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WINDOWS 95 MANIA : Opening Day : Windows 95 Gets a Bright, if Not Blinding, Beginning

August 25, 1995|GREG MILLER and LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With searchlights spraying columns of light across the midnight sky, the parking lot at CompUSA in Fountain Valley took on the feel of a Hollywood movie premiere.

But the stars at this gala came in boxes: Windows 95, the widely anticipated Microsoft Corp. personal computer program, had finally arrived.

At countless computer stores around Southern California and the world, nocturnal parties, big crowds and special promotions ushered in the release of the new computer program, which helps computer users move from one task to the next with the click of a mouse.

Though fun seemed to be had by all at the retailers' sales festivals--and at the VIP gala on the Microsoft campus outside Seattle--there were some signs Thursday that Windows 95 might not be living up to the prodigious hype.

But as the clock struck midnight Wednesday, Windows 95 began flying off the shelves. At CompUSA in Fountain Valley, a crowd of 300 was on hand for the event. Outside, employees handed out slices of the 40 pizzas the store had ordered for the occasion.

Inside, a radio disc jockey kept customers updated on the evening's sales promotions. When the zero hour arrived, the crowd tossed streamers and tooted horns as store employees flung open the doors to the warehouse, where boxes of software were stacked six-feet high on wooden pallets.

Bobby Neishi, 37, a Huntington Beach resident who designs snowboards, was among the first to grab a copy. Neishi said he and his friends were holding an informal contest to see who could get a copy of the program first.

"I usually go to sleep at 10 o'clock, but tonight I set my alarm for 11 p.m.," he said. "I'm going to go home and load this thing up and get on the [Internet] and talk about it."

The crowd included many techies who looked, well, a bit like Microsoft founder Bill Gates himself: hair combed forward, wire-rimmed spectacles and loose-fitting clothes. Some even had pocket protectors.

One of just a few dozen women who turned out for the event was Mary Freel, 48, of Westminster. Like many in the crowd, she had been waiting for Windows 95 for more than a year. "My hard drive went down on Tuesday," she said. "I called the manufacturer and said, 'You've got to fix this, Thursday is coming."' She had a new drive by Wednesday morning.

The appeal of Windows 95 is that "it's supposed to make things easier," she said, though even she admitted she was stunned by the turnout. "When color TVs first came out, you didn't see things like this," she said. "The only thing that would come close is if they found the fountain of youth."

Though computer software stores had been preparing for the Windows onslaught for weeks, many retailers found themselves overwhelmed by a crush of customers.

"Last night we did a normal day's business in two hours," said Bob Stone, manager of a Computer City store in Santa Ana. At midday Thursday, business was still 40% above normal for a weekday. But the real rush is expected for the weekend.

"We've actually hired about 20 more employees over the last couple of weeks to be staffed for this," Stone said.

The big retail chains declined to discuss sales figures, but a disappointing turnout at a handful of stores in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area suggested the Windows 95 launch may not be an unqualified success.

Maria Rubio, manager of the Software Etc. store in the Century City Shopping Center, opened up two hours early and nearly doubled her staff to accommodate the heavy influx of customers she was expecting. Although the first Windows 95 sale was made by 8:15 a.m., the customers only trickled in throughout the morning.

"I was surprised that we weren't as busy as we might have been," Rubio said. Even the mob she expected at lunch hour failed to materialize.

The Computer City store in Los Angeles opened its doors at 8 a.m. but failed to draw large crowds all morning.

"I thought it would be jampacked and that I would be waiting in line," said Brian Shuster, a 37-year-old film company executive from Beverly Hills, as he breezed through the store with two packages of the operating system.

Marcos Genetiano, a clerk at CompUSA in San Bruno, said the initial rush had slowed drastically. "It's not really that busy right now," he said. "It was better today than usual, but not what we expected."

Certainly none of these complaints dampened the circus atmosphere at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters Thursday.

The main athletic field on the lush 250-acre campus had been converted into a carnival complete with tents and a Ferris wheel. By 9 a.m., buses began depositing visitors--the press and computer industry types who would eventually number some 5,000.

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