Twenty years ago, the hot new CD-ROM everyone wanted was Microsoft’s Windows 95, an operating system that came with a sexy “Start” button to let you scroll through the computer’s programs, all in one place.
A few million people, it seems, just could not wrap their minds around this. And so thanks to Windows, another relic of the ’90s and early aughts had its best years ever: the For Dummies guidebooks.
This once-ubiquitous, bright yellow how-to series celebrates its 25th birthday this year. It has made a killing on Windows 95 for Dummies, its best-selling book ever. The 95 primer, which spawned two editions, featured chapters like “Making Windows 95 do something,” “That ‘cut and paste’ stuff,” and “Cruising the World Wide Web.”
The history of the For Dummies series sheds some light on what Americans searched for, before there was search. Years before Google became a free and instantly accessible resource for ”how to…” questions, book publishers thought there must be a way to offer basic and conversational tech advice to people who didn’t want to read entire manuals, eventually marketed as ”a reference for the rest of us!”
Of the early dummy days, DOS for Dummies author Dan Gookin recalls to Slate how an editor told him, “This level of user doesn’t want to learn anything. They want to get the answer to the question, close the book, and move on with their life.”
The Windows for Dummies series captured a moment in time when more and more Americans with no technical knowledge were nevertheless installing big shiny new pieces of complex machinery in their homes—and then trying desperately to figure out how to use them.
For Dummies has sold 3 million copies of the Windows 95 book in English-language markets, and more than 2 million of the subsequent Windows 98 guide, says David Palmer, marketing director at parent company Wiley. The 15-book collection of Windows titles runs up through July 2015’s Windows 10, with about 10 million English-language copies sold—which isn’t surprising if you consider Microsoft’s continued dominance in the personal computer market.
Today, outside the basic guides, there are also dozens of spin-off Windows-related titles. The current bestseller among them is Windows 10 For Seniors For Dummies.