A Microsoft sign is seen at the company's Finnish headquarters in Espoo, Finland. File picture: REUTERS/Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva
A Microsoft sign is seen at the company's Finnish headquarters in Espoo, Finland. File picture: REUTERS/Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva

How Windows 95 started a craze

By Christoph Dernbach Time of article published Aug 21, 2015

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Berlin - They called it midnight madness.

On August 24, 1995, US computer stores opened their doors at the stroke of midnight to let in long queues of people waiting to buy the new Microsoft operating system - Windows 95.

A young man told a local television station in Seattle that he simply had to have it.

What was unusual was, he didn’t yet own a computer.

It’s just “so hip”, he explained, as dozens of TV cameras rolled.

Windows 95 fever was contagious. Microsoft sold 7 million copies on diskettes and CDs in the first seven weeks. Within a year it had sold 40 million.

With the release, Microsoft redefined once-nerdy personal computers as cool, and came a decisive step closer to co-founder Bill Gates’ vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home”.

In 1995, 60 million computers were sold worldwide. Ten years later, that number surpassed 200 million, nearly all of them pre-installed with Microsoft operating systems.

The PC market peaked in 2011, with 365 million computers sold. Since then, it has taken a significant downturn as many users have dumped their PCs for smartphones and tablets.

The hype that today surrounds iPhone or Android product releases was still a distance in the future in 1995, and the marketing campaign that launched Windows 95 at the Microsoft campus in Redmond set a new benchmark.

Microsoft managers Brad Silverberg and Brad Chase talked the Rolling Stones into allowing Microsoft to use their 1981 hit Start Me Up for the software’s premiere and TV advertising, the first time the band had ever granted a commercial licence for one of its songs.

For the Windows 95 launch event they even flew in TV star Jay Leno from Los Angeles to perform for 2 500 guests.

“Half the world is upside down,” the German computer magazine c’t wrote at the time of the marketing blitz. “On the radio, TV or in the newspaper, no one can escape the purported advantages of Windows 95.”

The brand-new version of the operating system boasted an impressively user-friendly, document-oriented graphical interface - something familiar to Apple Macintosh fans, but a novelty for most PC users.

Windows 95 was such an improvement on the clunky earlier versions of the operating system - not to mention the command-line system MS-DOS - that it set off an upgrade frenzy.

The hype around Windows 95 tended to obscure some of its disadvantages.

The software’s weak security architecture left it susceptible to computer viruses. Microsoft addressed the problem only nine years later in the Windows XP Service Pack 2.

Bill Gates’ online strategy for Windows 95 was a slow starter as well.

In the early years of Windows, Gates failed to foresee the success of the World Wide Web, betting instead on the success of proprietary online systems like CompuServe and AOL. He equipped Windows with a Microsoft counterpart, MSN.

It was only after the success of the Netscape web browser that Gates realised his mistake.

Four months after the launch of Windows 95, Gates summoned an Internet strategy workshop in Seattle and announced the company would change course.

He chose an unusual historical comparison to clarify the new strategy.

On the anniversary of Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, he referenced a comment often attributed to the Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto when he announced: “The sleeping giant has awoken.”

The internet, Gates said, is the driving force of all improvements that Microsoft would make to all its classic products.

The announcement enmeshed Microsoft in a dirty “browser war”, a battle against Netscape that led to Microsoft’s 1998 prosecution by the US government for antitrust. But in the end it was Netscape that fell by the wayside.

The rise of Windows 95 also threatened Apple.

Then-Apple chief John Scully sued Microsoft, unsuccessfully, over charges early versions of Windows copied Macintosh’s operating system.

But Windows’ success left Apple and its Macintosh system stuck in a technical dead end. It took Apple two years to steer out of the doldrums, with the return of Steve Jobs and his Next operating system.

Jobs and his troubled company got help from an unlikely savior - Bill Gates.

Microsoft invested $150 million in Apple shares, and was rumoured to have paid a further $100 million to settle copyright infringements.

The iPhones and iPads that would later strike at the heart of Microsoft’s business were still years away.


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