AT THE risk of seeming to suggest that Windows 95 may not be the greatest technological breakthrough since the toaster oven, allow me to say a couple of words about the hype campaign surrounding its introduction:
After all, this is a product that, by itself, doesn't actually do anything. That a sizable chunk of the American population will never use. That undoubtedly will be overtaken by a sleeker and snazzier version a year or two down the road.
Sure, Microsoft's $300 million promotion campaign for its computer operating system was worth some coverage. But what this endless Window-watching really demonstrates is our journalistic obsession with the latest gizmos and gadgetry, the better to appeal to plugged-in (and suitably upscale) consumers.
I generally scoff when someone charges that a newspaper has been "bought and paid for," but in this case it's true. Microsoft bought up 1.5 million copies of the Times of London, inserted a Windows advertising supplement and handed them out to the Brits on street corners for free. No doubt Rupert Murdoch's paper will be reporting on Microsoft with undiminished fervor.
"WHAT A SHOW," applauded USA Today's cover story, dutifully noting that the Gannett newspaper is on the Microsoft Network, the on-line extravaganza automatically offered to all purchasers of computers with Windows 95.
Jay Leno chatted up Microsoft chief Bill Gates at the promotional launch; what a coincidence that his network, NBC, has also hooked up with the Microsoft Network. As for CNN, which also leaped on the story, Ted Turner courted Gates as an investor in an aborted effort to buy CBS.
But even news outlets with no link to the Gates empire, other than the software they use and the advertising they eagerly accept, are riding the tidal wave. "Beyond the Hype," shouted the cover of U.S. News & World Report, as if that were possible. (The Washington Post exercised admirable restraint by running only 11 stories the week of the launch, including an eight-page spread in the Washington Business section.)
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. No one called a press conference to announce them; no one company cornered the market, its billionaire boss a national symbol of marketing savvy.
I'd been getting along perfectly fine with my Windows 3.1, blissfully unaware that my deepest computer needs were going unmet. Still, to investigate whether the promise matched the publicity, I gave the $90 program a quick spin the other day. I was not quite blown away. Yes, the icons are cute, and I'm sure the multi-task functions come in handy when you're trying to finish a term paper on deadline while also answering your e-mail, downloading a presidential transcript and playing Hootie on the CD. But a zillion-dollar killer app? Not.
Well, you do get your very own personal icon (my colleague's was called "Vickiland") for your favorite functions. And an "inbox," a "recycle box" and a "task bar" that tells you what time it is. For my first feat, I clicked on "Programs," which brought up a box called "Accessories," which led to a box called "Games," which enabled me to play Solitaire. Millions of dollars of R&D for something you can do with a deck of cards.
Next I logged onto the Microsoft Network, which offered such choices as the SoHo Guidebook (this turned out to be an acronym for "Small Office/Home Office"). A color photo caught my eye. "Experience the Windows 95 Launch," it said. "Read the transcript of Jay Leno's chat, see photos of launch day events, and more." I clicked. I waited. "This service is not available at this time. Please try again later." I had to settle for skimming Computing magazine.
I may not be alone; frustrated users have been jamming the Microsoft help lines. "I'm ready to throw the whole thing against the wall," Philip Jackson of Birmingham told the Wall Street Journal.
What the Windows blitz reminds us above all is that we live in an ad-saturated culture in which the art of salesmanship has reached undreamed-of heights. Anything -- a corporate merger, a basketball shoe, a Contract with America -- can be packaged and peddled the way Rush Limbaugh sells that stuffed-crust stuff from Pizza Hut. Windows was pitched as a cultural event, complete with Mick Jagger soundtrack.
Once politicians used campaign biographies to run for president; now Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell dangle the possibility they might seek the White House in part as a way to sell millions of books. Michael Jackson chats up Diane Sawyer about allegations of child molestation as a way of hyping his new double album, "HIStory." Hugh Grant gets caught with his pants down and a hooker named Divine -- once a career-ending embarrassment -- and the red-faced lad winds up plugging his new flick, "Nine Months," on Jay Leno, Larry King and 42 other talk shows. In an age when Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca are the "authors" of best-selling books, it's little wonder that Bill Gates wants to star in his very own infomercial.
It's been about three years now since the media fell in love with the information superduperhighway, itself a hugely hyped concept that has yet to live up to its cover-story billing. It's now, it's happening, it's cutting-edge, it's more fun that writing about the federal budget. Only in such an overheated atmosphere could an invisible product encoded in a 3 1/2-inch disk attain Madonna-like fame. Forgive me if I spend my 90 bucks on something more prosaic, like a new muffler. Howard Kurtz is The Washington Post's media reporter.