Start Me Up: 25 years ago this week, Windows 95 launched and, for a brief moment, Microsoft was almost cool

Then we saw Bill and Steve gyrating to the Rolling Stones on stage…


Comment Twenty-five years ago on Monday arguably the most consequential event in modern computing history happened: the release of Windows 95. Let’s take a quick trip back in time.

Bill Clinton was US president and the World-Wide-Web-era of the internet was in its infancy; there was war in Bosnia; Oasis and Blur were locked in a fierce battle of the bands in the UK; TV comedy Seinfeld was unstoppable; and newcomer Friends had just finished its somewhat disappointing first season.

Computers were very much with us, though less than a quarter of households in America, for one, had a PC. Computers were mostly for the tech savvy and for nerds, or for work; at home, most folks considered the machines clunky to use and turned to TV, magazines, and fresh air.

But something was bubbling: the web turned computers into worm holes into a growing galaxy of information; word processing and spreadsheets were increasingly a norm; and amid the arrival of the first Sony PlayStation, there was a renewed surge of interest in home video gaming. The time was right for an overhauled mass-market consumer-level operating system.

Microsoft knew its moment had come. It had shifted Windows from 16-bit to 32-bit – at least at the kernel-level with support for 32-bit applications – and rejigged its code to support preemptive multitasking and long filenames, optionally offered built-in TCP/IP networking, and included other bits and bytes to smooth the ride for users.

Screenshot of Microsoft Windows 95

Welcome to Windows 95. Image credit: Microsoft

In a move that cemented its place in computing history and made Bill Gates the richest man on Earth, Microsoft stopped stealing its ideas from the likes of Xerox PARC and Apple – and came up with a few of its own, forming Windows 95. And the biggest was the Start button which, even a quarter of a century later still exists albeit after various redesigns and rethinks.

The Start button has informed pretty much everyone’s understanding of how to interact with a Microsoft OS and Redmond, to its credit, knew it had something good on its hands. (And yeah, we know RISC OS, at least, had an icon bar before Windows 95 got its task bar; it didn't quite have a Start button, though, unless you installed one of many third-party apps.)

There were a range of other Windows 95 features that were eventually added, most of which carry through to today – and were not all exclusive to Windows: right-clicked context menus; the desktop as a folder and the My Computer icon; shortcuts; the recycle bin; a better way to get at files and settings through Windows Explorer and Device Manager; and the much-touted Plug and Play which tried to automate the process of installing drivers and getting things like printers working without much fuss. And let’s not forget FreeCell.

Smithers, have the Rolling Stones killed

In a moment of marketing clarity, Microsoft went all-in on the Start button. It licensed The Rolling Stones’ hit single Start Me Up for a staggering $10m (give or take) and the song accompanied countless promotions in the lead-up to the big day.

Microsoft even went to the extraordinary length of commissioning the “world’s first cyber sitcom” starring soon-to-be megastars Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry, who were invited into Bill Gates’ office (but not really) to experience Windows 95 for themselves: the 30-minute extravaganza (yes, 30 minutes) is not good but then it’s not excruciating either.

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The launch of Windows 95 was huge, and for what felt like the first time in ages, computery news transcended the IT press and became a mainstream event. Long before Apple loyalists slept on sidewalks to buy the latest iPhone, nerds stayed up all night on August 24, 1995 in order to be first to get into a store and grab their copy of Windows 95 before anyone else.

Photos of crammed computer stores and triumphant purchasers hit the papers when normal people woke up several hours later. Microsoft used them extensively in its follow-up, massive, advertising campaign.

Those with CD-ROM drives gleefully inserted the shiny discs and embarked on the modern computing era; those still relying on 3.5-inch “floppy” disks got a hefty stack on them to run through, correctly and in order, before they could hear the new startup jingle composed by Brian Eno himself.

And what was really great was that Windows 95 would do all the hard work behind the scenes: install it and it would take all the Windows 3.1 file systems and settings and automatically feed them into the new system. For many, it just worked. And the end result was worth it.

It felt like the future and Microsoft was very nearly cool.

