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The Biggest Day Yet
AUGUST 24, 1995
It would not rain on this day in Redmond, Washington,which was not far outside Seattle. Just in case, however,an enormous tent had been erected for the ceremony,scheduled for 11:00 A.m. Rain was an ever-present threatin the Seattle area, and it wouldn't do for the twenty-fivehundred assembled guests to get wet. They included jour-nalists from all over the world, the chief executive officersand technical geniuses from dozens of computer hardwareand software manufacturers, political bigwigs, and even asurprise guest -- Jay Leno of The Tonight Show. Hundreds ofthose in attendance were millionaires, including Leno, ofcourse, and a very few were, like the host of this party,billionaires.
The host, William Henry Gates III, had organized this occasion to launch the latest and most important software product ever created by his company, Microsoft, which he had founded in 1975 at the age of nineteen with his boyhood friend Paul Allen. Allen left the company in 1984 after a serious bout with Hodgkin's disease, but he was still on the board, still a close friend/ a billionaire in his own right, and very much present on this day of days, which was seeing the release of Windows 95, the most innovative upgrade yet of Microsoft's operating system for personal computers. Its predecessor, Windows 3.1, issued in 1991, was already installed on seventy-five million personal computers around the globe. The betting at Microsoft was that most of those computer users would want the new, improved version, with its fifteen million lines of code andnumerous new features, including access to Microsoft's recently established Internet service. More than that, Windows 95 was expected to cause enough excitement that millions of people intrigued by the wild and wooly expansion of the Internet itself would purchase personal computers for the first time. Microsoft had predicted that it would sell thirty million copies of its new product in the first year. While that left the company's direct competitors grinding their teeth in envy and fury (many of them thought Windows 95, like its predecessor, would be far from the best possible technology), it was also the reason there were fourteen other, smaller tents on the vast Microsoft grounds that day. In those tents, computer manufacturers and software companies that had tailored their own new products to Windows 95 would be showing their wares to the assembled press.
Having predicted first-year sales of thirty million units, Microsoft was taking no chances in publicizing its new product. The hype had been going on for weeks. Bill Gates himself had given more than two dozen television interviews, from Today to Larry King Live. Gates had arranged with his friend Rupert Murdoch, owner of the London Times, to give away every copy of the newspaper printed on the day before the official Redmond party, with an ad proclaiming: "Window 95. Office 95. So good even, The Times is complimentary." And in New York City, the Empire State Building was lighted up with Microsoft colors, red, yellow, and green. In Australia, Microsoft was giving five hundred dollars in cash to the first ninety-five babies born on August 24. This kind of publicity campaign needed a theme song that would resonate around the world. Bill Gates wanted the Rolling Stone song "Start Me Up," but the legendary rock group had never before allowed one of its songs to be used for commercial purposes. They made Microsoft pay big time for the privilege: several million dollars, with estimates on the price running as high as $12 million. But, after all, that was just small change in a total publicity budget of a quarter of a billion dollars.
Windows 95 was to go on sale to the public at 12:01 A.M. on August 24, as that date arrived by stages around the globe. Computer stores in major cities around the world opened their doors at midnight to accommodate the expected rush of those who couldn't wait until daylight to get their hands on the latest wonder of the computer world. According to James Wallace, author of Overdrive, the very first copy was sold in the not very big city of Auckland, New Zealand, to a business student. Reuters, the international news service, reported that a woman in Chicago, Illinois, said, "For computer people, this is their Woodstock." In New York City, a single Comp USA store had nine hundred people waiting in line at the magic hour.
As for the celebration under the tent in Redmond, Washington, that was a great success, too. When, in 1993, Bill Gates's engagement to Melinda French was announced, Jay Leno noted the event in his monologue by posing the question, "What's Bill Gates like after sex?" His answer: "Micro soft." But here Leno was in Redmond, being paid a handsome sum to tease Bill Gates some more by noting that he'd gone over to Gates's house and found the VCR blinking 12:00 -- some technical genius, that Gates. The crowd loved it and so, from all signs, did Gates. He might be worth $20 billion (and Windows 95 would help to almost double that amount within two years), but he always seemed to have a sense of humor.
In fact, Bill Gates was very tired. Some friends would later suggest that on that August day in 1995 he was on the verge of exhaustion. Within a couple of weeks, he and his wife, along with a group of friends, including fellow billionaire Warren Buffett and his wife, would take a two-week nonworking vacation in China, playing bridge as their train crossed the spectacular landscape to the famed Great Wall. Gates had every reason to be tired, despite his already legendary workaholic habits, which in earlier years had often meant sleeping under his desk. The release of Windows 95 had originally been scheduled for two years earlier, but numerous technical problems, along with the unexpected rise of the Intemet -- a turn in the road that Gates almost missed entirely -- had twice delayed its launch. In addition, Gates had spent the last five years fending off extremely close antitrust scrutiny by the federal government.
But the biggest day yet had finally come. Beyond the tents on the emerald green grass of the Microsoft campus, a Ferris wheel had been installed, adding a gaudy note to the festivities. But there was plenty to celebrate, after all. As the Microsoft press pack revealed, even before the launch of Windows 95, sales of Windows 3.1 and its associated software had reached the point where somebody, somewhere on the planet, was using a newly purchased Windows product on the average of every 1.5 seconds. Bill Gates
. Copyright © by Jonathan Gatlin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.