Start Me Up Just Try

Talk about mixed blessings. Microsoft Corp.'s advertising blitz for Windows 95 is a major success. Slick images and the beat of the Rolling Stones singing Start Me Up have convinced hordes of buyers that computing just got a whole lot easier. Win95 sales boomed to a record 1 million copies in just four days and triggered strong demand for new computers and other software.

There's a catch, though. It isn't just the nerdy "early adopter" crowd that's snapping up the new PC operating system. And the less savvy buyers are finding that Win95 doesn't quite make computers easy enough. After three weeks, Microsoft's "help" lines are still jammed with callers who need assistance with simply installing the new software. The more vexed of them are posting another line from the Stones song on various message boards: "You make a grown man cry-y-y!"

WIT'S END. John J. Bunish of Ogden, Utah, an Air Force major who has used computers for years, dashed out to buy Win95 in the belief that his 5-year-old son would find it "quicker and easier" to use than Microsoft's earlier Windows program. Installation went fine, but Win95 actually made Bunish' PC run some of his son's game programs either slowly or not at all. After two nights of fiddling, the boy was in tears and the father out of patience. Bunish returned the software. "The best thing" he says, is that Win95's "`uninstall' feature works perfectly."

To be fair, Bunish' tale may be rare. Larry Mondry, CompUSA's executive vice-president for merchandising, says that less than 1% of the Win95 boxes sold by that retail chain have been returned. But since Aug. 24, when Win95 hit the shelves, Microsoft's lines have been ringing off the hook, even with 1,600 extra support personnel, many at five outside firms, on hand. Early on, many callers got busy signals--or waited on hold for up to 75 minutes. Microsoft's own ratings of its customer service dropped from 95% to just 77% of callers satisfied.

Could Microsoft have prepared better? Its executives say there was little more to be done. Adding any more people would have meant layoffs after peak demand had passed. "It's like when the Olympics comes to Atlanta," says Deborah Willingham, Microsoft's vice-president for support. "Do you build extra hotel rooms that won't be used when the Olympics are over?" Now, Microsoft is shifting more staff to weekends and the 8 p.m.-to-midnight shift. The result: only sporadic busy signals on weekdays and weekend waits of less than 60 seconds, the company says.

Yet the number of calls remains at nearly 20,000 a day, in part because many novice customers still need lots of help with Win95. Some are so nervous that they won't even begin the installation process until they have a Microsoft technician on the phone. But, says Fletcher Ernst, who's helping answer those calls: "I show them something, and they go: `I get it. Eureka!"'

HIT SHOW. To be sure, Microsoft's Win95 marketing campaign is aimed not only at the well-seasoned computer crowd but at millions of novices. The software giant is spending nearly $200 million on promotions, including a nationwide, 30-minute "info-show" narrated by E.R.'s Anthony Edwards. That alone attracted an estimated 10 million viewers, many of them newbies. "That was the whole goal," says Jonathan Lazarus, a Microsoft vice-president, "to get people to purchase software who hadn't been comfortable with it before."

People such as Jan Norton of Los Angeles, for instance. As a consumer marketing consultant, Norton knew computers but had never bought a new operating system before. Based on Microsoft's pitch, she reckoned that installing Win95 would be a snap--"like going out and buying myself a $97 blouse or a hot-fudge sundae." In fact, it took more than four days and the help of a technically minded friend. But now that Win95 is running smoothly? "I love it," Norton says. "I do. I have to admit it." Music, no doubt, to Microsoft's ears.

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