And then Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and all the spectacularly uncoordinated engineers that had designed Windows 95, took to a stage at a big live event, dancing to the Rolling Stones Start Me Up – and reality suddenly reimposed itself:

Start Me Up? More like turn me off

Plug and Play quickly became known as “Plug and Pray” as its wildly inconsistent approach meant it sometimes worked wonderfully and sometimes just didn’t. Due to compromises made in the operating system's 16-slash-32-bit design and memory protection choices, some applications had a tendency to crash the whole system if not themselves, and windows in the new Windows would stagger themselves all the way across the screen. USB support came in 1997 – a year after the first spec was released. And there were countless other small problems that somewhat undercut the excitement and hype.

And the truth was, despite all its advances and innovations, it wasn’t until Windows 98 that various problems were smoothed out and a world-class, for the time, consumer-grade operating system was born. At that point, Microsoft simply dominated everything.

And then it abused its position to such a ludicrous degree that the US government and Europe were forced to drag Redmond through antitrust investigations: something that free-market-loving America hates doing. That famous trial in the States only came after a dropped FTC probe and dozens of lawsuits that managed to build up a massive pile of evidence, and with Microsoft simply refusing to stop screwing everyone.

Back to true form

Internet Explorer, initially an optional add-on, was later offered for free or bundled with every copy of Windows, triggering the first browser war. And Microsoft used its market-dominant OS to ruthlessly steamroller those who stood in its way. The technical and design jump that Windows 95 represented became a double-edge sword for the world; its success gave Microsoft the power to pander to its worst instincts.

And that’s not forgetting that almost immediately after Windows 95 was released, Microsoft reverted to type: stealing rather than innovating; milking rather than continuing to push the boundaries; gobbling up small companies and kludging them into Windows; and so on.

Then we had the fiasco that was Windows ME before the software goliath found its feet in the consumer space again with Windows XP – built upon its actual proper operating system foundation, the Windows NT family – before producing the questionable Vista and Windows 8.

It wasn’t until Google arrived and Apple found a new lease of life that Microsoft was pushed off its greed-and-laziness default and driven back toward innovation. Whatever you say about Microsoft, you can’t deny the extraordinary impact Windows has had on virtually every person on the planet.

And it all really began or at least kicked into high gear, for better or worse, with the launch of Windows 95, a quarter of a century ago today. ®


Intel CPU interconnects can be exploited by malware to leak encryption keys and other info, academic study finds

Side-channel ring race 'hard to mitigate with existing defenses'

Chip-busting boffins in America have devised yet another way to filch sensitive data by exploiting Intel's processor design choices.

Doctoral student Riccardo Paccagnella, master's student Licheng Luo, and assistant professor Christopher Fletcher, all from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delved into the way CPU ring interconnects work, and found they can be abused for side-channel attacks. The upshot is that one application can infer another application's private memory and snoop on the user's key presses.

"It is the first attack to exploit contention on the cross-core interconnect of Intel CPUs," Paccagnella told The Register. "The attack does not rely on sharing memory, cache sets, core-private resources or any specific uncore structures. As a consequence, it is hard to mitigate with existing side channel defenses."

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SolarWinds just keeps getting worse: New strain of backdoor malware found in probe

Plus: McAfee's in serious trouble over claimed cryptocurrency scam

In brief Another form of malware has been spotted on servers backdoored in the SolarWinds' Orion fiasco.

The strain, identified as SUNSHUTTLE by FireEye, is a second-stage backdoor written in Go which uses HTTPS to communicate with a command-and-control server for data exfiltration, adding new code as needed. Someone based in the US, perhaps at an infected organization, uploaded the malware to a public malware repository in August last year for analysis, well before the cyber-spying campaign became public.

Brandon Wales, acting director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, warned it could take 18 months to clean up this mess, and that's looking increasingly likely.

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Linus Torvalds issues early Linux Kernel update to fix swapfile SNAFU

‘Subtle and very nasty bug’ meant 5.12 rc1 could trash entire filesystems

Linux overlord Linus Torvalds has rushed out a new release candidate of Linux 5.12 after the first in the new series was found to include a ‘subtle and very nasty bug’ that was so serious he marked rc1 as unsuitable for use.

“We had a very innocuous code cleanup and simplification that raised no red flags at all, but had a subtle and very nasty bug in it: swap files stopped working right. And they stopped working in a particularly bad way: the offset of the start of the swap file was lost,” Torvalds wrote in a March 3rd post to the Linux Kernel Mailing List.

“Swapping still happened, but it happened to the wrong part of the filesystem, with the obvious catastrophic end results.”

