“Start Me Up!” blared the commercial for Windows 95, the breakout version of the operating system that debuted almost exactly 20 years ago. The Rolling Stones anthem marked the introduction of the Start menu that Windows 8 killed and Windows 10 revives. But the marketing push behind Windows 95 reached far beyond a 30-second spot. Microsoft held a huge tent party at its campus and paid to light up the Empire State Building in the colors of the Windows logo. Windows went on sale at the stroke of midnight at computer retailers such as CompUSA and Egghead–many of which have aged even less well than that software.
Windows XP, another huge hit for Microsoft, also had a launch party studded with stars such as Madonna and Sting. But by the time Windows 7 rolled around, partygoers weary of dealing with Windows Vista couldn’t be bothered to leave their homes.
Microsoft publicly stopped being a software company when Steve Ballmer proclaimed it was a “devices and services” company, an identity that Satya Nadella further refined into being a “cloud first, mobile first” company. So why continue to celebrate software releases? More so than Android for Google or even iOS for Apple, Windows is a fundamental strategic asset and revenue driver for the company. So even though Windows 10’s introduction doesn’t involve as much hoopla as Windows launches past, Microsoft is still throwing parties, including events at its own Microsoft Stores. Retailers such as Staples are in on the act, even though Microsoft has effectively killed the classic boxed retail-store upgrade by giving away Windows 10. Instead, they are using the launch to sell new PCs, the same way Microsoft will draw revenue from Windows 10.
Like parties for birthdays and anniversaries, Windows launch celebrations have been most exuberant when the occasion they celebrated was a landmark. They made sense when a monolithic new release of Windows showed up every few years (and longer than that in the case of Vista, which showed up than a half-decade after XP). But those days are drawing to a close. Microsoft executives have called Windows 10 “the last version of Windows” as the company seeks to transition from a major release every few years to continuous improvement, offering “software as a service” similarly to how it does with Office 365 or Google does with Chrome. Google does advertise Chrome (or did before it achieved its current level of popularity), but new versions come and go with users often barely noticing.
Nobody expects their friends to cancel their plans to attend a Chrome 46 release party. That day is here for Windows, too.
With the end of the epic launch bash, how will Microsoft drive excitement for Windows? Alas, while Microsoft loves Windows, it’s harder to get the masses all that excited when an upgrade is largely about righting a past release’s wrongs, as in Windows 7 and 10. For industry insiders and hardcore enthusiasts, the company’s Build developer conference is taking its place alongside similar events from Apple and Google as an effective way to generate enthusiasm.
For consumers, Microsoft may emphasize Windows 10 differentiators such as the Edge browser and Continuum feature for two-in-one devices. And like Apple does with its operating systems, the company will likely play up the devices that Windows powers as well as the software they run. As it has in the past, Microsoft will help its hardware partners play up modern-day netbooks such as Asus’s X205, affordable two-in-ones such as Acer’s Switch 10, and high-end convertibles such as Lenovo’s Yoga 3 Pro. Microsoft also has a few devices of its own that have generated sustainable interest in the case of Surface, fandom in the case of Xbox, and futuristic inspiration in the case of HoloLens.
“If you start me up,” the Stones elaborated, “I’ll never stop.” But all parties have to end. Ultimately, there’s more value–and more reward–in making beloved products customers celebrate every day.