Want to prick up a few ears at your next party or watercooler discussion? Tell people you've just installed a copy of Windows 95, Bill Gates & Co.'s latest upgrade to their PC operating system. When I made this declaration to some computer-savvy coworkers, comments ranged from ''Gee, that's really cool'' to ''That's brave of you'' to ''I've been testing that on my system for months'' (there's always a wise guy in the crowd).
In fact, if you try that simple experiment, you'll likely find that people's reactions to the phrase Windows 95 have less to do with the product itself than with all the hype and controversy surrounding it the hype thanks to Microsoft's relentless publicity barrage, and the controversy stemming from the Justice Department's continuing probe of Microsoft for allegedly anticompetitive practices. But what's most fascinating about Windows 95 to me is the soft, fuzzy, celeb-laden positioning of this essentially unglamorous product, as if Microsoft were intent on proving to the American public, as well as to the feds, that no piece of software this harmless could possibly merit such intense legal scrutiny.
The program itself is innovative and practical. Three examples: First, it combines the functions of Windows and DOS, meaning you no longer have to quit Windows to play DOS-based games; second, it simplifies the process of installing multimedia CD-ROMs (though getting them to work is still far from foolproof); and third, its improved ''robustness'' makes it much more difficult for a badly designed piece of software to crash your system.
Windows 95's public image is supercharged by Microsoft's clutch of celebs, who have added their own of-the-moment hipness to its scheduled Aug. 24 launch. On Aug. 27 and 28, TV viewers in 72 cities will be able to tune in to NBC for a half-hour infomercial starring Anthony Edwards, who plays the likable, softhearted chief resident of NBC's ER, and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. Meanwhile, funny, lovable Friends stars Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston twinkle and mug their way through a jokey, sometimes confusing demonstration in GoodTimes Home Video's The Microsoft Windows 95 Video Guide; and on Graphix Zone's CD-ROM The Improv Presents: Windows 95 for the Technically Challenged!, a troupe of wacky comedians uses high-tech shtick to guide benighted viewers through Windows 95's wonderful world.
Don't start hyperventilating yet; there's more: Basketball demigod/Brobdingnagian teddy bear Shaquille O'Neal will be opening up his own chat room on the Microsoft Network, Windows 95's easily accessed on-line component. This is where the legal and leisure aspects of Windows 95 really intersect: Even if only half of the anticipated Windows 95 users sign up for the Microsoft Network, it will become the nation's biggest on-line service, surpassing America Online, Prodigy, and CompuServe. Not surprisingly, the antitrust folks aren't too happy about this maybe Microsoft hopes Shaq will slam-dunk them into acquiescence.
With all this promotional hoo-ha, it's possible that PC owners will expect even more of Windows 95 than Microsoft never one of America's more modest companies has promised. ''It's still just a piece of software," warns Windows 95 group manager Russ Stockdale. ''It's not going to slice your bread or grow your hair.'' I, for one, don't need Jennifer Aniston to sell me on Windows 95 though she's certainly welcome to try.
Go Figure: Taking Panes
No matter how much hype surrounds the launch of Windows 95, there's one reassuring thing about computer software: It all boils down to numbers. So here are a few hard ones for Windows shoppers.
3 million Lines of programming code in 1992's Windows 3.1
15.2 million Lines of programming code in Windows 95
200 plus North American PC makers pre-installing Windows 95
1 North American PC makers refusing to pre-install Windows 95
15 million-20 million Copies of Windows 95 industry experts expect to be sold nationwide in 1995
45 million Glass windows industry experts expect to be sold nationwide in 1995