039. Start Me Up
“C:\ONGRTLNS.W95” –Someone at Apple trying to be clever
It has been 26 years since the Windows 95 launch and still no launch from any company has come close to the global scale and impact of the event. There have been big events and massive opening weekends for many products, but nothing like August 24, 1995. Even from our supporting role in Office, it was an event of a lifetime.
While we signed off in July, our focus immediately turned to continuing to build Office96. The world would treat Office 95 as though it was a major new product from Microsoft, but we knew we had put most of our development efforts into the next release of 12/24. We were also behind because one thing we learned about parallel releases was that 15% of our engineering still required nearly all of our resources for testing, marketing, and the rest of the product pipeline. We could in a sense fool the market that we did a full release but we could not fool ourselves.
The other industry-shifting event happening at the same time—in hindsight, perhaps foreshadowing—was the Netscape IPO. Windows 95 was big, but the Internet and WWW would prove even bigger. In the years that follow, it became much clearer that Windows accelerated the adoption of the Internet long before it was threatened by it, and more importantly by mobile phones. . .and Apple.
Back to 038. Designed for Windows 95
Please feel free to leave a comment or memory about the Windows 95 launch and impact on you. For this post comments are open to everyone, not just subscribers.
By late July, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, the Office 95 suite (called Office Standard), and a number of other products from all over Microsoft were off to manufacturing. This only left four weeks for the manufacturing and airlifting of retail product all around the world. The baton had been passed to marketing and logistics.
Just after sign-off, I got a call from my mother that my grandfather was ill. I flew back to Miami immediately. Pop was 90 years old and up until then had been perfectly fine, walking miles every day around his North Miami condo complex, Point East, (Seinfeld fans picture Del Boca Vista). Sitting beside his hospital bed, we talked about a lot of stuff. His biggest frustration was that Microsoft was not paying a dividend. He was a depression-era person with little faith in the rise of equity. He would often send me newspaper clippings and earnings press coverage via postal mail, something many of us experienced from our Greatest Generation relatives. That said, he also would place a bet on anything with a starting line or a clock and we had spent most of my vacations at the Hollywood Racetrack betting his numbers, 6 and 7 or 4 and 8 (the birthday he shared with Grandma). His winnings paid for my nursery school and summer camps growing up. When it was time for me to leave, lying in his bed, he wished me a happy birthday (my thirtieth) and flicked his wrist at me and said, “Get out of here, don’t worry about me.” Two days after the Windows 95 launch event, I flew back for his funeral. We celebrated the full life he lived.
Planning the launch event was all consuming for DAD marketing (development team was still mostly working on Office96), with product availability, newspaper and magazine ads, all the tools needed for retail point of sale, and especially for public relations. By 1995, the tech press had become a mainstream phenomenon and all major newspapers, magazines, and even television networks had dedicated technology reporters. I had no idea how much time I would end up spending supporting our marketing team as the “product” person in all sorts of interviews, demos, lunches, and more. This was the release at which I met most of the industry beat reporters and established relationships that still exist.
Everyone was writing stories and reviews of Windows 95 and Office 95. Everyone.
Shipping Office 95 as a single product was a huge accomplishment for the Desktop Applications division, and it was only fitting that it was a small part of the myriad accomplishments under the leadership of Mike Maples. As the previews were going out, Mike announced that he was going to retire from Microsoft and live full time in the Hill Country of Texas. While many of us stayed in touch with him for decades, in 2016 I had the privilege of coteaching a class at Stanford with Mike—teaching alongside my teacher was a great joy.
Without Mike, Microsoft would have become a different place. Mike brought to Microsoft, especially to Apps and Office, a culture, attitude, and strategy that perhaps more than most any other person were responsible for the success of Office, a success still felt decades later in Office 365.
The Redmond, Washington, launch event was set to be the biggest and craziest event ever hosted on Microsoft’s campus. The entire sports and grass area, about two football fields, was tented that third week of August. Most Microsoft people ended up watching it in the conference rooms all around campus.
For all the tech press, the event was the culmination of months of writing about the ever-expanding impact of Windows 95 on computing. For most, however, the rise of the internet and Microsoft’s new and more critical competitor, Netscape, fresh off its public offering a few weeks earlier and worth over $3 billion was getting equal, if not more, attention.
Even the conversations we had with each other were internet related. At one point I ended up in a conversation with BillG and his new technical assistant over “internet search.” Because of the work in the Office 95 “personal Lycos” feature, there had been a newfound interest in internet search (Google was still almost five years down the road, and many “search engines,” including Lycos, came and went). I was making a strident argument with Bill that the future of search would be full text indexing and not the currently dominant index hierarchy of Yahoo, which was all the rage. Bill loved libraries and hierarchy and he asserted there would be a hierarchy. We went back and forth on this for months, but there’s some irony that we debated this at the launch of Windows 95.
My official role at the launch was tech support for the demonstration of Office 95.
The demo fell to Office product manager Sarah Leary (SarahL). Sarah joined DAD marketing straight out of Harvard and was already a veteran of several major launches. Sarah was mostly focused on the business motions and strategy for the launch, and she also happened to be the best demo showperson, probably in the company.
This was not just any demo. She was flanked on one side by BillG, a frequent demo companion, but on her other side was Jay Leno, who was then the relatively new host of The Tonight Show and the clear leader of late-night TV.
