Buxton, W. (1995). Is it Windows '95 or '85? Teasing Reality from the Hype, Guest Editorial, Toronto Globe & Mail, August 31, 1995, p. A15.

Is it Windows '95 or '85?

Teasing Reality from the Hype



Bill Buxton
Tokyo, Japan

It must be the silly season, those last weeks of the summer when strange things just seem to happen. How else are we to interpret the spin doctors' orgy around the launch of Microsoft's computer operating system, Windows 95. Amid all the hype, one simple question seems to have eluded the general consciousness: "If Windows 95 is so great and will improve our lives to the extent suggested, why did its launch need a billion dollars of promotion?"

Yes, I know, the excess of the process is such an easy target that it hardly merits serious comment, and I wish that I could just let it go at that. But I've spent the better part of my professional life working on how to improve the human aspects of technology. When I look at what went on last week, I'm not only embarrassed by my own industry, but seriously concerned by the backlash that might result and the credibility that is at risk of being lost as a result. Let me explain.

Perhaps the key claim about Windows 95 is improved ease of use. According to the hype, people who have avoided computers in the past will now be able to reap the potential benefits. And those who have computers, by upgrading, will be able to spend more time doing more useful things, rather than losing time trying to figure out how to do them, which has been the problem up to now.

So much for the claim. What about the reality?

Compared to previous Windows products, there is a significant improvement. But that testifies more to how far behind the competition Windows was than how advanced Windows 95 is. Take the frequently cited "innovation" of supporting file names longer than eight characters. This (along with most other features such as multitasking) have been available for years from the competition. The wonder is not the product's innovation, but that Microsoft was able to get away with selling software without those basic features for as long as it did. Based on the level of innovation, the product would far more aptly be called Windows 85, not 95.

But let's not get caught up in low-level details. Rather, let's just see how much information $1-billion of promotion has bought. Let's say you're a small business, a university student or somebody working at home. If you bought into the promise, what's the likely scenario?

First, it is unlikely that the system will fit on your hard drive. Okay, so buy another disk. Next, it probably won't fit into the amount of memory you have. So, go buy some more RAM (random access memory). Now that it fits, it probably runs like a dog. Your CPU (central processing unit) is too slow. So, go buy a Pentium processor. Great. But before you can really take advantage of the features, you may well have to replace all of your applications. So go buy a new word processor, spreadsheet, database and graphics program.

Perhaps now you are starting to understand why so many other companies, besides Microsoft, were so quick to jump onto the hype bandwagon. Which brings us back to you, the consumer. Supposedly, all of this was done for your benefit. Well, excuse me if I remain unconvinced.

What we have been offered is a bloated, oversold operating system whose level of innovation is rooted in the eighties, and which will not run on the majority of machines in the field. What we risk getting, as a result, is a lot of trusting consumers who buy into the promise and get a major disappointment.

What a missed opportunity to innovate and really make a difference. Surely consumers should be able to expect more from a company such as Microsoft, with its considerable market share and profits.

The personal computer industry has a history of overpromising and underdelivering. Last week's hype just reaffirms that some of the industry is still in its adolescence. I think that it is about time that it grew up