A window we will all want to open

Microsoft's new computer program is being hugely hyped. But this time, Charles Arthur says, there is something to get excited about
The launch in eight days' time of Windows 95, Microsoft's upgrade of its Windows computer operating system, is the marketing equivalent of a solar eclipse: a rare event worth observing for the sheer spectacle. Yet 10 years ago, the level of excitement being generated in the run-up to the release of what is, after all, simply a computer program would have seemed bizarre, bordering on lunacy.

Last month Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, began its promotion of this new operating system for IBM-compatible personal computers with a 23-city tour of the United States. Each stop involved a demonstration of the system to up to 3,000 people. PC dealerships in the US are talking nervously of having to open early on 24 August to cope with the expected rush of customers. One is raffling a Porsche Carrera to a lucky first-day buyer of the new operating system. Aircraft towing advertising banners have flown over crowded beaches.

In the UK, there will be a 22-city "tour" and a big promotion at high- street outlets. Ziff-Davis Publishing, which specialises in computer magazines, reckons Windows 95 could have the fastest user take-up of any software product to date.

A total of about $750m is being spent worldwide on promotion, including marketing and advertising. In the first year Microsoft expects to sell about 25 million copies of Windows 95 to existing computer users (the last revision to the system was three years ago), and with at least 70 million PCs forecast to be sold in 1996, sales of Windows 95 might reach 100 million within 18 months.

One could almost understand the hype if the product in question were a miracle cure for fatness, a pollution-free car, something - anything - to lighten the human condition. But it is not. It is a computer program that organises and runs other programs. Ten years ago, no one beyond the obsessive world of computers would have been interested. Now, high-street stores are advertising it.

Why the big fuss? Critics of Microsoft, such as its main rival Apple Computer, say that Windows 95 offers little that has not been available for more than five years on the Macintosh computers: a screen that mimics a "desktop", the ability to start a program by moving a pointer to it and clicking on it, the capacity to run a number of programs at once (so that you can do word processing while a large spreadsheet makes a forecast for, say, a business plan, and another program searches the Internet for a particular file), and the facility to plug a new piece of equipment into the computer (such as a CD-Rom or printer) and link it up with the minimum of fuss. None of those capabilities exists in full on the present version of Windows, though all do on the Macintosh.

So the interest in Windows 95 is nothing to do with it being leading- edge technology. In part, it is explained by marketing muscle: the current version of Windows runs on roughly 100 million PCs worldwide, making it a de facto standard which nourishes the rest of the $130bn PC industry. But there is another, less tangible factor at work here, too: Windows 95 has slotted perfectly into an unexpressed desire in the public consciousness. The design and cultural commentator Peter York identifies the appeal of Windows 95 as the combination of its global reach, and still justifiably being able to clothe itself as a product for the individual.

In this, Microsoft's computer program lines up with a number of other classic products: the Biro, aerosols, the Sony Walkman, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, the Mini and the compact disc. It is a piece of technology which has arrived at just the right time to satisfy people's wants.

Like those other classic products, Windows 95 enhances our personal independence and autonomy, and makes our lives more convenient. It draws everyone deeper into the existence of the "me" generation. Thus, aerosols let you manage your hair, your hygiene, your cleaning as you choose: convenience in a can. A Biro can write for far longer than a fountain pen, and when it's finished you simply throw it away. The Mini, costing pounds 400 in its first incarnation, made car ownership possible for the young and relatively poor, not just the comfortably well-off. The Walkman provided everyone with their own personal environment: the music (or noise) that you want at the volume you choose.

But like those earlier products, Windows 95 also exemplifies a wider economic and cultural trend. Just as globalisation gives corporations multinational reach, their products link physically and culturally diverse peoples, homogenising aspects of our lifestyles and, literally, connecting us up. Software can be "shipped" over a telephone line across borders; Windows 95 will be the same in Australia or the Arctic. The world becomes a smaller place - rather as it did when the jumbo jet, by allowing airlines to compete heavily on fares, revolutionised intercontinental travel.

In the past 10 years, personal computers have spread so widely that they are now commonplace, with their use in offices and their existence in corners of living rooms, studies and bedrooms taken for granted.

Last Christmas brought a boom in both the US and UK in sales of PCs for the home; many had the potential to connect to networks such as the Internet. Most were able to play CD-Roms, which can hold enormous amounts of sound and pictures. (The compact disc, another classic invention, is not quite at the stage where we can see its full effect. Initially it just replaced the vinyl record. But in the next two years it will become common to buy CDs that hold music, films, encyclopaedias, any of a huge range of entertainments. And they will all work on a single machine - very likely a computer.)

But the hurdle is that PCs are not easy to use; nothing like as simple as a microwave oven, or a hi-fi, or a television. They are even more vexing than a video. Windows 95 is a breakthrough because it will begin to solve this problem of inaccessibility. Future upgrades will finally turn the computer from an unfriendly piece of office equipment in which you need tutoring, to a compliant machine that we can use regularly at home.

Clearly, there is already widespread pent-up demand among computer users frustrated by their inability to harness the latent power of their machines to take part in the information revolution. Graham Whitehead, head of British Telecom's advanced concepts division, says that many of the people he meets ask him about the "information superhighway" and multimedia, but then cannot describe what they expect it to offer: "It's ethereal, like mist."

The upgraded operating system should make it easier to reach out over the networks and download a CD or a video over the phone, or to take a picture from the TV and make a copy of it on your printer. Peter York believes the Windows 95 promotional material presents a subversive picture in which the user takes control of their destiny. No mention that it will make Microsoft rich in the process.

Such world-changing products come along only once or twice in a decade. This may be the only one for the 1990s. So for the next eight days just sit back and enjoy the party.