Sarah scripted the demo to show off the key integration between Windows and Office. There was a nail-biting moment when it was time to bring up a print dialog. Normally, a demo would never include anything that could possibly “hang,” like printing, but she pulled it off and skillfully showed some of PowerPoint’s new animations and used PowerPoint’s new Top 10 animation to create a Jay Leno Top 10 list.
We didn’t hire professional writers like a giant company might—we wrote the jokes ourselves. My contribution to Top 10 List: Windows 95 and Office 95 was “OJ Says, ‘Office 95 fits Windows 95 like a glove.’” Cringeworthy years later, but Leno loved it since OJ was a late-night staple. The crowd laughed and that joke made it into a box on the front of the USA Today newspaper.
There were countless parties all around campus as the launch event was, in fact, the ship party for all of Microsoft. The evening after the main launch event was filled with parties, dinners, and drinks all around Seattle. I had dinner twice with two different groups of reporters. Then at the old Capitol Hill home of B.P.O.E., the coolest after-party was hosted by the marketing and dev evangelist team, many of whom were the first people I demonstrated the Internet to just 18 months earlier. In the most hyper-self-aware fashion, the party was a sea of blue and white cloud-covered cups, plates, napkins, Koozies, frisbees, and more, each labeled appropriately in Franklin Gothic, the official font of Windows 95. There was Plate 95, Cup 95, Napkin 95, all while hip Seattle grunge music (mixed in with ‘80s cover band fun) played late into the night.
Ultimately, as the reviews revealed, Office 95 represented the last release where individual apps would be evaluated versus suites. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access more than held their own in category reviews by and large, handily winning the roundups. When it came to suites, the combination proved even more formidable. We achieved this using only 15 percent of our development resources, something that was not lost on me. The reviews mostly treated the release like a big deal, even though it was almost a side project to our team.
As we were finishing, Hank Vigil (HankV), the leader of DAD marketing, told JonDe and me he was so excited that his biggest worry was that Office96 would finish too soon, frustrating customers who would be asked to buy another release. Because Office 95 was delayed by the Windows 95 schedule, he was worried that 12/24 would end up being 18/24. Jon and I shrugged, knowing the realities of our schedule at the time. But to think there were business worries we could release too much new code was interesting.
It is difficult to imagine today, but the idea of an excess of software was top of mind of most corporations. Customers were overwhelmed by the quantity of software being produced by vendors. And to be honest, customers were underwhelmed by the quality. The burden was not as much new features and fixing problems, but the dreaded Total Cost of Ownership and the ability for customers to deploy and manage PCs and train end-users who were still not always computer capable. While it is difficult to imagine this predicament, it would also profoundly influence the next ten years of how we built and released products and how Microsoft established relationships with customers that would supplant those built by IBM over the past 25 years.
Despite some low-level rumblings of best of breed versus suites, customers moved on, preferring an integrated set of applications. The suite competition simply wasn’t there. Lotus delayed building apps for Windows 95 and was the only vendor with a full suite. Borland and WordPerfect teamed up, but two companies building an integrated suite proved to be challenging, and Corel would soon be the owner of the assets, choosing instead to focus on the low price and individual market.
In competition it is said that it is not enough for the competitor to drop the ball, but someone had to be there to pick it up. The strategic bet on Windows 95 and the strong execution of Office 95 were a great combination at the right time, when competitors were focused elsewhere. Windows 95 and Office 95 provided further evidence of the virtuous platform-apps cycle that was such a part of Microsoft’s history.
The internet and shift from document creation to communication and collaboration was next for Office and would prove challenging for Office96.
Windows 95, even with the unpredictability of the development cycle, proved to be arguably the defining product for Microsoft and the PC industry for the next decade. Reviews around the world were fantastic. The only people who didn’t like it were in Cupertino (and a few in Armonk). The explosion in computing at home and work could be directly attributable to the ease of use of the product, ecosystem of partners, and availability of multiple varieties and price points of PCs. Just as BillG had strategized, adding Office 95, despite the reservations of our team, to the launch further validated not only the capabilities of Windows but Microsoft’s commitment to GUI, Win32, and the developer platform overall. With Windows 95, the PC ecosystem or flywheel as it was frequently called was in full effect. The economics of hardware, peripherals, software, training and consulting, custom business software, and support for all of those were present and growing at a scale that was unprecedented in business.
With Windows 95 and Office 95 shipping that day along with probably a dozen other new products, the event was really the launch of Microsoft 95.
On that day, August 24, 1995, Steve Jobs was still a couple of years away from returning to Apple, and what was once Microsoft’s most intense competitor, the PC, left the adolescent era of computing and was entering early adulthood. The fact that Apple chose to make a brief appearance with a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (and Financial Times and their hometown San Jose Mercury News) mocking the old 8.3 filenames of MS-DOS saying “C:\ONGRTLNS.W95” (I still have my copy framed!) was looking like a rout. Oh, and a giant sign in tow behind a truck also made its way past the soccer fields, and to be safe the Sea-Tac airport also had a few billboards.
I walked (or stumbled) a few blocks home from Party 95 feeling a strange sense of completion but realizing that Office96 awaited me as my year of multitasking would give way to a chance to focus completely on what was ahead.
Windows 95 was a new start for PCs. The PC emerged from a hobbyist tool or a tech novelty, to truly something for every desk and every home just as BillG and PaulA envisioned. We were so focused on making everything work and get out the door that for many of us it would not sink in until we went back to visit family for the holidays. Those were the holidays nearly every one of us would forever remember as the start of family tech support.