Software releases have never generated the consumer-media fireworks of a big-budget film festooned with stars. That has changed with Windows 95.

Coast-to-coast attention has been building toward the launch of Microsoft’s new operating system, scheduled in one month.

CEO Bill Gates last week made a well-timed visit to a software confab in Southern California to tout what many predict will become the all-time best-selling release of computer code.

The biggest news he delivered did not concern Windows 95, but its new online service, the Microsoft Network. MSN, he said, will offer full Internet access beginning on its Aug. 24 launch date. Microsoft had originally said full access, including ability to use the World Wide Web, would be available later this year.

Digital Domain VP and new media exec producer Steve Schklair believes MSN will have a bigger impact on Hollywood than Windows 95, since it offers entertainment companies another way to distribute content.

Choices, choices

“Hollywood companies might decide, based on the business model for the online service, to become providers for Microsoft,” Schklair says. “At this point, if I were going to provide Web access to my studio or a chat forum for people to talk about my products, I’d definitely pick the Microsoft Network. They’re going to be very successful.”

Despite all the magazine cover stories, most of the entertainment industry may not yet have a handle on the significance of Windows 95, other than as a new operating system that runs the basic functions of a desktop computer. Less apparent is that before the year 2000, MSN may be the biggest gateway to the hottest new entertainment venue – online.

A relative latecomer to entertainment applications, brawny Microsoft now outsells all other PC-based entertainment companies, notes Stewart Alsop, well-known pundit in the computer industry and VP of publishing company Infoworld.

Gates already made Hollywood headlines this year via pacts with DreamWorks and NBC. Alsop, though, thinks Hollywood is still unsure of exactly how to deal with Gates and his behemoth company.

“Hollywood is not as scared of Microsoft as the computer business has been,” he says. “Hollywood views Microsoft the same way its customers do: It’s a successful company, knows the techology and can be a useful partner and helper. But computer companies view Microsoft as dangerous. They know very few companies have actually benefited from a partnership with Microsoft.”

He adds, “People still think of Gates as a computer nerd, not necessarily ‘one of us.’ Hollywood doesn’t realize he’s both a nerd and a predator.”

Even before the DreamWorks and NBC deals, Microsoft was working with TCI on cable TV trials. At last week’s confab, Alsop said Microsoft had partnered with showbiz contenders like Hughes and its direct-broadcast venture “to add richness to digital broadcast. We’ll have more to say about that by the end of the year.”

Gates’ mystique

Agent Lewis Henderson, who works with multimedia clients at the William Morris Agency, doesn’t think Hollywood is particularly naive when it comes to dealing with Gates. “People obviously perceive him as someone who will be a force and create a presence for himself in this industry. We’ll have to see who can put together the strategic relationships with him to make something work,” says Henderson.

The launch of Windows 95, in particular, Henderson says, will add to Gates’s Hollywood cachet. “The fact that there’s a new platform with the backing of a stong company will make for some interesting maneuvers on the content side.”

Schklair agrees that Hollywood is savvy enough to understand what a strategic relationship with Microsoft might entail. “There are a lot of smart operators in this town who understand that when they’re doing business with the Microsoft Network, they’re not doing business with Gates directly, but with the management team responsible for the online service. It’s not the case that a year after you become a content provider on the network, you’re going to discover some secret, hidden agenda,” says Schklair.

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