Friday, June 14, 2024

The Windows 95 25th Anniversary: Remembering The Best Tech Product Launch In History

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This week was the 25th anniversary of the launch of a product that changed my life, Windows 95. The product not only changed the trajectory of personal computing; it changed my life.

Let’s talk about the incredible launch and the impact the product had on the PC market this week because it is doubtful we will ever see a lunch like this again. 

August 15, 1995

I flew to Seattle the night before and was very excited about attending the event. I’d just recently become an external analyst and was just a few months into the job, having left IBM in November of 1994 to join Dataquest as one of the analysts covering operating systems. 

During the year, I’d released the first five-year forecast the firm had ever done on operating systems and bet my future that Windows 95 would eclipse everything else. If the product failed to perform, my butt was on the line because everyone but Microsoft was upset with this forecast. I’d had an impressive number of top executives and CEOs tell me my tenure as an analyst would shortly end with prejudice (I’d never work as an analyst again and would likely be lucky to end up flipping burgers).  

So, as I rode to the event, in my head was the thought that this could be the end of what could have been a very short stint as a newly minted analyst. Arriving at the Microsoft campus, I looked to the sky, and it looked just like the image on the box—big white fluffy clouds on a perfect blue sky. In Redmond Washington, that sight was relatively rare as it usually was overcast, cold, and dreary, but that day it was as if Bill Gates had ordered the perfect sky and the earth had complied. 

The venue was laid out like a circus with a large central tent and a bunch of satellites on a near-perfectly groomed green natural lawn. The site was stunning. As the launch event progressed, Bill Gates and Jay Leno were on stage to present the product. But one of the most impressive parts was that after the announcement, the stage opened up to showcase a large number of the developers responsible for the product. It was one of the only times I’ve seen the folks that created a new offering personally given credit for it and allowed to receive personal applause for their work.

I remember thinking that every launch should be like this, rather than the top executive seemingly taking credit, the folks that did the work should be showcased because they did the heavy lifting. Listening to the Stones sing Start Me Up really fired up the crowd, but I still think the reveal of those that created the product was the most potent part of the day. 

After the launch, we exited to the satellite tents where a massive number of new apps were being showcased. Some allowed you to explore file repositories virtually, some were new games that were far more graphically rich, and all promised a rich application future long before anyone had thought up an app store. 

The Dark Days Of Windows 95

Flying back that night, I reminisced about what I’d seen. The experience struck me as a tad surreal, everything had been so perfect, so entertaining, and so different than any other product launch I’d seen before or since. When I was exiting the plan, the woman in front of me stopped suddenly to put her child in a stroller, and when I suddenly had to step around her, I twisted my ankle badly which, in a way, was a warning the next few weeks weren’t going to go well.

There was too little control over parts, drivers, and support that was understaffed to deal with the massive problems of trying to apply a new operating system to a very diverse hardware ecosystem. One of Intel’s folks put Windows 95 on a PC that controlled their FABs and crashed the factory, taking it down for days; I put it on my CEO’s laptop and bricked it (not the smartest thing I’ve ever done), and demand shifted from being massive to almost zero over just a few days.   

Microsoft, instead of looking at what happened and deciding to fix what broke, instead determined that massive demand generation was a bad thing, which is why we never saw a launch like that ever again, but Windows did change the PC landscape. 

What Windows 95 Changed

Before Windows 95, PCs were mostly tools bought by firms for employees. Consumer PC use wasn’t a thing yet, and IT often deployed PCs more like they had terminals. Often those of us that used them were more like IT rebels trying to do things that IT couldn’t handle and having to do most of our support. Windows 95 truly began the process that took the platform into gaming on the consumer side and as the new computing standard for the enterprise. 

Over the following years, Microsoft and its partners fixed the driver issues, improved the hardware certification process, and turned what had been an incredibly unreliable product into one of the most reliable offerings at the scale that had ever existed.  Yes, there were significant hiccups like Windows ME, Windows Vista, and Windows 8, where the firm lost track of their end goal, but by Windows 10, 20 years later, they had addressed even the long-lasting security oversight with the platform. 

Windows 95 had plowed a field that Windows 10 eventually planted, and today we benefit from the result with a wide variety of attractive PCs that are both reliable and relatively secure.  And, during this pandemic, for many, the difference between being able to function at work and school when you can’t be at work or school. 

It also began a fight for user freedom. Before you were locked into a hardware ecosystem, much like Apple is now, but with Windows, you could pick from a variety of hardware vendors, software vendors. If you wanted to bypass IT, you could (which admittedly IT wasn’t a fan of).  Windows 95, in many ways, was when the PC revolution became a revolution, and we continue to benefit from the trends it started today.  Happy Birthday Windows 95, and thanks for a fantastic ride that at times was just a tad too exciting.   

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