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The Microsoft way

What a difference three years make: The launch of Windows 98 yesterday lay in stark contrast to the debut of Windows 95.

What a difference three years make.

The launch of Windows 98 yesterday lay in stark contrast to the debut of Windows 95 three years ago. This time around there were no carnivals, no Jay Leno, no Rolling Stones' "Start me up" pervading the launch party and the airwaves, and no $200 million marketing budget to spread the word far and wide.

Windows 95 was the mother of all product launches. If Windows 3.1 was supposed to herald the advent of the GUI era (for the PC camp, that is), then Windows 95 was supposed to put an end to the character-based system and what was affectionately dubbed the "Dirty Old System."

But in reality, Win 95 basically was playing catch-up with the "other" graphical operating systems, Macintosh and OS/2. At best, it was competitive with OS/2 and the Macintosh in features and design. No matter. With all the hype and publicity, Microsoft wanted to convince corporate users that they should upgrade to Win 95.

Now, here comes Win 98. Forget the kind of publicity that its predecessor got--in fact, Win 98's masters are telling the corporate world they can ignore the upgrade altogether in favor of Windows NT. While Win 95 was marketed as the best thing since sliced bread, Win 98 has been peddled as a "minor upgrade," a mere "tune-up." In other words, nothing to really get excited about. Imagine Tide's ad campaign that touted the "new and slightly improved" detergent. Then imagine how long it would take customers to find the Wisk.

Of course, in the land of Redmond, the aisles are stacked with only two options: Windows 98 and Windows NT. So when Microsoft asks where you want to go today, it is really a rhetorical question. It is already telling you what that "where" is--Win 98 or NT.

That's because there is no OS/2 anymore. Sure, the Macintosh still lives, but in 1998 Steve Jobs is happy to share the OS landscape with his partner Bill Gates. The fact that he has a tiny sliver of the market (less than 5 percent) is another matter.

With virtually no competition, Microsoft can have its cake and eat it too. It can release a new operating system but can happily downplay its importance because customers will have to pick the "other" OS--Windows NT.

With such an enviable position, even the people charged with public relations can abdicate their duties. At the launch party last night, I introduced one of my reporters to a Waggener Edstrom person, telling her how I had known the PR woman a long time. The Wagg-Ed person's comeback? "Remember the time John said, 'Jai, you are so f-----g stupid.'"

I don't remember things that way. As a matter of fact, I am positive that no Microsoft executive has ever talked to me or anyone I know in that manner. But these are heady days indeed. This PR person probably also believes that this old joke is real:

How many Microsoft employees does it take to change a light bulb? Zero. They declared Darkness™ the standard.

NEWS.COM editor Jai Singh cracks jokes and bursts bubbles about the computing industry on Fridays.