Microsoft Corp. today will start shipping its long-awaited new version of Windows, the popular software that makes IBM-type personal computers easier to use.
Microsoft will ship at least 1 million copies of Windows version 3.1 to U.S. stores and directly to customer homes by April 6, when the product goes on sale, Chairman Bill Gates said.
"We have orders for very close to a million right now. So by the time we ship the thing, we will be well over a million," Gates said in an interview.
He said Microsoft expects to sell 1 million copies in the first 30 days.
Windows works in conjunction with DOS, the Microsoft operating system software used on about 90% of PCs.
Windows 3.1 is part of Microsoft's battle with International Business Machines Corp. over control of the direction of PC software.
Windows 3.1 will face competition from a new version of an IBM operating system called OS-2. IBM plans to start shipping OS-2 version 2.0 by the end of March, but analysts believe Microsoft will have much more of its product in stores by that point than IBM.
IBM and Microsoft were once collaborators but parted ways after a dispute over future PC operating system software. IBM chose to promote OS-2, which it co-developed with Microsoft as the eventual replacement for DOS and Windows. Microsoft has stuck with enhancing Windows.
Microsoft said it has virtually cornered the market on blank computer diskettes in order to have enough to pump out the new Windows.
Windows 3.1 provides a number of improvements over the previous version, Windows 3.0, Microsoft said. Microsoft has sold more than 9 million copies of Windows 3.0 since its release in June, 1990.
An operating system is the base layer of software that controls a computer's internal functions. It works with applications programs, which provide specific uses such as word processing.
Windows 3.1 runs applications programs faster than version 3.0, Microsoft claims. It also is less likely to "crash," or to freeze up, due to an error in an application program, and it helps identify such errors, Microsoft said. The tendency to crash has been a major complaint of Windows users.
The new Windows allows users to more accurately create typefaces in printouts of computer text. Printing of all types of programs is more than twice as fast as today's Windows, the company said.
Windows 3.1 also features the ability to run "multimedia" software that combines text, photos, sound and animation.
A separate version of the new Windows is designed for new pen-based portable computers that are controlled by writing on their screen instead of typing on a keyboard.
Microsoft has mailed 1.7 million copies of an order form to existing Windows users that allows them to upgrade to the new version for $49.99. That's also the price the upgrade version of the software is expected to cost in stores, Gates said.
"Anybody that is actively using Windows will eventually upgrade," Gates predicted.
In an unusual arrangement, Microsoft has started shipping the software to Federal Express Corp. for individual customers who have ordered it. But the overnight shipping service will wait until April 6, the official sale date, to deliver the packages to customers' homes.
A version of Windows 3.1 for computer owners who don't own Windows 3.0 will sell for about $100.
IBM plans a major push to get PC users to switch from Windows to OS-2, which is able to run Windows and DOS programs as well as specially tailored OS-2 software.
But Gates and other Microsoft executives scoff at the challenge. They point out that OS-2 failed to gain much momentum in the five years it has been on the market.
"They've used this term 'Better Windows than Windows' " to describe OS-2 2.0, he said. "They've put forth the big claim, perhaps to be later known as the big lie."
The prospects for Windows 3.1, meanwhile, have prompted several Wall Street analysts to promote Microsoft stock.
Microsoft shares rose $3.75 to $128 in trading Tuesday.