Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- August 24, 1995
by James Fallows


Everything about computers seems new, but the Windows95 phenomenon is about as old as electricity. Its underlying principle is, Sell the sizzle and not the steak. What Microsoft has achieved today is like what Detroit's automakers pulled off thirty years ago, back in their era of world dominance, as they unveiled each year's new cars.

Each spring and summer, newspapers and magazines would speculate on what the new Ford Fairlane or Chevy Impala might look like. In the fall, just before release date, dealers would cover their showroom windows with paper -- and then, on that wonderful first night, searchlights would rake the sky, the paper would be ripped off the windows, and you could join the crowds to see and touch the 1963 LeBaron.

In retrospect it was all a charming hoax. The cars were pretty much the same each year -- bigger fins, different sheet metal -- and the real achievement was the collaboration between business and media in making the model change-over a riveting news event.

It takes me back to those innocent boyhood days -- with Sandy Koufax on the pitcher's mound, and the sporty Falcon in the dealer's window -- to witness the spectacle of Windows95. Two groups of people watch the mounting frenzy with astonishment. One is the tribe of Macintosh users, who hear about Win95's marvelous new convenience and know that they've had the same, and more, for the last ten years. The other group includes users of the OS/2 Warp operating system from IBM, which for at least three years has had much stronger technical features than those in Windows95. In automotive terms, the Mac users are like Ferrari or MG drivers, the OS/2 crowd is like owners of some tightly-engineered German machine, and both are watching in dumbfounded admiration as this Buick Skylark, this Windows95, draws the spotlights in the sky.

Windows95 is a historic feat, but it is an achievement of commerce and promotion rather than of technology. The groups whose lives will be different because of it are software companies, who have a new standard for upgrades; hardware companies, since Win95 demands more memory and disk space; and of course Microsoft itself. A generation from now we will marvel, as with yesteryear's autos, not at the ingenuity that went into the product but that of the salesmanship, which has included getting the press to beat the drum for this new software as it once did for new cars.

Americans often think of themselves as a nation of innovators or tinkerers, but long ago the world saw us as a nation of salesman. With Windows95 we are returning to our roots.

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Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.