Remembering Windows 95's launch 15 years later

Some moments are culturally defining. They pave the way for a generation of consumers. People of my parents generation still remember the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I recall long lines to see the movie "Jaws," which gave A-movie status to scary B-movies. Many young adults of this generation will recall iPhone's June 2007 launch. Some moments define us. So it was this day 15 years ago. Windows 95 launched to long lines at midnight on Aug. 24, 1995.

Do you remember? Please share your Windows 95 story/memories in comments. Or send e-mail to joewilcox at gmail dot com. If I get enough good stories, I'll compile them into a separate post.

Microsoft had the right product at the right time. The planets aligned just so. Windows 95 was by no means the best PC operating system of its day. But it was good enough, usable enough, cheap enough and marketed well enough -- and the personal computer was mature enough for the mass market.

Windows 95 made geeks cool, too. Suddenly the seemingly unhippest of all people, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, was a rock star and business genius. Microsoft left IBM at the OS/2 altar -- abandoning the 32-bit operating system the companies codeveloped -- and shacked up with pseudo-32-bit Windows 95. A decade-and-a-half later, OS/2 is all but forgotten, while Windows defines the very essence of personal computing.

Other product and marketing decisions would prove crucial:

  • Pricing: Windows 95 sold for under 100 bucks as an upgrade to anyone with a powerful enough PC running DOS/3.11.
  • Compatibility: Microsoft ensured that Windows 95 would be largely backward compatible with customers' existing DOS software and PC hardware. PC owners could get a new computer, so to speak, for the price of a new operating system.
  • Marketing: The fast-flashing television commercials suited the MTV-video generation of the day, and they were aspirational. Your life would be better for buying Windows 95. Then there was the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" theme song.
  • Networking: Windows 95 fully supported TCP/IP out of the box -- no expensive third-party add-ons required. Businesses could easily network PCs and consumers could get online.
  • Multimedia: Windows 95 users could listen to music or watch videos on their PCs.

To showcase Windows 95's multimedia capabilities, Microsoft included two music videos--Weezer's "Buddy Holly" and Eddie Brickell's "Good Times"--on the operating system disc. Little touches like these show how well Microsoft synced Windows 95 product development and marketing. The music videos catered to a younger audience and they demonstrated the multimedia features' benefits. Yes, people could watch videos on Windows 3.1, but the experience was better on its successor.

Windows 95 made Microsoft a household name; it did for household awareness what DOS' and Windows 3.1's success did for businesses. Microsoft smartly simultaneously released Office 95 with the new Windows. Businesses bought the software duo by the millions of copies. From Windows 95's release, Microsoft's 15 year-old applications business really started flying.

Innocence Lost

I often wonder how close Windows 95 came to being a train wreck. In October 1994 -- the month OS/2 Warp launched -- I flew to Seattle; I was there to write a profile about a company using Lotus Notes. My local, Maryland Egghead Software store prominently displayed OS/2 -- right as customers walked through the door. The Seattle Egghead had similarly large display for Microsoft Bob, the-too-cute-to-sell graphical user interface for Windows 3.11. Bob turned out to be a magnanimous marketing and product disaster for Microsoft. Yet less than a year later, the company managed to get most things right with Windows 95.

I say "most things," because Gates was too obsessed with chasing AOL and CompuServe when the burgeoning World Wide Web mattered much more. I beta tested Windows 95 and MSN. I used OS/2 before running the first Windows 95 beta. I first surfed the Web using the Mosaic browser IBM shipped with OS/2. While Windows 95 shipped with Internet Explorer 1.0, Microsoft's main focus was MSN, which debuted with the operating system. MSN was an online client built into Windows 95. There was no Web browser access like there is today.

If I fault Microsoft for anything with MSN 1.0 it would be trying to do too much. The original MSN was a heavy client that labored under the slow dial-up connections of the day. It was simply too slow to offer a really good user experience, disappointing many launch partners. 

Windows 95 launched a short-lived time of innocent success, when good marketing and right timing turned a mere operating system upgrade into a phenomenon. During late-Windows 95 beta testing, Gates penned the "Internet Tidal Wave" memo; suddenly, he got the Web. Within a year, Microsoft aggressively pushed down an obsessive and dangerous path: Attempting to snuff out Netscape's browser for the perceived threat posed to Windows. The European and US antitrust cases that followed chaffed away the business decision-making, product innovation and marketing knack that helped make Windows 95's launch a defining cultural moment for PCs and computing operating systems.

Fifteen years later, Microsoft has got its Windows mojo back. There weren't massive lines around the block for Windows 7's launch, but that doesn't make the product any less culturally defining. Windows 7 is a spirited and reliable operating system that Microsoft brought to market with clever advertising. There is a massive Windows XP install base -- on order of 80 percent of all Windows users -- ready to go 7. In the strange way of Microsoft counting 95 comes before 7.

Happy Birthday Windows 95!

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