From the Guildnet BBS, an electronic hangout for journalists of the Canadian Media Guild, the first message for August 25, 1995:
From: COLIN PERKEL
To: ALL Subject: Microsquish I’ve been feeling a tad uncomfortable with the way we’ve all reported the Win 95 launch-and can’t help feeling the line between editorial, advertorial and advertising became seriously blurred. Were we sucked in by the simple launch of a new product that is hardly revolutionary? Did Billy G.et al buy us?
After the headlines, after the photos, after the previews, the reviews, the interviews-after all the commotion surrounding the launch of Windows 95, journalists like Guildnet’s Colin Perkel, an editor and reporter for CP’s Broadcast News, asked themselves, Good grief, what have we done?
In a later message on the same subject, Perkel wrote: “It’s us I’m faulting. We tend to be so proud of our skepticism of the press release, so sensitive to being manipulated by big business or government. Yet here we are getting sucked in to the point where respectable media outlets become an extension of that PR….Ironically some of the real stories, such as yesterday’s MS slump on the stock market, were buried!” Instead, front pages contained scenes from Microsoft’s publicity test: a death-defying rappel from the CN Tower, jugglers, balloons, face-painting-talk about your media circus!
Win 95 was indeed a much-anticipated product and maybe even a news story. But the release of this software-an upgrade, actually-became one of 1995’s top stories, able to hold its own against O.J., Paul Bernardo and the Toronto subway crash. Did it really warrant reaching B-movie proportions as The Software That Swallowed the Planet?
Geoffrey Rowan, technology reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, was one of many journalists covering the launch of Windows 95. “It deserved a lot of attention,” he stresses. “It was and is an important product in terms of the fortunes of Microsoft, which is an important company.” Nevertheless, Rowan believes the product got more than its fair share of publicity. “Whether or not people need to be talking about operating systems at cocktail parties, probably not,” he says.
(An operating system, if your kid was too busy getting his face painted at the launch party to tell you, doesn’t really do much itself; it acts as a go-between, allowing you to give commands to your computer so that you can perform tasks like loading a word processor or deleting a file. The OS is an important factor in how easy a computer is to use.)
Windows 95 does not perform too badly as an OS, especially when compared with previous versions of Windows, which did. Microsoft had fallen far behind the competition in an industry where staying ahead is supposed to be essential. Nonetheless, the old Windows ruled the PC market. That gives millions of computer users permission to get reasonably excited over this significant upgrade.
But even Microsoft Canada’s own PR consultant, John Swimmer from Hill and Knowlton, could not believe the amount of coverage the Canadian media gave Windows 95. “It was amazing,” he says. “The number of clippings was more than I had ever seen on any one product.” The Globe and Mail confessed to having mentioned you-know-what in 234 articles in 1995.
And although everyone is entitled to an opinion, some journalists may have gotten a bit carried away in their excitement. Take, for example, an August 20 story in The Toronto Star by business writer Art Chamberlain, which reads, “What Win 95 promises, and mostly delivers, is breathtaking: that it will take [all your computer components] and assorted programs and turn them into a harmonious unit even the most hopeless computer dolt can run.” Chamberlain later admitted to me that he wrote the piece (which was primarily about the marketing hype) without ever having used the software himself. His one-paragraph review, therefore, has a couple of flaws: one should never underestimate the hopelessness of any computer dolt, and the only thing breathtaking about Windows 95 is the hyperbole used to describe it. Graeme Bennett, managing editor of Vancouver based The Computer Paper, agrees. “I spoke on CBC several times the week of the launch,” he says. “And each time, before I spoke, they introduced the story by categorizing the software as ‘the Superman of software’ and other such drivel. Microsoft never categorized it that way, and-in my view-the software largely does what they claimed it would. ‘Spin’ is something that the mainstream media are very susceptible to.”
Amid all the hype, a reaction formed at many media outlets. The product itself was no longer the story, but all the attention it was getting was real news, worthy of even more attention. Words like “hype,” “hoopla” and “much-ballyhooed” were used in article after article on the subject, and scores of columnists commented about what a pathetic lot those media people were to be jumping on that Windows 95 bandwagon. By the date of the software’s launch, Microsoft’s publicity machine had achieved perpetual motion, fuelled by its own momentum.
Microsoft wanted Windows 95 to be something that conipeting operating systems weren’t: a household name. Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, Windows 95.
People who never used computers, who couldn’t care less about operating systems, who couldn’t tell an Aptiva from an adding machine, had heard about Windows 95 and knew it was important. Comic strips such as Sherman’s Lagoon poked fun at the phenomenon (“What is this world coming to when the cultural event of the year is new computer software? Nobody cares about O.J. anymore”). Even the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto piggybacked on Windows’ marketing success by promoting its special exhibit on spiders as “Widows 95.” It’s not hard to see how Microsoft pulled off one of the greatest publicity campaigns in history. CEO Bill Gates is among the richest men in America and a celebrity figure. Whether by fluke or design, the Windows upgrade was delayed until the perfect time, when the PC really took off as a consumer item. Microsoft’s nine-figure budget for marketing and advertising Windows 95 made it difficult to ignore the product’s launch anywhere in the world. In England, Microsoft bought the day’s entire run of The Times of London and painted farmers’ fields with the Win 95 logo. In Toronto, a 160-metre banner was hung from the CN Tower. In Australia, a barge floated into Sydney harbour carrying a giant Windows 95 box as dancers celebrated its arrival.
The Australian dancers weren’t the only ones celebrating. The entire computer sector had reason to rejoice. You’d have to rush to your local computer retailer to buy Windows 95 and the new software to make it complete and the new hardware to make it run better and the instructional books and videos and-what the heck-as long as you’re jumping into this with both feet, Internet access as well. Everyone, from Microsoft’s so-called competitors to various spin-off industries, saw dollar signs in Win 95 and invested big money to advertise their supporting products. The total cost of promotion across the computer industry was estimated at $1 billion (U.S.). Is it ally wonder the conspiracy theorists had a field day, saying that Bill Gates and friends had bought the press?
But let’s humour them for a moment. Let’s try a little test, a simple game of word association. When I say Microsoft, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Is it Windows 95? Or is it antitrust allegations by the U.S. Justice Department? Both were in the news at the same time.
This shouldn’t surprise you or the conspiracy fans, but the media people I spoke to, and Microsoft as well, all denied that the press was being controlled by Big Brother Bill. Rather, Windows 95 is more interesting to more people than antitrust motions. What’s interesting for us as journalists is that the Windows 95 craze gives us a great chance to analyze the phenomenon of pack journalism. Martin Slofstra, editor of the trade mag Computing Canada, says his staff joked about ignoring the launch altogether-but that as pure fantasy. “Just by virtue of the fact that everybody is talking about it, you have to deal with it.”
As for how the story became inflated to the point of nearly bursting, Slofstra is somewhat reluctant to point the finger at Microsoft. “Sometimes,” he savs, “these things just develop a life of their own.”