REDMOND, Wash. -- A case of opening-night jitters pervades the sprawling corporate headquarters here that has become the world's software capital.
On the verge of introducing its most ambitious software product yet, Windows NT, Microsoft Corp. has found itself in an unusual position: It is trying to ratchet back the expectations of the computer industry and computer users, who have come to expect blockbuster products with clockwork regularity from the world's dominant software publisher.
NT stands for "new technology" and its formal introduction at an industry show in Atlanta today has been anticipated for months by the trade press and business publications, as well as by legions of computer hardware and software makers that have designed entire product lines to accommodate it. Microsoft sent about 70,000 test copies not only to those hardware and software people, but also to potential customers.
But the company's top executives are worried that NT's ambitious grab for network reach and features normally found on much bigger corporate computers not to mention a price that starts at around $500 for each version may lead the desktop computer industry to spurn it.
No wonder Microsoft officials are eager to tell anyone who will listen that Windows NT is not intended for a mass audience.
"I have to make sure that my mother doesn't go out and buy this program," says Dwayne Walker, Microsoft's product manager for NT, as he busily outlines strategy on a conference-room whiteboard.
And although Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and chairman, has supported NT wholeheartedly, Michael Maples, a Microsoft executive vice president, voices another variation on the low-expectations theme: "If you don't know why you need NT, then you don't need it."
Until now Microsoft has shown an uncanny ability to introduce remarkably successful programs as it consolidates its control over the software that runs the world's desktop personal computers.
But growth in the desktop computer business is slowing and cut-throat competition in software is eroding profit margins. So Microsoft is turning toward the remaining bastion of computing still dominated by the makers of mainframe and minicomputers: corporate computing.
Windows NT is intended to support large networks of computers that carry out such corporatewide tasks as running an airline's reservations system or supporting an insurance company's processing of claims.
Underlying its strategy is its control of the most popular desktop operating system, MS-DOS. Operating systems are software programs that control a computer's basic operations, like a sort of traffic cop for the flow of data and instructions.
In the last few years, Microsoft has broadened the appeal of MS-DOS through sales of Windows, an overlay program that lets MS-DOS users use a point-and-click mouse with symbols on the screen, rather than having to type in arcane commands.
Windows NT is a wholly new operating system; it will be used in place of MS-DOS but use Windows as an overlay.
But unlike MS-DOS, Windows NT isn't being aimed at the nation's desktops. It is designed, instead, for new computing applications, and it requires lots of computer memory, a fast processor chip and a big hard disk to run. So Microsoft is telling users of stand-alone personal computers not to buy NT.
They must wait until next year, when the company introduces Chicago, another operating system the company is designing for users of personal computers that are based on Intel Corp.'s 386 and 486 series of chips.