It’s a shame there was no social media when Microsoft launched Windows 95 on August 24, 1995. There were so many great Instagrams, Tweets and Snaps just waiting to be shared.
But, oh, what a sight it was. A picture-perfect day at Microsoft’s sprawling Redmond, Washington campus that still had a lot of open space and rolling hills of green grass. Under a blue sky filled with only a handful of puffy ultra-white clouds, it looked like the desktop we wouldn’t see until Windows XP.
There were large tents and swag, both forgettable and iconic: A Kodak CD-ROM player with a remote control(!), a canvas bag with the brand new “Start” button on it (sadly, I think I lost mine) and a commemorative Windows 95 box with a Win 95 CD-ROM in it. I still have the box, but not the CD-ROM.
I have this vague recollection of hot air balloon rides, but that may the product of an addled memory. What I do know is that former Tonight Show host Jay Leno was there. Clad entirely in denim, he stood on the lawn adjacent to the largest launch tent and entertained a small group of lawn-sitting attendees with a brief standup routine.
I remember walking up behind the group to watch and listen when I noticed someone standing to my left. It was Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates. His arms folded over his chest, he was gently rocking back and forth on his heels and smiling. I was pretty sure Gates had no idea who I was, but I introduced myself and told him that the whole event was pretty impressive, but what was more shocking was the awareness he and Microsoft had managed to build for Windows 95 before the product even launched or the major ad campaign had begun. “My mother and grandmother know what Windows 95 is,” I told him.
He looked at me — maybe for the first time since I started talking at him — and said, “That’s good marketing.”
I wanted to ask more but quite honestly was already buzzing a bit from my brief interaction with, even then, one of the richest people in the world. Gates just sort of wandered off to take in more of this one-of-a-kind event.
And it was definitely one of a kind — unprecedented, in fact.
The people’s OS
Prior to the Windows 95 launch event and the media saturation that happened before and since, there had never been a mainstream computing push quite like it. Consumers did not really think about operating systems and many were unconvinced that they needed a computer in the home.
I know, that mindset is hard to imagine in our current technology-saturated world.
In 1995, computers were still mostly for the office and productivity. But Windows 95 brought with it a word that consumers understood: “Start.” Start what? Start anything. There was also built-in, broad support for multimedia, which helped propel an explosion of CD-ROM titles (remember Edutainment?).
Gates and Microsoft designed Windows to be as consumer-friendly as possible (for the time) and made sure the launch event had crossover appeal — a first for a tech event.
Microsoft licensed The Rolling Stones’ Start Me Up, which played as Gates stood on stage announcing Windows 95. Like Leno’s presence, the idea was to telegraph mainstream appeal.Mashable Senior Tech Analyst Christina Warren told me she thinks the launch was Microsoft’s apex and I think there’s some truth in this.
The event put not only Windows 95 and operating systems on the map, it turned Microsoft into a brand name like General Mills and Ford and shone a bright, international spotlight on the company’s somewhat nerdy and socially award CEO. Windows 95 is very likely the first major operating system most people of a certain age remember. Geeks like me were DOS fiends and had been computing since the late 70s. Normals, they didn’t really get going until 1995 and Windows 95.
And if you think it was less about marketing and more about the technology, then you’re forgetting that IBM was also selling a little platform called OS/2. It was arguably better (certainly more advanced) than Windows and nobody really cared. IBM never did figure out how to market it.
By the time Windows 95 arrived in stores on August 24, 1995, consumers were primed for it, lining up for it. Yes, people lined up to grab the first Windows 95 boxes, more than a decade before Apple enjoyed similar lines for the first iPhone.
Granted, Microsoft happened to launch Windows 95 at the very cusp of the consumer Internet. We finally had a couple of graphical web browsers (Netscape, Mosaic). Internet Explorer (which started as Mosaic), however, was not even part of the initial Windows 95 release. It showed up later in a Plus! Pack. But awareness and demand for Internet access were growing at precisely the moment that millions of people were bringing computers into their home for the very first time. When they used these browsers and, often, AOL to access the Internet, it was mostly through Windows 95. In the end, humanity’s first experiences with the World Wide Web would be forever tied to Microsoft’s platform and, later, Internet Explorer (though that’s a tale for another time).
Windows 95 also arrived at a time of rapid hardware development. Moore’s law, which promised a doubling of processing power roughly every 18 months was on steroids and the price and availability of RAM (and technology in general) were falling and rising, respectively, at precisely the right time.
In other words, the stars aligned and Microsoft shot an arrow right through the middle of them. Windows 95 was the people’s platform (Apple was entering its struggles and was just two years away from a life-saving $150 million cash infusion from — you guessed it — Microsoft).
Microsoft’s decision to tap mainstream talent and resources for the Windows 95 launch was the start of a long line of celebrity-infused events that continues to this day. Would there have been a U2 on stage with Apple’s Tim Cook had The Rolling Stones not given Gates the okay in 1995?
Nothing in tech has ever had quite the same impact as the launch Windows 95. Consumers are jaded and, thanks to social media, have ready access to their favorite celebrity’s most personal thoughts and images (even if they are all prepackaged). They don’t need these big events and often don’t bother to notice.What’s most telling, though, is Microsoft’s own most recent Windows launch. Windows 10 didn’t even have a launch event. Instead the company held a small number of “fan” events around the world and there was nary a celebrity or recognizable song in sight.
Those halcyon days, and that iconic image are gone, though I can still close my eyes right now and see the launch. If it were today, I would grab Bill Gates’ hand and ask him to take a selfie with me. I wonder if he would have said yes.