It's official: Microsoft Corp. plans to release its long-overdue new version of Windows on Aug. 24. The program, known as Windows 95, will instantly become the best-selling software program in the world.

In the software industry, a program that sells 1 million copies a year is considered a significant success; 5 million a year is a blockbuster. But Windows 95 is on a wholly different plane. Just about every industry analyst agrees that Windows 95 will sell at least 10 million copies by the end of this year, and some estimates run twice as high.

Next year, assuming no major bugs appear to scare the big buyers away, bulk sales to corporate and governmental customers will ramp up, and Windows 95 could sell 40 million to 50 million copies around the world.

To find a comparable situation, you would have to go back exactly five years, to the day when Microsoft chairman Bill Gates held a lavish roll-out ceremony for Windows 3.0. That was the first version of Microsoft's Macintosh-like operating system that really worked. With that release, Windows almost immediately became the standard platform for corporate and individual users around the world.

Today work is underway to convert just about every major application software title to Windows 95 "native mode" -- that is, optimized to take maximum advantage of the operating system's new features. The hardware makers are gearing up, too: We just got an announcement from the big keyboard maker NMB Technology that they're going to produce a special Windows 95 keyboard.

In a sense, all this development forces users to move up -- at least, we hope it's "up" -- to the new version. Over the next couple of years, most of the leading-edge software programs will be written for Win95, not for older versions of Windows or for DOS. So if you want the new, improved version of the program you're using now, it will probably mean switching to Win95.

Of course, a lot of people will switch of their own free will. Many folks who have tried out the latest beta version of Windows 95 -- that is, a test version shipped to willing users just before the program goes into manufacture -- say it is a genuinely better version of Windows than the current version 3.11.

Windows 95 is designed to run any DOS or Windows program, including some DOS game programs that never performed correctly on earlier versions. Multi-tasking -- for example, updating a spreadsheet at the same time your modem downloads a program in the background -- is much smoother.

One feature of enormous appeal to us is the "plug-and-play" standard, which will be incorporated into Win95. This will mean you can plug in any new peripheral -- a modem, a CD-ROM drive, a printer -- and the software will automatically do all the configuration needed to make the thing run with your PC. If it works -- emphasize on that "if" -- that could save hours, days, even weeks of frustration.

As for the basic Windows "program manager" operation -- that is, letting you navigate among various programs, copy data -- Windows 95 provides two approaches.

If you want, you can set it up to look almost exactly like your current Windows desktop. If, like many Windows users, you think the current setup is too complicated, Win95 offers a plainer and easier desktop arrangement, with only a few icons and a "START" button in the lower left corner of the screen that makes it easier to launch a program.

Most industry analysts, interestingly, predict that home users, people with one or two computers, will be quicker to migrate to Win95 than corporate accounts with 500 machines. That's because home PC users these days are just more adventurous than the big guys.

Of course, the professional PC managers at big companies may have good reason for their caution: They have been burned before by buggy Microsoft software. The watchword in the industry is, "Never buy the first version of any Microsoft program." So the pattern in corporate, collegiate and governmental circles will probably be to wait awhile and make sure Win95 really works.

Somehow, the announcement from Microsoft that they're planning to ship a "Windows 95 tuneup pack" in November doesn't seem likely to increase confidence. In essence, Microsoft seems to be conceding that there will be many bugs in the first version of the software this August. But, hey, every program has bugs. Not every program, though, is destined to become a new industry standard the day it hits the stores. It looks like Windows 95 is going to achieve that remarkable feat. *