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Microsoft Mum On Windows 95 Tenth Anniversary

A look back on the $300 million publicity circus that marked the launch of Windows 95. Microsoft didn't even mark today's 10-year anniversary with a press release.
Ten years ago today, Microsoft released its landmark Windows 95 with a $300 million launch campaign -- including $12 million for the song "Start Me Up" from the even-then-ancient "Rolling Stones" -- but as Wednesday rolled around, Microsoft didn't even bother to put out a press release marking the anniversary.

Back in 1995, Microsoft wasn't nearly so shy about tooting its horn.

Then, the Redmond, Wash.-based developer opened a marketing and sales campaign that at the time was called the biggest-ever product launch. Nothing was too big, too good, for Windows 95.

Then chief executive, now chairman, Bill Gates broadcast the first public boot-up of the sorta-32-bit operating system in front of cameras that blitzed the image worldwide via satellite. He even had late night talk show host Jay Leno on stage to help him out. At one point, Leno joked that Windows 95 was "so powerful that it can keep track of all of OJ's alibis at once."

New York's Empire State building was lit in Microsoft's corporate colors when Leona Helmsley, dubbed the "Queen of Mean" by the city's press, still stalked the halls. A 300-foot Windows 95 banner was draped from Toronto's CN Tower, then, as now, the world's tallest structure.

Windows 95, originally code-named "Chicago" by Microsoft during its development, was intended to be Redmond's first all-32-bit operating system for consumers (the 32-bit Windows NT 3.1 preceded 95 by just over two years) but ended up a mash of both 32- and older 16-bit code. Among its biggest draws was the ability of Win32 applications to address up to 2 gigabytes of virtual memory (although addressing more than 512 megabytes of physical RAM was impossible without some serious tweaking) and the new Internet Explorer Web browser, which at that time wasn't entangled with the operating system. That didn't happen until Windows 98 (and thus the saga of United States v. Microsoft began).

It also rolled out during a time when relations between Microsoft and Apple were tense. (Wait…nothing's changed there.) Just a year before, the decision to not award Apple's claim that Microsoft allegedly stole its graphical operating system was shot down in appellate court. IBM was still trying, without success as it turned out, to tout OS/2 as a better operating system than Windows 95, even continuing the battle by releasing versions 3.0 and 4.0 (called Warp).

(As if suffering from a collective loss of memory, long-time IBM fanatics this week voted Microsoft's own Bill Gates as the most influential person in business computing in the last 50 years.)

Two months after its launch, Windows 95 had sold a million copies at $90 a pop. Today, fewer than 5 percent of business machines still run Windows 95 (and its minor update successor, Windows 98), according to Canadian asset management vendor AssetMetrix.

Today, Microsoft's still battling Apple, although now the latter owns the bulk of the digital music and portable player business with its iTunes e-store and its expanding iPod line. And Microsoft and IBM still argue over which operating system is best, although now its Windows (still) versus Linux.

But considering the big deal of 10 years ago, and the fact that everything -- and nothing -- has changed, why the lack of noise out of Microsoft?

Just the question that JupiterResearch analyst Joe Wilcox asked on his blog Wednesday.

In an entry titled "Where's the hoopla?" Wilcox wrote, "Windows 95 launched with such promise, with such aspirational context, that somehow buyers' lives would be better with it or worse if they didn't buy it. You were hip, you were tech, you belonged if you had Windows 95."

Wilcox then questioned whether Microsoft can recreate that attitude for its next-generation OS, Windows Vista, due out by the end of 2006.

"I think it would be tough to recreate the magic of the Windows 95 launch today or next year…but I certainly would encourage Microsoft to try. And I would like to see the company remember Windows 95. There is a good marketing opportunity here, particularly linking past glory with future glory and Windows Vista."

Maybe Microsoft thinks so, too, but if it is, it's keeping its plans close to its vest.

"Not that I've heard," a Microsoft spokesperson said when first asked if there was a reason behind the silence. Within 30 minutes, however, she elaborated via e-mail.

"Later this year, Microsoft will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Windows operating system. More information will be available during that timeframe."

Unlike 10 years ago, however, all bets are on a much quieter party.

(Wikpedia boasts a concise history of Windows 95 and the other editions of Microsoft's operating system.)