Happy birthday Windows 3.1, aka 'the one that Visual Basic kept crashing on'

30-year-old software that first introduced Windows Registry and killed Real Mode


Time flies whether you're having fun or simply trying to work out which Registry change left your system hopelessly borked, and before you know it, Windows 3.1 is turning 30.

Windows 3.1 was more than a user interface refresh of the preceding Windows 3.0. Arriving on April 6, 1992, and still on MS-DOS, the operating environment brought forth support for TrueType fonts, introduced the Windows Registry and dropped support for older silicon. Windows 3.1 insisted on 80286 or above, finally sticking a knife in the heart of the Real Mode that was still supported in Windows 3.0.

As well as a visual update (although nothing compared to what was coming a few short years later with Windows 95) multimedia support was improved and Microsoft introduced a concept called The Registry.

The Windows Registry was (and remains) a database of settings hidden within the environment, ostensibly intended to replace or complement the .INI configuration files scattered throughout the environment both by Windows and applications targeting the platform. It is a handy database, but one that has become considerably more complex in the intervening 30 years.

Windows 3.1 also increased the maximum memory available: when running in 386 enhanced mode, the limit was a mighty 256MB, up from the weedy 16MB of Windows 3.0 (although care needed to be take with the version of the HIMEM.SYS driver.

The requirement to run in Standard or 386 Enhanced Mode also made things a good deal more stable, although the elephant-on-a-traffic cone nature of Windows perching on DOS meant there remained plenty of opportunities for sudden crashes.

Windows 3.1 sold very well, with an appealing user interface and consumer-friendly multimedia features. It did, however, have a relatively short life. Networking shortcomings would be at least partially addressed by a quick-fire succession of Windows for Workgroups releases, taking the version number to 3.11 by 1993 and also dropping Standard Mode. Windows 95 turned up shortly after, finally merging MS-DOS and Windows (after a fashion).

And then there was Windows NT 3.1, released in 1993 and looking for all the world like Windows 3.1 on the surface, but with an entirely different architecture lurking underneath.

Support for Window 3.1 ended more than 20 years ago, but its influence continues to be felt today, even if the stacks of floppy disks used to install it are long gone. ®

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