With Windows 95's Debut, Microsoft Scales Heights of Hype
By David Segal
You can hide under a bridge, row a boat to the middle of the ocean or wedge yourself under the sofa, cover your ears and then hum loudly. But get near a newspaper, radio, television or computer retailer today and you will experience the multimillion-dollar hype surrounding the launch of Windows 95.
Microsoft Corp. is spending about $300 million to trumpet the arrival of Windows 95, an upgraded operating system, the software that tells the machinery inside your personal computer what to do. Marketing mavens believe the all-out media blitz is the largest product advertising campaign ever. Print ads from both Microsoft and increasingly giddy computer retailers have been inescapable over the past few weeks.
Twelve million dollars was spent simply securing the rights to a theme song for the hoopla, the opening chords of the Rolling Stones hit "Start Me Up." The music will accompany Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates as he boots up the new program in a ceremony at company headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to be broadcast today live via satellite at launch events and retail outlets nationwide.
And don't think you can avoid the party simply by leaving town. In London, Brits will be treated to a free copy of the Times newspaper courtesy of Microsoft, which is paying for a print run of 1.5 million, more than double the paper's average daily circulation. In Toronto, a 300-foot Windows 95 banner has been draped down the CN Tower, and New York's Empire State Building will be lit up in red, yellow and green the colors of Microsoft's logo.
For its money, Microsoft has succeeded in generating a buzz that has landed the new product on the cover of national news magazines and made it a topic of conversation even among computer illiterates. But some analysts caution that Microsoft has run expectations to perilously high levels.
"I think the hype has been excessive," said Philip Kotler, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "If there are bugs in this program, or if the extra performance doesn't deliver substantial benefits, this could be a disaster."
Microsoft, however, anticipates that it will recoup its upfront outlays and then some. Roughly 100 million computer users now rely on earlier versions of Windows, and the company projects that 20 percent will upgrade to Windows 95 which retails for $90 within a year.
Analysts expect another quarter of a billion dollars in sales from add-on software titles that can take advantage of the increased speed and enhanced capabilities of Windows 95.
While Microsoft expects the campaign to pay off handsomely, past high-profile product launches prove there are risks. Indeed, pricey advertising campaigns have heralded some grand and very embarrassing failures. Recall Ford Motor Co.'s Edsel, a car model that bombed so thoroughly that its very name has become a synonym for catastrophic product ideas and cost the company about $250 million.
In the 1950s, DuPont Co. lost about $250 million developing and marketing Corfam, a synthetic leather substitute for shoes that customers snubbed in droves.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. made a $325 million mistake with Premier, its smokeless cigarette.
More recently, Walt Disney Co. faced a public relations disaster last year when glitches in its "Lion King" CD-ROM ruined Christmas for scores of kids.
But Microsoft is unlikely to suffer a similar fate because it took precautions, such as delaying its launch date and sending out a few hundred thousand copies to testers across the country.
Analysts think this diligence will pay off. "The extraordinarily extensive testing they did makes a show-stopping bug a pretty unlikely occurrence," said Chuck Stegman, a vice president at Dataquest Inc., a high-tech market research firm in California. "Someone would have stumbled on it already."
But those customers expecting Windows 95 to be a great technological leap forward may be disappointed. International Business Machines Corp. and Apple Computer Inc. already have operating systems on the market that sport the features greater memory management, the ability to perform several tasks at once and enhanced user-friendliness now being hailed in Windows 95.
Big Blue has made some effort to counter Microsoft's media onslaught with ads that feature the names of companies that have relied on its OS/2 system for years. Yesterday, at corporate headquarters in Armonk, N.Y., IBM officials reiterated the virtues of its own time-tested product, and tried to ignore the festivities.
"Microsoft is delivering the same features we delivered seven years ago," said company spokesman Tim Breuer. "We're moving on business as usual here."
There was no mad rush to obtain Windows 95 at the Office Depot on New Hampshire Avenue in Silver Spring early this morning. About a dozen customers were on hand when the store opened its doors at midnight, and a few more trickled in after that. By 12:30 a.m., the half dozen employees had the store pretty much to themselves.
"I'm just trying to stay awake," said one employee.
Nelson Riollano, a student at the University of Maryland, rode to the store on his bicycle from his home nearby to get his copy of the program. "I certainly thought there would be more people here," said Riollano. "There's been so much publicity, I figured if I didn't get it now, I'd have to wait until October or November." Staff writer Steve Vogel and researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company