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It's a small, small world for opening of Windows 95 The global village is eager customer for new software

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Such is the power of Microsoft Corp. that it can make New Year's Day come in August.

At the CompUSA store in Glen Burnie, night owls, nerds and otherwise normal people counted down the seconds until Windows 95, Microsoft's long-awaited new computer operating system, made its debut in the market early this morning.

"10, 9, 8 . . . "

Then, at the stroke of midnight, the ribbon was cut and the hundreds of people inside the store surged forward into CompUSA's warehouse, where towering stacks of Windows 95 boxes awaited.

At the head of the line was Katie Grove, determined to go boldly forth into a new world of warp-speed computing.

"I wanted my copy the first thing, and we're going to put it on tonight," said Ms. Grove. "I always like being No. 1."

Minutes later, the Owings Mills real estate agent was seen clutching her precious shrink-wrapped package tight in her hands, well on her way to becoming the first in her neighborhood to savor the joys of the most heavily hyped product since hype was invented.

Her feeling at snagging one of the first copies of Windows 95 in Maryland? "Wonderful!" she said. "No. 1 again."

But Ms. Grove's s achievement, impressive as it might seem in Owings Mills, pales in the global arena. Jonathan Prentice of Auckland, New Zealand, beat her by nearly a day.

The worldwide selling of Windows 95 actually kicked off a few ticks past midnight in New Zealand -- 8 a.m. yesterday in Baltimore -- with a -- through the aisles of Whitcoulls bookstore in Auckland.

And the first to reach the cash registers was Mr. Prentice, who plunked down his New Zealand dollars, then gave interviews to three television stations and assorted newspaper reporters.

"It's quite wondrous, all the money they've spent on promoting this product," said Mr. Prentice, who sounded dumbfounded by all the attention as he spoke to The Sun via cellular telephone. "Hopefully, it will live up to all the hype."

The selling of Windows 95 isn't just an American phenomenon. From Australia to Hong Kong, New Zealand to Great Britain, Microsoft is pumping its newest software in a worldwide, mega-millions blitz that includes movie-style premieres, antique-car rallies and the ever-present "Start Me Up" theme song from the Rolling Stones.

There have even been some low-tech touches. In South Africa, senior citizens stood on street corners in wealthy suburban neighborhoods carrying signs reading "It's Coming."

In an unprecedented maneuver, Microsoft upended 200 years of tradition by purchasing every issue of today's Times of London, which will be distributed free to the public for the first time.

The newsstand price is crossed out and there is a note: "Today, the Times free, courtesy of Microsoft."

Why all the worldwide hype? Money. International sales account for 58 percent of Microsoft's revenues. Eventually, Windows 95 software will be available in 30 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese.

The hype won't end today.

HTC Karen Scope, Microsoft's product manager for Windows 95 in Israel, said there will be a big promotion for the software sometime early next year when the Hebrew version comes on the market.

"We're going to have a very big launch in Israel," she said. "We hope to have ads, special deals, discounts. We will have a thousand people at the launch. We'll probably make a very big deal out of it."

The Microsoft media bandwagon is just gathering steam in Europe, which is still unofficially on vacation until the end of August. Scheduled events include launches aboard a Polish submarine and an antique-car rally through Denmark.

In Hong Kong and Russia, the Bloomberg Business News Service reported, counterfeit versions of Windows 95 -- pirated from prototype review copies sent to professional programmers -- were circulating before the legal sales began worldwide. The legal versions, meanwhile, were held up at Russian customs.

"It's a nightmare, simply a nightmare," said Microsoft's Russian market manager, Ilya Billig. He said Microsoft expects to sell 100,000 copies of Windows 95, a figure that "would have been 20 times bigger without piracy."

The center of Microsoft mania in Europe was in Britain.

Causing a small storm is the decision of executives at the Times to take more than $500,000 from Microsoft and double the paper's print run to nearly 1.5 million for today's one-day free issue. The paper includes a 28-page supplement devoted to the product and Microsoft advertisements on three pages, including the front of the paper.

The promotion -- at least, for a day -- brings together two of the world's biggest players in computers and media: Microsoft's Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns the Times.

Peter Stothard, the paper's editor, said the Times' editorial integrity will not be damaged by the promotion.

"No advertiser can influence what the Times of London says, nor would one try," he said. "This is not the Microsoft Times. We're not sponsored by Microsoft."

Mr. Stothard said he couldn't recall another worldwide promotion quite like Microsoft's.

"This is a milestone in the history of global marketing," he said. "Normally, you roll out a product and try it in one place or another. This is like launching the English language across the world in one day."

Writers for other papers may be sniping at the Times, but just as in America, Microsoft is lapping up free media exposure with a series of stories about the new product. There will be more

coverage of tonight's staged "premiere" at the Equinox nightclub in Leicester Square.

There will be limos, red carpets and searchlights. The only thing missing will be human stars. In this case, the crowd will come to see a computer program -- and a taped message from Mr. Gates.

Back in New Zealand, though, things have begun to settle down.

The folks who run Whitcoulls bookstore had never seen anything like the Microsoft phenomenon, which pulled in crowds and required employees to precisely set their watches to ensure that the first buyer would make computer history.

"Before this, the biggest event we ever had was when Michael Caine came here and signed books for 200 people," said assistant manager Liz Elliott. "Usually, we get big crowds for cricket players."

But yesterday, it was Mr. Prentice, the 19-year-old college student, who was chased around like he was a sports star. He gave interviews and posed for pictures. Yet all he really wanted to do was go home and start up his computer.

"I think I'll stay up and play with this program for five or six hours," he said. "This is all too much for me."

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