The biggest release since Windows 95 came in October 2001, when Microsoft launched Windows XP at a hotel in New York's Times Square. Windows XP had better Internet tools, including built-in wireless networking support. It had improvements in media software for listening to and recording music, playing videos and editing and organizing digital photographs.
Microsoft's next major release didn't come until Vista in November 2006. Businesses got it first, followed by a broader launch to consumers in January 2007. Coming after years of virus attacks targeting Windows machines and spread over the Internet, the long-delayed Vista operating system offered stronger security and protection. It also had built-in parental-controls settings.
But many people found Vista slow and incompatible with existing programs and devices. Microsoft launched Windows 7 in October 2009 with fixes to many of Vista's flaws.
Windows 7 also disrupted users less often by displaying fewer pop-up boxes, notifications and warnings — allowing those that do appear to stand out. Instead, many of those messages get stashed in a single place for people to address when it's convenient.
In a sign of what's to come, Windows 7 was able to sense when someone is using more than one finger on a touchpad or touch screen, so people can spread their fingers to zoom into a picture, for instance, just as they can on the iPhone.
Apple released its first iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Devices running Google's Android system for mobile devices also caught on. As a result, sales of Windows computers slowed down. Consumers were delaying upgrades and spending their money on new smartphones and tablet computers instead.
Windows 8 and its sibling, Windows RT, represent Microsoft's attempt to address that. It's designed to make desktop and laptop computers work more like tablets.
Windows 8 ditches the familiar start menu on the lower left corner and forces people to swipe the edges of the screen to access various settings. It sports a new screen filled with a colorful array of tiles, each leading to a different application, task or collection of files. Windows 8 is designed especially for touch screens, though it will work with the mouse and keyboard shortcuts, too.
Microsoft and PC makers alike had been looking to Windows 8 to resurrect sales. Microsoft's launch event Thursday was of the caliber given for Windows 95 and XP.
But with Apple releasing two new iPads, Amazon.com Inc. shipping full-size Kindle Fire tablets and Barnes & Noble Inc. refreshing its Nook tablet line next month, Microsoft and its allies will face competition that is far more intense than in the heyday of Windows 95 and XP.