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Reprinted from PC Magazine, October 24, 1995, pp. 89.

Illustration by Peter Coates
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Are we all missing the point with Windows 95? Did someone at Microsoft stumble onto a formula for defining the future of software and hint at that formula by incorporating the year 1995 into the product name? And are we are about to see a basic change in the nature of software in particular and computing in general? Yes. All debuted by Windows 95.

What Microsoft is attempting to do is introduce a concept that has been used in the auto industry for decades – the model year. When you look at Windows 95, what is the most noticeable change from Windows 3.1? It’s the new user interface. Buy one of those bonus disks and you have car options. Two-tone paint, leather interior.

If you look at the history of the automobile, you see that once the automatic transmission was invented, not much that was fundamental has changed in the car. Blinking turn signals and windshield-wiper speed control may be cited, but these are minor compared with the most noticeable change from year to year: body and interior design. Look at a 1935 Plymouth and a 1995 Lexus side by side. You can get to the store and back in about the same amount of time. But what’s really different? It’s not the functionality but the design.

This is exactly what we are about to see in software. The profit in car manufacture has never been maximized by selling to that fellow down the street who has the mint-condition 1949 Buick that he still drives every day. If everyone were like that geezer, there wouldn’t be much of a car market, would there? No money would be made in software if people didn’t have an impetus to buy new versions of old software.

Until recently, software companies have been improving their products at a frantic pace, but recent upgrades have little in the way of new features. Microsoft is freaked that the profits made from upgrades might stop rolling in as fast.

Well, taking a page from Detroit’s notebook may not be a bad idea. Why not redo the operating system yearly, just like a car model? Just keep changing it, based more on aesthetics than innards. There is a big difference between the 32-valve V8 in a Lexus and an old flathead Ford V8, but only hot-rodders and enthusiasts really care. When Windows NT code is slip-streamed into Windows 95 code and called Windows 97, nobody will care about anything but the interface’s visible changes – the design. The look and feel. CD-ROMs have whiz-bang interfaces with everything from spinning cubes to little video characters walking around on the screen. This is the wave of the future. The idea of a common user interface as used on the Mac and Windows is dead. Nobody cares anymore. It was an interesting experiment killed by both HyperCard from Apple (which reversed the rigidity of the common user interface concept) and modern CD-ROMs, each with a unique interface designed to be fun and functional. Microsoft knows this because every guru in the country has been observing the fact that users prefer unique interfaces on CD-ROMs and on software.

This realization will give Microsoft a huge edge over IBM, which is clueless as to the subtleties of aesthetics. IBM is peopled by talented engineers who, like all engineers, have had any artistic sensibility drummed out of them in college. “Neat holster for that hex calculator, Stu!” Their idea of a work of art is a cool-looking blueprint.

The next wave will leave all the ugly software in the dust. People will want software that’s good-looking and fashionable. Like it or not, it will be fashionable to run Windows 95. Blue skies and clouds in the background will be fashionable – until the next model year, that is. But remember, it took a long time after the “model year” was developed by Detroit before distinctive cars started to emerge.

The good news is that unlike with automobiles, it shouldn’t cost $20,000 to get a new model every year.

John C. Dvorak

Page added on 12th December 2004.

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