A reporter tells what it was like covering the launch of Microsoft's Windows 95 and what was lacking in the coverage.
Windows 95 was launched in a big white tent on the suburban Microsoft campus east of Seattle. The tent held about 1,500 people; some 300 were journalists. I sat with a pack of them, all identifiable by their press badges and shopping bags full of free software.
As each new Win95 feature -- Long file names! A free shoot-'em-up game! Internet access! -- flashed on the large video screens, the tent erupted with applause. What was astounding to me was that the journalists around me were bellowing their approval too. Clapping and shouting, clapping and shouting -- that was the cynicism of journalists bemoaned by Newt Gingrich.
At the end of the show, the backdrop was yanked away, revealing two bleachers full of the Windows 95 software team. They were in four groups, each of which wore T-shirts of a single color. The whole created the four-paned window that is the Win95 logo. Then -- kaboom! -- the stage split in half, a way-cool thing to happen. We were supposed to exit through the divided stage and into an aisle between the two bleachers.
As we trooped out, the software developers began to chant. One bleacher yelled, "Windows!"; the other, "95!" "Windows!" "95!" Anyone who has been to a high school football game gets the idea. As the press filed out, it joined the cry: "Windows! 95!"
Immediately outside were several young people representing Digital Equipment Corp. They had plastic trash bags full of those Styrofoam tubes that keep your Coke cold at the office picnic. The press plowed in; DEC drink-holders flew into the air. Meanwhile, at the Gateway 2000 booth, people were throwing DOS 5.0 disks into the panes of a Windows 95 logo. Winners got a prize. Everyone lined up. What giddy fun was this game of Toss the DOS! And there were so many more booths from so many more manufacturers!
The pity of it is that the companies have stories to tell that are interesting and sometimes useful. Earlier that morning I had taken the official tour of Microsoft's Usability Labs, facilities used to test early versions of its software on actual people. Although the launch of Windows 95 was the biggest media event since the chase for the white Bronco, I was the only journalist to attend one of the few events of the day that was likely to have any actual informational content. (I don't want to seem sanctimonious. I went partly because I had told the PR woman I wouldn't attend too many dinners and parties with other media people.)
Ken Dye of the lab escorted me into a little room with a computer and a one-way glass that looked into another little room with a computer. Software developers in the first room look at ordinary people in the second using their products. Fancy equipment isn't always necessary. In the early stages of development, programmers represent the screen with ordinary typing paper and dialog boxes and menus with Post-Its.
"One interesting thing is how often businesspeople don't test the software they select for their employees," Dye said. Each business, he pointed out, no matter how small, selects what is in effect a suite of software. But the software may not do what is needed or work together well. As a result, many businesses have what they call "defective software." "You'd be amazed at what you can learn just from testing everything out first on a few people," he said. "I'm always urging people to try this."
A moment later, he looked at his watch. It was getting close to the time when Bill Gates was going to present Windows 95. I looked at my watch too. There was just time enough for me to run to the press building and get my free Kodak Photo CD player.