Microsoft turns 35: Best, worst, most notable moments

An opinionated look back at the good, the bad and the ugly of Microsoft's 35-year history

Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft in 1975.

Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft in 1975.

Best productivity booster

In March 2006, Microsoft released Office 2007, which featured a brand new interface. Gone were the familiar menus and toolbars, replaced by the Ribbon, which put the most commonly used commands on a series of tabbed panels.

Although some people hate the Ribbon, many users (including some Computerworld editors) find it easier to use than the old interface once they've gotten used to it. Microsoft claims that research shows that the ribbon is a productivity booster -- so much so that the company has decided to incorporate elements of it throughout its entire product line, including the Windows operating system itself.

Most inexplicable advertising campaign

Microsoft has spent untold millions of dollars on advertising through the years, but one campaign stands out above them all for its sheer incomprehensibility -- the series of ads in which the odd couple of Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld do mundane things such as search for cheap shoes at a bargain basement discount store and annoy a family for no apparent reason.

Launched in September 2008, these ads were widely criticized in the advertising and tech worlds. They lasted only a brief time; Microsoft was smart enough to can them quickly.

Most effective advertising campaign

Microsoft clearly learned from the Seinfeld ad fiasco, because the company in early 2009 followed that campaign with what may have been its most effective series of ads -- the Laptop Hunter commercials. The ads portrayed attractive, personable young people searching for laptops and buying Windows-based machines because they found them to be more powerful and less expensive than Macs.

The ads hit Apple where it hurt, on price, at a time when the economy was tanking. The image-measuring firm BrandIndex found that the campaign raised Microsoft's ranking of value perception among 18-to-34-year-olds from zero to 46.2 in a few months, while Apple's plummeted from 70 to 12.4 in the same time period. (The highest possible value was 100.)

Most underwhelming product launch

Windows 1.0's release registered as barely a blip on the computing world's radar. Begun in 1981 and initially dubbed "Interface Manager," Microsoft's first graphical operating system was announced in 1983 but not released until 1985. It didn't run as a stand-alone operating system; instead, users had to launch it from within DOS. And by the time it was released, its thunder was stolen by Apple's Macintosh computer and graphical Mac operating system, which launched in 1984.

Most game-changing product launch

In May 1990, Microsoft brought graphical computing to the masses with the launch of Windows 3.0. Versions 1 and 2 of Windows were underwhelming, underpowered and largely ignored, except by people who needed a runtime version to operate software that required windows, such as PageMaker. But the third time was the charm.

Although windows-based operating systems were in use elsewhere, notably on the Mac, Windows 3.0 was a revelation for PC users, with a graphical interface, multitasking and copy-and-paste, among other features. Finally, a reason to buy a mouse!

Splashiest product launch

In 1995, Microsoft launched Windows 95, with an advertising campaign that was estimated to have cost $300 million and was said at the time to be the biggest in history. Microsoft is rumored to have paid $12 million just to buy the rights to the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," which was Windows 95's theme song and inescapable anthem.

In addition to a massive television-radio-and-PR blitz, Microsoft draped a 300-foot Windows 95 banner over Toronto's CN Tower, paid for a print run of 1.5 million copies of The Times in London and distributed them for free, and had New York's Empire State Building lit up with Microsoft's corporate colors of yellow, red and green.

As David Segal wrote in The Washington Post on August 24, 1995, "You can hide under a bridge, row a boat to the middle of the ocean or wedge yourself under the sofa, cover your ears and then hum loudly. But get near a newspaper, radio, television or computer retailer today and you will experience the multimillion-dollar hype surrounding the launch of Windows 95."

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