MICROSOFT CLEANING WINDOWS FOR '95, OR '96

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Automotive consultant Jim Wangers was intrigued to hear about one hot new '95 model. He was less impressed to learn it won't be available till sometime in the first half of 1995-around the time car enthusiasts start pondering the '96 models.

The model is Windows 95, Microsoft Corp.'s all-new operating system software that will succeed the company's hugely successful Windows 3.0/3.1 line and MS-DOS products.

Mr. Wangers worries that software buyers, accustomed to the auto industry's habit of starting the model year months before the calendar year, will think Windows 95 is prematurely obsolete.

"It suggests to me that's last year's product," said Mr. Wangers, senior managing partner with Automotive Marketing Consultants, Vista, Calif. "If you're out in May or June of '95 with a '95, it's not exactly new."

In disclosing the official name of Windows 95 earlier this month, Microsoft said the software was "targeted for release" in the first half of next year.

Some corporate identity consultants don't see any problem in Microsoft's introducing "95" in '95.

"I'm more concerned about car companies that sell their '95s in '94," said Larry Ackerman, partner in Anspach Grossman Portugal, a New York-based identity consulting firm.

Microsoft, not surprisingly, also thinks the new nomenclature is perfectly clear: Windows 95 is the version coming out during 1995.

Microsoft is aiming Windows 95 at both the techy crowd and the mass market, and the name is intended to be easy to identify.

Microsoft market research found most PC users were confused by the old engineer-inspired product labeling-Microsoft Windows Version 3.11-and couldn't identify the latest rendition of Windows.

"We have a very confusing scheme of labeling products," acknowledged Paul Maritz, a Microsoft senior VP.

With the new product, Microsoft wanted a simple name that would convey an all-new version of Windows.

"Chicago," the product's much-discussed code name, and another tag bandied about by computer enthusiasts, Windows 4.0, didn't quite convey that. ("Chicago," Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates explained last year, was selected as a "non-exotic location" somewhere between Redmond, Wash., company headquarters and "Cairo," the name of an advanced operating system under development.)

Mr. Maritz raises the possibility of releasing modified versions with names like "95A" or "95B." While hardly elegant, the names are fairly simple.

Name experts say Microsoft, the software industry's dominant force, may once again be reshaping the market by introducing the concept of model years. Borrowing a strategy from the car business, it's possible that Microsoft and other software sellers could introduce new models annually.

Microsoft insists that's not now part of the game plan. "We are not committing to doing annual [Windows] updates at this point in time," Mr. Maritz said. "It may be the case that we will be marketing Windows 95 during calendar 1996."

Mr. Maritz boldly projects Microsoft could easily sell 20 million to 30 million copies of Windows 95 in the first year. Microsoft has sold more than 60 million copies of earlier Windows editions. The company plans its biggest-ever marketing and ad campaign-likely exceeding the $100 million targeted over the next year for a Microsoft worldwide branding campaign. Microsoft is using both Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., and Anderson & Lembke, San Francisco, as agencies on the Windows 95 account.

In introducing 95, Microsoft keeps the golden Windows name on which it recently won trademark protection and a ubiquitous flag logo. "They have a superb masterbrand in Windows," said Clive Chajet, chairman of New York-based image consultants Lippincott & Margulies. "Introducing any product under that umbrella would seem to be a sensible way of proceeding."

Mr. Chajet is already anticipating a logical step in Microsoft's model-year branding: "Windows 2000."

Richard Skews coordinates Marketing Technology.

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