The Game Behind The Name

Wine comes in vintages. So, soon, will software. Last week mighty Microsoft broke a longstanding industry convention of using numbers and decimals to identify its latest products. The next version of its ubiquitous Windows 3.1 operating system will not be Windows 4.0, as widely expected, but Windows 95.

Big deal? You bet. Microsoft's operating systems (the complicated codes and electronic instructions that tell computers what to do) drive 85 percent of the world's PCs. The newest version, code-named Chicago, has been under development for several years and will be shipped next spring. Microsoft expects to sell some 30 mil-lion copies within a year, reaping an extra $1 billion in revenues. The new software, it hints, will offer a host of snazzy new features, from bold "'90s colors" to complete "plug and play" compatibility with most hardware on the market. Best of all, it's supposed to be as easy to use as Apple Computer's vaunted Macintosh, the standard for convenience in today's computing world. "Windows 95 is our biggest opportunity ever," says Microsoft marketing manager Brad Chase, and the stakes are indeed huge. With its fresh look and logo, Microsoft hopes to sig-nal nothing less than a second PC revolution. It aims to persuade tens of millions of computer users to dump their current Windows systems and opt for something new. If they do, Windows 95 could quickly become one of the most recognizable (and profitable) brands in business history.

Microsoft has been debating the controversial move for months. The advantages are obvious. For starters, by naming its new software Windows 95, Microsoft ducks a big problem associated with the old numbering system: the widespread suspicion that every ".0" program is introductory and full of bugs. The message to consumers was "Don't buy, because your software will soon be superseded by something better," says Ed Rice, executive director of Landor Associates in San Francisco. The new name also suggests that Windows 95 will be easier to use, more understandable and somehow warmer and fuzzier than, say, a Windows 3.875 might be.

Perhaps most important, Windows 95 stamps an expiration date on software. Consumers will have a better sense of what they're buying, and when it was most recently upgraded. And by reminding customers that their operating system is getting old, says another top Microsoft executive, it "incents" them to buy a newer model, much as if computers were like automobiles.

Not all Microsofters favored the change when it was proposed last May, company officials indicate. What would happen if the company missed a deadline, some wondered. Others feared that the pressures to ship yearly versions of something as complicated as an operating system would result in more mistakes and, ultimately, more dissatisfied customers. Microsoft insists the risks are minimal, partly because it is publicly and specifically not commit-ting itself to issuing yearly editions. Windows 95, top execs say, might not be followed by a Windows 96. Though that will depend in part on how good a year Windows 95 proves to have . . .