The trip to today's debut began as the Memphis project, the code name for the operating system upgrade. Memphis was originally scheduled to be released in 1997. Yet last summer, when Microsoft officially dubbed the software "Windows 98," company executives immediately downplayed it, saying it would be a minor upgrade to the much-anticipated revamp of Windows 95.
"None of us is projecting that Windows 98 is going to be a blockbuster, a la Windows 95," Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei said last summer during a characteristically cautious speech at the company's annual analysts' meeting.
But backed into a corner by a Department of Justice antitrust investigation and the recently filed lawsuit, Microsoft officials have come out swinging in recent months. In addition to conducting polls that show grass-root support for the operating system, the company has taken to holding pep rallies where executives refer to Windows 98 in almost reverential tones.
Windows 98 became "the spark that will light the torch of opportunity," according to Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Bob Herbold in May. His boss, Bill Gates, said efforts to stop the release of the software would hinder "an entire ecosystem of companies."
Microsoft has been touting features such as more multimedia support, the ability to connect the computer to lots of 'universal serial bus' devices such as scanners and printers, and the integration with Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser -- the feature that's landed Windows 98 at the heart of an antitrust suit.
But in the end, analysts said Windows 98 is nothing to knock your socks off. "It hasn't left any big impact on me," Jim Balderston of Zona Research, adding that the product is more like a tune-up of Windows 95.
Even Microsoft officials said the release won't live up to the Windows 95 hype even as people lined up for blocks to get a copy when stores began selling them at midnight. "It would be difficult to recreate all the factors that came together during the Windows 95 launch," said Windows 98 product manager Kim Akers. She said those include the take-off of home PCs and the Internet, coupled with the move from the 16-bit Windows 3x platform to the 32-bit Windows 98.
Dataquest expects the company to sell 5.5 million upgrades to Windows by the end of the year -- most of those through the retail channel -- but it'll take a while before most people trade in Windows 95 for the later version.
"This isn't the type of thing that's going to make people burn rubber on their way to the stores," said Dataquest analyst Chris LeTocq.