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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions