Tech Industry

Win 98 marketing cranks up

A week before Microsoft appears before a federal judge considering antitrust allegations, Windows 98 is getting its first marketing push.

Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows 98 marketing machine is shifting into full gear after months of uncertainty, with customers now starting to see promotions of the new operating system on the Internet and in retail stores.

The campaign has gotten off to a rocky start, however, with buyers complaining about misleading packaging on Windows 98 guidebooks. It's nothing new for the Windows 98 team: Beset by downplayed expectations, product delays, and antitrust uncertainties, the product has been somewhat of a stepchild in Redmond, with the business-focused Windows NT 5.0 getting the lion's share of attention from company executives.

But one week before Microsoft goes before a federal judge to explain its operating system strategy in the face of antitrust allegations, Windows 98 is getting its first marketing push. Microsoft has said the federal case will have no impact on the rollout of Windows 98, and evidence is mounting that the software giant intends to make good on its vow.

As previously reported, Microsoft began notifying prospective users this week via email that they can purchase a beta version of Windows 98 for $30. Microsoft used a similar tactic for the launch of Windows 95 two and a half years ago.

In addition, the company's press division has been distributing Windows 98 "preview kits" to retail stores since November. The kit, a 480-page, $30 book that serves as a how-to guide for the operating system upgrade, comes with a CD-ROM that walks viewers through the Windows 98 features but doesn't contain the beta software itself, a fact that is not made clear on the book cover.

"To most Microsoft customers, the word 'preview' means 'beta,'" said Windows product manager Phil Holden. "The word, which MS Press chose, is confusing the market out there."

The front of the book says "beta release" and says the bundled CD-ROM includes a "working preview of the Windows 98 Active Desktop interface and a multimedia tour of Windows 98 features." Buyers who think they're getting the latest Win 98 beta are instead getting IE 4.0, Microsoft Network 2.5, and the multimedia tour. The "Active Desktop interface" is in fact Internet Explorer 4.0--the same version used with Windows 95.

"That was unfortunately a bit of creative marketing," added Holden.

Holden denied that the gimmick was meant to boost IE 4.0 market share, chalking the misleading wording up to "confusion" between the Windows team and the MS Press publishing division. There are no plans to recall the books, but Microsoft is working to update the MS Press Web site as well as the packaging. The number of copies of the book already shipped was not immediately available.

Windows 98 is an upgrade of Windows 95 that includes a built-in Internet Explorer, a television tuner and program guide, faster application loading, and new support for multiple monitors, DVD, and universal serial bus connections. The integrated browser will let users jump between local, network, and Internet data without switching applications.

When company executives announced the "98" name last summer, they immediately began downplaying expectations for the software. CEO Bill Gates's Comdex keynote made practically no mention of the upgrade, instead focusing on NT 5.0.

One of the main advances of Windows 98, the tight integration of the browser with the system software, is a subject of contention as a federal judge decides whether such integration is a violation of antitrust laws. The case, brought before the court in October by the Justice Department, specifically pertains to Internet Explorer 3.x and Windows 95, but a broad interpretation by Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in the DOJ's favor could put the company's entire OS strategy in doubt.

NT 5.0, which won't ship until the second half of 1998 at the earliest, will also feature an integrated Web browser.