HARVARD HERO MOMENT #12: When Windows 95 took computers mainstream

Pete Marcus

08 Nov 2019

In the summer of 1995, I’d just turned 13. It was a scorching hot summer and, in my memory, the news was full of the OJ Simpson trial and the charts packed with Britpop hits. But one big thing lurked in the background: the increasing mainstream adoption of computers, and in particular this new invention called the internet (commonly referred to as the information superhighway back then). Suddenly newspapers and TV shows seemed to be obsessed with the idea that computers were the future, every family would soon own one, and the internet would unleash a revolution we could only begin to imagine. For a teenager like me it was an exciting and optimistic time. More than anything, it was the launch of Windows 95 in the August of that year that brought the hype about our internet-fuelled future to a head.

Front page news

It’s hard to remember now, but Windows 95 was major front-page news. For the first time ever, a computer operating system launch was splashed all over the media and heralded as a breakthrough. There was a huge TV ad campaign that explained it to consumers and inspired us by asking “Where do you want to go today?”. Bill Gates even bought the rights to the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”  to soundtrack the whole thing. Suddenly computers weren’t just a niche hobby for geeks – they were rock and roll (just check out how excited Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are on stage). The brilliantly orchestrated marketing campaign around Windows 95 brought Microsoft and the whole tech industry into the mainstream consciousness like never before. From that moment on, none of us could escape the pull of computers. My family bought our first PC that Christmas. Suddenly we could access an encyclopaedia – Encarta 95 – on one of Microsoft’s CD-ROMs, and I could do my homework faster. We could get primitive dial up too (not that we knew what to do with it - there weren’t many websites back then). But more importantly, we began to understand how central technology would be to our lives. We quickly became fascinated by upgrades, new features, the latest product launches, devices that could do more, faster, cheaper, more easily... It was a fascination that wouldn’t leave us and is reflected every year as we get excited about the latest smartphone event. So looking back, while it was the product of a more innocent and optimistic time, the launch of Windows 95 undeniably marked the start of the consumer tech revolution that we’re still living through today.