A Window Into '95

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Al Bello / Getty
Alan just posted a great photo essay looking back 20 years to the final week of August:

Microsoft launched its Windows 95 operating system, which would go on to sell tens of millions of copies in its first year alone. At that same time, the 1995 World Aerobic Championships were taking place in San Diego, Michael Jackson participated in his first “online chat,” T.V. news was covering the O.J. Simpson trial, a 19-year-old Tiger Woods won the U.S. Amateur Championship, Moscow opened its fifth McDonald’s restaurant, and a lot of other events were happening.

Including a now-inherently creepy photo of Bill Cosby embracing Monica Seles. And the above photo springs to mind the aerobic championships of ‘88 and the best mashup in recent memory:

But back to Windows 95, Alan shared a great anecdote via Slack:

At the time, I was a clerk at a law firm in Seattle, and they bought 50 licenses, one for every PC in the office. It was my job to upgrade each lawyer’s and assistant’s PC from Win 3.1 to Win 95. Each box had thirteen floppy disks as my only method of installation. It took me a couple weeks, IIRC.

1995 was also the year Microsoft spawned the dreaded Microsoft Bob, the Windows interface that achieved “7th place in PC World magazine’s list of the 25 worst tech products of all time, number one worst product of the decade by CNET.com.” Bob was also responsible for the creation of Comic Sans and led to the slightly less reviled Clippy the following year.
But back to Windows 95 again, Rob flagged in Slack a retro nightly news segment on the software’s big launch, featuring a Fallows cameo at the 3:12 mark. From another part of the segment:

There’s a joke going around right now all over the place that Windows 95 equals Macintosh 87. Nevertheless, 80 percent of today’s computers run on Windows, and only 8 percent are Apples. Microsoft did not build a better mouse trap; it built a bigger one.

And it’s still bigger—way bigger:

Linux has a few fans here at the office at least:

A clickable link here to Charles C. Mann’s essay from August 1999, “Living With Linux.” Money quote:

Opening source code ... is the center of a small but increasingly influential movement -- one that aspires to transform the world. Enthusiasts dismiss the grudging moves by Apple and Microsoft as too little too late, and confidently anticipate that Linux will topple Bill Gates’s empire. Many believe that its widespread adoption will greatly increase human freedom. Still others hope that Linux will reduce the gap between rich and poor nations.

No one can say whether any of this will come to pass, although the information age is sweeping society so rapidly and unpredictably that not even the unlikeliest outcomes can be dismissed. But it is clear that living with Linux, which I have been doing for a while now, is not at all like spending time with Windows or Mac OS. Whereas Windows and Mac OS are intended in part to shield users from their machines, Linux forces people to grapple with their relationship to technology -- an experience that was for me both salutary and disquieting.

Still not as disquieting as that Cosby photo.