1995: The year the future began
No prominent event of 1995 — a watershed year in ways serious and significant — was more hyped or contrived than Microsoft’s official release of the Windows 95 computer operating system.
The rollout on August 24, 1995, was preceded by weeks of relentless advertising that marked new highs in ballyhoo. Not since “the first landing on the moon — or, at any rate, since the last Super Bowl — has America been more aflutter,” a U.S.-based correspondent for London’s Independent newspaper observed on the eve of the launch.
So successful was Microsoft’s campaign in directing attention to Windows 95 that even computer illiterates were talking about the new operating system, or so the Washington Post said.
Microsoft feted the launch with a big party in suburban Seattle, its corporate home. The company’s billionaire chairman, Bill Gates, filled the emcee role along with Jay Leno, the Tonight Show host. Leno joked that Windows 95 was “so powerful that it can keep track of all of OJ’s alibis at once” — a reference to former football star O.J. Simpson, then on trial in Los Angeles in the slayings of his former wife and her friend.
The company spent lavishly in touting Windows 95. It reportedly paid millions for rights to the launch anthem, the Rolling Stones’ hit Start Me Up. (A new feature of Windows 95 was the “start” button.)
Microsoft also recruited Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry of the popular 1990s show “Friends” to star in its cheesy “Windows 95 video guide,” which it billed as a “the world’s first cyber sitcom.”
As I note in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Microsoft bought out the print run of the Times of London on August 24 and gave away the newspaper, which included an advertising supplement for Windows 95.
In New York, the Empire State Building was illuminated in a light show of red, yellow, and green — three of Microsoft’s four corporate colors. (Blue was the other, but technical problems kept that color from being displayed, the New York Times reported.)
A banner that stretched some thirty stories and proclaimed “Microsoft Windows 95” was suspended from the landmark CN Tower in Toronto.
It was, as I say in 1995, “a burst of contrived giddiness and worldwide extravagance that would be unthinkable today.”
Unthinkable in that few people would find reason to celebrate the introduction of a computer operating system, let alone stand in line to buy the software. It wouldn’t be like buying a new iPhone. Windows 95, as the New York Times noted at the time, was analogous to “a more efficient transmission for a car.”
Howard Kurtz, then the media reporter for the Washington Post, grumbled 10 days after the rollout:
“The plain truth is that Windows 95 is not going to change people’s lives in the manner of past breakthrough inventions that, oddly enough, received a fraction of the publicity. Fax machines, for example (ending the era when messengers had to deliver urgent letters). Or VCRs. Or automatic teller machines. Or voice mail. Or microwave ovens, or cell phones, or even the remote controls that have rendered us a nation of channel-surfers. These all sort of crept up on us.”
Not overlooked amid the hoopla was the fundamental objective of Microsoft’s campaign — establish Windows 95 as the industry standard and encourage users to move from older Windows platforms. In that, Microsoft largely succeeded: Windows 95 was a decided upgrade for personal computers.
It also was the platform for which Microsoft developed and introduced Internet Explorer, its buggy, much-disliked, but ultimately dominant Web browser.
Many years after the launch, Walter Mossberg, then of the Wall Street Journal, ranked Windows 95 as one of the dozen “most influential” technology products he had reviewed since the early 1990s.
Windows 95, Mossberg wrote, “cemented the graphical user interface and the mouse as the way to operate a computer. While Apple’s Macintosh had been using the system for a decade and cruder versions of Windows had followed, Windows 95 was much more refined and spread to a vastly larger audience than the Mac did.”
In 1995, Apple was a modest player, commanding just 8 percent of the worldwide computer market.
Even so, Apple ran an imaginative counter-campaign to Microsoft’s hype, noting that many Windows 95 features already were available on Macintosh machines. “Been there,” Apple proclaimed in its publicity, “done that.”
The release date finally arrived and just after midnight on August 24, in Auckland, New Zealand, a 19–year–old student named Jonathan Prentice made the first retail purchase of Windows 95. Five television crews were on hand.
“It sounded like it would be a bit of fun,” Prentice was quoted as saying.
The 20th anniversary of the launch will be marked next month in Seattle at a reunion of the Microsoft team that developed Windows 95.
Back in the day, it was reported that team members had consumed nearly 2.3 million cups of coffee and 4,850 pounds of popcorn while working on the product.
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