This month people in the tech world are looking back 10 years to the Netscape IPO, which marked the arrival of the Web as an unstoppable phenomenon--and began inflating a tech bubble. Not many people are reminiscing about the other big August 1995 story: the splashy introduction of Windows 95. To the riffs of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," Bill Gates unrolled a dramatic operating-system update that promised a quantum leap in utility, simplicity and just plain good looks on the screen (kind of like the Macintosh). As well as its own Web browser to fend off those guys in Silicon Valley.
Where are we 10 years later? A new company, Google, has a Brobdingnagian market cap. And Microsoft has finally released an early Beta version (for developers only) of its long-delayed new version of Windows. It promises a quantum leap in utility, simplicity and just plain good looks on the screen (kind of like the new Macintosh system, Tiger). As well as built-in search to fend off those guys in Silicon Valley.
It's tempting to dust off the old Yogi Berra line about deja vu all over again. But 2005 is not 1995 for Microsoft. Over the last decade, the company has transformed itself to accommodate what its chairman, Bill Gates, identified as the "sea change" of the Internet. But the transition was bloody. Microsoft's aggressiveness in pursuing that goal led to a painful antitrust battle from which it has financially if not psychically recovered. And Windows' near ubiquity in a networked world made it an attractive target for cybervandals and thieves. Despite a huge Microsoft effort to shore up the digital dikes, PC users have been overwhelmed by attacks and incursions, so much so that a recent article in The New York Times documented how frustrated users are literally trashing their corrupted computers.
Into this troubled world will come Vista (official ship date: late 2006), which was until recently known by its code name, Longhorn. According to Microsoft, the new moniker, which sounds like a car model your uncle would drive, is inspired by the system's shimmering graphics and its ability to serve Microsoft's vast and diverse customer base, as well as a nod to the basic concept of what a window is. "We really tried to bring clarity to the world so you can focus on what matters to you," says group product manager Greg Sullivan.
The concept is that while just about everybody has become hopelessly reliant on technology for work, play and just plain existence, we all do it in different ways, with different devices, with different obsessions (IM for teens, BlackBerry for business people, etc.). To make sure their new software addressed the increasingly broad demands of 600 million Windows users, the Softies tested it with more than 50 "personas"--imaginary people with elaborate profiles like Toby the teenager, Ichiro the IT professional and other stand-ins for you and me.
Vista's history has been troubled; Microsoft was unable to implement what was once touted as its defining virtue, a revolutionary new way to handle files. It does have powerful search functions, cool features like icons that are thumbnail representations of the documents themselves and support of hot Net technologies like RSS. But the big selling point will be reliability and security. Features that identify bogus phishing sites, fend off spyware, bolster firewalls and encrypt information are designed to create, Sullivan says, "a new level of confidence" in your computer. "If we did just that, this would be a worthwhile release," he adds.
The fact that our confidence (and, maybe, Microsoft's) needs bolstering says a lot about the difference between the bright vistas of 1995 and the beleaguered users of today.