Windows 95: `Start Me Up' Time -- Microsoft's Global Bash Will Tout Its New Software

The world's richest man is throwing a party tomorrow, and the whole world is invited.

Microsoft is shelling out tens of millions of dollars - from Seattle to Sydney, from Singapore to Stockholm - to promote tomorrow's launch of Windows 95, its new operating system for personal computers.

Millions of copies of Microsoft's much-ballyhooed new software operating system will go on sale tomorrow at more than 20,000 retail outlets around the United States, as well as around the world. Many stores are staying open late tonight, to offer the program just after midnight.

One unconfirmed report says "Tonight Show" star Jay Leno will be the host at a high-tech hoedown tomorrow on Microsoft's Redmond campus, but one thing's for sure: The celebrating will be worldwide.

In London, Microsoft has paid The London Times a reported $500,000 to give away 1.5 million copies (triple its normal daily circulation) of tomorrow's paper, which will include a front page banner and supplement touting Windows 95. It's the first time in the paper's 307-year history that it will be given away free.

Next week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates - the world's richest businessman, worth an estimated $14 billion - is scheduled to begin a monthlong trip around Britain called the "Start Me Up" tour, named for the Rolling Stones song Microsoft has purchased the rights to.

For tomorrow's global party, Microsoft has arranged a submarine ride below the Baltic Sea for Polish journalists. German journalists and computer executives will be treated to a laser light show. In New York City, the company is lighting the top of the Empire State Building with the Windows 95 logo colors.

In Paris, French automaker Citroen has made a Windows 95 automobile for the soiree. The futuristic vehicle has room for 16, is stuffed with computers and has an infrared network connection that allows riders to send electronic mail.

Parties, including a reception for more than 100 international journalists, are planned in various locations around Seattle tonight.

For tomorrow's launch, a Ferris wheel and circus tents have been erected to create a carnival at the Microsoft campus. Food booths will be sponsored by Microsoft customers and partners. Vendors will hawk upgraded software applications under the big top.

Microsoft will host more than 40 Windows 95 parties around the globe, with live satellite feeds broadcasting Gates and company unveiling Windows 95 to the world.

All this for an $89 piece of software.

Analysts and marketing experts say the launch is grabbing the kind of attention that is the stuff of dreams.

"This is unprecedented," said Connie Combes, a retail analyst for Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco. "The amount of advertising, the press and the retail promotions is unparalleled in the industry."

Some Microsoft insiders have dubbed the global event "Geekfest 95," an ironic statement on the new prominence that Microsoft and the computer software industry are having on mainstream consumers.

Windows 95, which is an operating system that controls the key functions of a computer, is the first major Windows upgrade in three years. It is expected to propel the whole computer software industry into the homes of average people.

Computer analysts predict that the computer boom that began in the office suite will now accelerate into the household. LINK Resources, a New York City market research firm, estimates that more than 47 percent of U.S. households will own PCs by 1997. Windows already runs on more than 100 million personal computers worldwide. Nine out of 10 PCs purchased last year included a Microsoft operating system.

Jonathan Prentice, a business student, was the first person to purchase Windows 95.

"It sounded like it would be a bit of fun," Prentice said to explain why he was out shopping at midnight in Auckland, New Zealand, where it's already Thursday.

Here, CompUSA, Egghead Software, Office Depot, Incredible Universe and Computer City will be selling Windows 95 just after midnight tonight. The stores will entice the customer with free gifts, discounts, pizza and marching bands.

Incredible Universe, a computer and electronics "gigastore," is hosting a "Best Dressed Computer Nerd" contest, along with a marching band and giveaways.

Even discount retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart have added computer and software items.

One of the reasons why Microsoft is getting so much publicity is that the whole domain of software and information technology has become more interesting to the average person, said David Gautschi, a professor of marketing at the University of Washington.

"This high baseline of interest is generated by the curiosity associated by technological progress," he said. "On a personal level, people are somewhat fearful of the implications, and other the side, people are optimistic and see a lot of opportunity.

"It's an interesting dynamic that Microsoft helped create and is also right in the middle of."

Rock and rap aficionados can buy the operating system at Tower Records/Video, which is expanding its computer software offerings.

Bob Zimmerman, general manager of Tower's Seattle store, compares the hype surrounding the release of Windows 95 to that for Bruce Springsteen's "Live" and Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy."

"We'll have a nice big display at the counter, and we're treating this just like we would a big record or video release," Zimmerman said. "On Thursday, they're not going to be able to leave the store without knowing that we're carrying it."

One guest will be conspicuous by its absence at tomorrow's global party: Japan.

The Japanese version of Windows 95 has been stalled by the need to make sure it is compatible with the mass of different computers and equipment on sale in Japan's labyrinthine market.

That shouldn't affect the program's popularity, Microsoft says.

"We've had some complaints, but in general I think users understand," said spokesman Seiichi Yamazaki. "We've let people know in advance that it will be late."

Japanese fans will get their launch party eventually, though whether it will be on the scale of the celebrations elsewhere remains to be seen.

This report contains material from Bloomberg Business News and The Associated Press.