Microsoft's Windows 95 launched 20 years ago today

Twenty years before it launched Windows 10 -- in a very different time and place -- Microsoft launched Windows 95.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

"This is the biggest thing since New Coke."

That was the reaction of one of many who lined up for blocks, attended midnight madness promotions and shelled out $210 for a boxed copy of Windows 95 on August 24, 1995 -- 20 years ago today.

A month ago this year, Microsoft launched its latest Windows release in a far more subdued fashion, making no references to its blow-out Windows 95 launch. On July 29, Microsoft began making Windows 10 available to Windows 7 and 8 users as a free upgrade, no around-the-block lines required.

Today, the tech world is a different place, and Microsoft, a very different company, compared to 20 years ago.

Microsoft was substantially smaller -- with $5.9 billion in sales and 17,800 employees -- in 1995. Today, Microsoft is a $93.6 billion company with 117,354 employees. But 20 years ago, Microsoft was already well on its way to dominating the PC industry.

"Computer use has become so widespread, and Microsoft's grip on the industry so powerful, that the introduction of Windows 95 took on the decibel level of a national event, almost a new August holiday that might be dubbed Bill Gates Day after Microsoft's billionaire president," said The New York Times in its Windows 95 launch story.

Check out CNET's Windows 95 coverage of Windows 95 from 1995 for a glimpse of the frenzy around the 1995 launch.

Even just five years ago, Microsoft and its Windows business unit were in different positions compared to where they are today. Steve Ballmer was CEO. Steven Sinofsky was running Windows, and Microsoft's corporate strategy revolved around protecting the Windows franchise at all costs. The company was in the midst of developing Windows 8 and IE 9. Secrecy and less public involvement of external testers were key to Microsoft's Windows plans.

Not so long ago, some of us were wondering whether Microsoft might time the Windows 10 launch so that it would coincide with the 20th anniversary of the launch of Windows 95. In hindsight, I see why Microsoft opted against this.

No Windows launch will ever live up to the spendy and symbolic Windows 95 one. And Satya Nadella's Microsoft is looking ahead, distancing itself from the old Microsoft products and processes.

"Our industry does not respect tradition -- it only respects innovation," said Nadella in an email to employees, shortly after he was named CEO.

Windows 95 was both the start and the end of an era in Microsoft's history.

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