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Remember that day in March 2020 when you were asked to get the business working from home – tomorrow, if possible? Here's how that worked out

IT pros from orgs large and small tell The Reg the tech delivered, mostly, but couriers and home Wi-Fi suddenly became your problem

Covid Logfile Brianna Haley was given one day to be ready to roll out Zoom for 13,000 users at over 1,000 sites.

Haley* is a project analyst for a large healthcare provider that, as COVID-19 marched across the world in March 2020, realised imminent lockdowns meant it would soon be unable to consult with patients.

And no consultations meant no revenue.

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The torture garden of Microsoft Exchange: Grant us the serenity to accept what they cannot EOL

Time to fix those legacy evils, though.... right?

Column It is the monster which corrupts all it touches. It is an energy-sucking vampire that thrives on the pain it promotes. It cannot be killed, but grows afresh as each manifestation outdoes the last in awfulness and horror. It is Microsoft Exchange and its drooling minion, Outlook.

Let us start with the most numerous of its victims, the end users. Chances are, you are one. You may be numbed by lifelong exposure, your pain receptors and critical faculties burned out though years of corrosion. You might be like me, an habitual avoider whose work requirements periodically force its tentacles back in through the orifices.

I have recently started to use it through its web interface, where it doesn’t update the unread flags, hides attachments, multiplies browser instances, leaves temp files all over my download directory, tangles threads, botches searchers and so on.

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Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy a beer: Beware the downloaded patch applied in haste

Let us tell you a tale of the Mailman's Apprentice

Who, Me? The weekend is over and Monday is here. Celebrate your IT prowess with another there-but-for-the-grace confession from the Who, Me? archives.

Our tale, from a reader the Regomiser has elected to dub "Simon", takes us back to the early part of this century and to an anonymous antipodean institution of learning.

Simon was working at the local Student Union (or "guild" as the locals called it), which was having problems with uppity education staff censoring the emissions of students. Simon was therefore commissioned to set up a fully independent newsletter.

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US National Security Council urges review of Exchange Servers in wake of Hafnium attack

Don't just patch, check for p0wnage, says top natsec team

The Biden administration has urged users of Microsoft's Exchange mail and messaging server to ensure they have not fallen victim to the recently-detected "Hafnium" attack on Exchange Server that Microsoft says originated in China.

Microsoft revealed the attack last week and released Exchange security updates.

The Biden administration’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) followed up with a March 5 general advisory encouraging upgrades to on-premises Exchange environments. Another advisory on 6 March upped the ante as follows:

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Delayed, overbudget and broken. Of course Microsoft's finest would be found in NASA's Orion

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream (as Windows crashes again)

BORK!BORK!BORK! Getting astronauts to the Moon or Mars is the least of NASA's problems. Persuading Microsoft Windows not to fall over along the way is apparently a far greater challenge.

Spotted by Register reader Scott during a visit to the otherwise excellent Space Center Houston, there is something all too real lurking within the mock-up of the Orion capsule in which NASA hopes to send its astronauts for jaunts beyond low Earth orbit.

Clutched in the hand of a mannequin posed in the capsule's hatch is a reminder of both how old space tech tends to be and a warning for space-farers intending to take Microsoft's finest out for a spin.

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NASA shows Mars that humans can drive a remote control space tank at .01 km/h

Perseverance takes first drive around landing spot named in honor of seminal sci-fi author Octavia E. Butler

NASA’s Perseverance rover trekked across Mars for the first time last Thursday, March 4, 2021.

The vehicle went four whole meters forward, turned 150 degrees to the left, then moved another two-and-a-half meters. The entire drive covered a whopping 6.5 m (21.3 feet) across Martian terrain. The journey took about 33 minutes.

The Register ran that through a calculator and deduces the nuclear powered laser-equipped space tank, aka Perseverance, sped along at the astounding velocity of .01km/h, quite a comedown from the 19,310 km/h at which it entered the red planet’s atmosphere.

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University of the Highlands and Islands shuts down campuses as it deals with 'ongoing cyber incident'

Ten letters, starts with R, ends with E, three syllables

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in Scotland is fending off "an ongoing cyber incident" that has shut down its campuses.

In a message to students and staff yesterday afternoon, the institution, which spans 13 locations across the northernmost part of the UK, warned that "most services" – including its Brightspace virtual learning environment – were affected.

"We are currently working to isolate and minimise impact from this incident with assistance from external partners. We do not believe personal data has been affected," said the university, adding: "The source of the incident is not yet known."

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