Open letter to Gates: if the crash wasn't planned, maybe it should have been

Dear Bill: Last week's very public crash of Windows 98 at Spring Comdex was brilliant. You again demonstrated your mastery of public relations. With one "accident", you were able to get a huge amount of press. You changed some sentiments about you and Microsoft and also set the stage for corporations to follow your proposed path to NT 5.0. That repositioning is a classic move that has made you the world mogul you are.

Chris Capossela, your Windows program manager who was drafted to demonstrate Windows 98, performed like a star. I particularly liked the banter between the two of you when Windows 98 crashed after Capossela plugged in the Universal Serial Bus port scanner. Your "That's probably why we haven't shipped Windows 98 yet" was good; and Chris' "We still have work to do" set the stage for you to lay out a Windows NT 5.0 migration pitch.

Bill, I am sure that it is frustrating for you to have all these naysayers jump into the "we hate Microsoft" camp. I was also surprised to see Bob Dole do an about-face from his Senate days and become an outspoken Microsoft challenger. It must also be irritating to watch the Software Publishers Association, a group that Microsoft funded for so many years, now lead an anti-Microsoft charge.

Obviously the growing concern about you and about Microsoft's role in this important industry is affecting your corporate customers. We all know that your first two attempts to change public sentiment bombed. Many people just didn't buy the kinder, gentler image overhaul that you tried in January. Like a Brioni suit, it was a style that didn't fit you too well. And the recent "grass roots" effort was thwarted by the Los Angeles Times. You should be glad that blew up early because it was a stupid move that might work for desperate industries such as tobacco, but isn't appropriate for Microsoft.

But this third time was the charm. You showed the type of media handling that has made Microsoft a household name. Your crash was on nearly every nightly newscast, as well as in the next day's newspapers. It even made such popular TV shows as "The Today Show". Heck, you even made David Letterman's Top-Ten list, (which wasn't any worse than that silly "Quiz Machine" segment you did when you were on his show).

Beyond just gaining visibility, the crash gave the corporations a clear message to wait for NT. You've talked and talked about how Windows 98 isn't a corporate product (and I know you are anxious that any corporations that do embrace Windows 98 won't upgrade to NT until at least 2001 -- contradicting your grand OS plan). But given year-2000 pressure and fears, some have even been tempted to forego your OS direction warning and install Windows 98 this winter.

So last week's crash gave some teeth to your comments. It showed corporations that although Windows 98 looks nice, it isn't a Windows 95 bug elixir. Besides, although it boots faster and eases the interface, corporate apps will probably run slower. So you are hoping that corporations will continue to use Windows 95 for another year or so, then upgrade to NT when it finally comes out. I am sure that you won't let Dave Cutler have a public crash of NT within a month of its release.

Even if some IT guy tries to push Windows 98 in his company, the memorable images and stories about this crash will stifle their efforts; with no real alternative, NT won't seem so far away. And it doesn't hurt to let the Justice Department think that Win98 is far from ready. Won't the lawyers be surprised to find your developers on time or ahead of schedule.

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