Has Microsoft cynically used the legal furore over bundling Internet Explorer with Windows to boost demand for Windows 98? Or was it just a by-product of the attack on the company by its competitors?
When Microsoft launched Windows 95 three years ago, everyone went mad.
It was one of the few software launches, if not the only one, to be featured on daily news bulletins across the world as the next big step in computing.
Once again, the Gates machine looked invincible as retail stores everywhere opened late into the night to give the waiting masses their rights to buy Windows 95 the minute it was available. Whether those same people then went home and spent the rest of the night attempting to get all their hardware and software to work with the operating system is another guess.
For the launch of Windows 98 there has been no such ballyhoo. There has been no reprise of The Rolling Stones' Start Me Up and no other ageing rock bands have been asked to perform for the huge potential audience.
But Windows has made the Nine O'Clock News as a result of the legal battles surrounding it. And Microsoft has not had to spend a penny to achieve that. But the 'big bang' of the last launch has not been repeated.
This does not indicate that Windows 98 will not be a big seller. It will eventually. But it is not such a big step from the previous version as Windows 95 was. In fact, the most obvious difference will take the average user a long time to appreciate fully. There is only one reason why Microsoft should have adopted such a low-key approach - the series of court cases which have swamped the company in the past six months, particularly the US Department of Justice case. To avoid looking arrogant in the face of a lawsuit which everyone thought it would lose, Microsoft decided to keep everything very low-key. This will have galled it enormously since, with a suitably glitzy marketing campaign, it could have vastly boosted the numbers of boxes it sold.
In the long run, the court cases will not harm the company. We have said before in this column that Microsoft's strategy has been to soft-pedal so much that the opposition from Ellison and McNeally & Co looks so strident as to be totally over the top. And not even Bill Gates is going to hype software that could have been pulped by the boxload if the US government had ruled against it. So there was little incentive for Microsoft to do the pre-loading and pre-release vendor deals which made Windows 95 such an attractive offer.
The corporate world has yet to embrace Windows 95 fully, although most UK companies are using it. For managing directors across the world, never mind just in the UK, the situation Microsoft finds itself in is one they would have sympathy with.
Microsoft faces years of litigation from competitors with no end in sight. There is no way to predict how a legal challenge will pan out.
Microsoft's adversaries would be spending their money better if they ploughed it back into product development and research. As a result of the courts having been wrong-footed in hugely complex legal cases such as financial frauds in the past, they are wary of setting foot in territory they do not understand.
This is good news for everyone - apart from Microsoft's competitors.
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