The date was Aug. 24, 1995, and hundreds of media and influential corporate customers were crammed into a circus tent on Microsoft’s (NASDAQ: MSFT) campus for the official launch of Windows 95.
It was a festive affair: Outside, Microsoft had set up a Ferris wheel and food booths, and a rock band. But the real excitement was inside the tent, where then-CEO and chairman Bill Gates and guest host Jay Leno celebrated the debut of the operating system that would overhaul the stodgy feel of Windows 3.x with a sleeker, more user-friendly — and more modern — PC operating system.
It was the most important launch of a new version of Windows since Windows 3.0 rolled out in May 1990. The event — the only Windows launch that Microsoft ever held on its campus — also served to highlight the shift of Windows from a dashboard that ran on top of Microsoft’s 16-bit MS-DOS (Disk Operating System) to a full-fledged operating system that didn’t need DOS to run.
Windows 95 — previously codenamed “Chicago” — formally made its debut to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up,” which Microsoft’s marketing mavens used as a reference to the system’s new Start button. Ads showing off the flashy new OS were ubiquitous for months.
And the song proved apt: Windows 95 sales took off. Beyond that, it paved the way for subsequent releases, including Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), and Windows Millennium Edition (ME).
While Windows 95 disappeared from store shelves in 2001, the OS and its successors remained a key part of Microsoft’s operating system transition to 32-bit computing and, eventually, to 64-bits. In fact, Microsoft just last month said that 46 percent of all Windows 7 PCs now are running one of the 64-bit editionsof the company’s newest Windows offering.
While much has changed in the world, and with Microsoft, since then, the company today continues working on the descendants of Windows 95. Windows 7 shipped last fall and it sold more than 175 million licensesin the first eight months following its release.
Additionally, the company admits to be at work on what is often referred to as Windows 8, although it will be at least another year or two before it ships.
August of 1995 was a momentous one for Microsoft in other ways, as well. The rollout of Windows 95 followed the official launch of Internet Explorerby just a week.
While it’s working on the successor to Windows 7, Microsoft also is preparing to hold a big launch party in San Francisco next month to launch the beta test of Internet Explorer 9.
In the meantime, industry watchers this week may be spending a little time reminiscing about the debut of the Start button, the never-before-duplicated carnival-like introduction on Microsoft campus, and the lingering importance of Windows 95 to today’s PC.
Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.