thing, make image of the entire partition). The win7 taskbar is not even innovative. The quick launch bar was introduced by win98 and Apple already set the example of merging the quick launch bar with taskbar.
  • In my opinion, Windows 8 was the most innovative Windows release because it enabled an entirely new type of apps to be installed, finally ending the registry mess and countless slowdowns of Windows when programs are installed and removed. Microsoft of course had to screw up everything in the UI and marketing, rendering Windows 8 to look bad. I have no problem using the Start Screen though, and it is my favorite OS along with XP. I jumped straight to 8 so I never used 7 and even now, when I use it, I don't think Aero is a feature I can't live without.
  • Just a note: there was a win 3.1 version of Internet Explorer, and like the one on win 95 it wasn't shipped with the OS.