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Silence Surrounds Windows 98

April 2, 1998

NEW YORK (AP) _ Three years ago, Microsoft Corp. hired Jay Leno and bought a Rolling Stones song to blast Windows 95 into the public consciousness. Americans lined up at midnight for a copy of the latest software for running computers.

Now, you can hear a pin drop.

Less than three months from the public release of successor Windows 98, the king of high-tech hype has yet to even hint of a marketing campaign for its first major upgrade to Windows 95. Most developers say they aren’t even working on software to exploit the operating system improvements.

So far, Microsoft’s biggest promotion is a low-key, invitation-only event Saturday _ 40,000 computer enthusiasts in 45 U.S. movie theatres will see a live demonstration of Windows 98, broadcast by satellite from the company’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

One reason Microsoft may be lying low is a dearth of major new features in Windows 98, compared with Windows 95′s vast improvements over the predecessor system. Microsoft also may not want too much attention amid the Justice Department’s lawsuit attacking its dominance of computer operating software, which has cast a harsh light on Windows 98.

But the silence leads experts to speculate Windows 98 could be something of a rare flop _ spurring relatively few users to upgrade their machines or buy new PCs and related software, as did Windows 95.

Indeed, retail shelves are bare of Windows 98 software _ vs. 32 titles written for Windows 95 two months ahead of the August 1995 launch, says software tracker PC Data, of Reston, Va.

``Microsoft is treating a major operating system release as a nonevent. That’s astonishing,″ said Jeff Tarter, publisher of Softletter, an industry newsletter based in Boston.

``Expectations are astonishingly low″ for software sales, he added.

Microsoft spokesmen said it was too early to talk about expected sales or promotion plans for Windows 98.

But they insist enthusiasts are eager for the update. ``I think people have been waiting for the next version of Windows,″ said Kerri Grubb, marketing manager in Microsoft’s consumer customer unit.

Still, when Windows 98 hits retail store shelves on June 25, it will offer few important features over Windows 95, which dramatically improved the basic ``look and feel″ of computing and helped convince droves of Apple Macintosh users to switch to Windows machines.

Windows 98′s main improvement is that it weaves Microsoft’s Internet browser into the desktop operating system, turning the computer screen into a viewfinder for both the World Wide Web and information stored in a PC.

It also sports minor new features, such as faster loading of software and a trouble-shooting guide for common computer problems. It also enables users to run high-capacity digital video disks, use two monitors at once and more easily hook up peripherals.

But relatively few users are expected to shell out the $90 or so for a copy of the software upgrade. Most current computers don’t include DVD drives or other advanced features to take advantage of Windows 98.

Several major software developers said that while they plan to make their software compatible with Windows 98, they are not creating special applications for it.

``There just aren’t any real new features for our graphics and business applications,″ said Sue Ann Wright, a spokeswoman for Corel Corp., the Ottawa, Canada-based maker of Word Perfect and graphics software.

``There’s nothing new there specifically for gamers that is immediately apparent,″ said Doug Kubel, head technologist at Interactive Magic Inc., a Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based maker of Air Warrior III and Seven Kingdoms.

Experts speculate Microsoft doesn’t want people to get too excited about an operating system whose final version has been thrown into question by the Justice Department. The department reportedly may push for Microsoft to release an alternate version of its Windows 98 operating program _ with access to the Internet browser hidden.

Moreover, the company has said it is shifting its operating system focus to Windows NT, its system for business computer networks, and says within a few years it will make the business computer platform the same program used by consumers.

Microsoft, by its own hype last time, has set expectations high.

The company spent $200 million to market Windows 95. It paid to light the Empire State Building, used a Rolling Stones song in a TV commercial and bought out the press run of the Times of London. Comedian Jay Leno showed up for a carnival at Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle.

This time around, there are signs of excitement _ but mainly among computer enthusiasts.

Richard Pulcrano, president of Horizon Mobile Health, a mobile radiology service based in Huntington, W.Va., was the first to place an order for Windows 98 through an Internet software seller.

``It seems like every time I upgrade with Windows, it’s always better,″ he said.

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