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They Lined Up to Buy It, and Now Line Up for Help : Computers: Windows 95 is a hit at the stores, a headache in many homes as Microsoft’s service lines are overwhelmed.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been on the market for almost a week now, and the early returns are in on the much-hyped Windows 95 software. The verdict? It is well on its way to becoming the best-selling software product of all time. But the program may also break records when it comes to causing midnight misery.

Microsoft boasts it has sold an estimated 1 million copies of its new operating system, the successor to MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, in just four days. But the program, which Microsoft said was easy for novices to install and use, has generated tens of thousands of calls that are overloading the company’s telephone support services. On-line computer forums are filled with bitter complaints about the product.

Customers are also having trouble signing on to Microsoft’s heavily marketed on-line service, Microsoft Network.

“The hype and the user expectation level was set so high there was no way Microsoft could reach that goal,” said Michael Gartenberg, research director at Gartner Group. Gartenberg and most other experts have long recommended that customers put off installing Windows 95 until next year, when many of the current glitches will be addressed in “tune-up packs.”

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Many industry observers say the start-up problems are hardly a surprise. With a nearly infinite number of possible combinations of hardware and software in use, it would be impossible to assure that a complicated new operating system would always work without a hitch. Still, the problems appear to be more pervasive than expected.

Consumer complaints could hurt Microsoft’s image: Along with the on-line ridicule, Howard Stern, the radio talk show host, is poking fun at Microsoft to his millions of listeners.

It’s unclear, though, whether any of this will hinder sales. So far Microsoft’s marketing blitz has overwhelmed all words of caution. PC Data estimates that retailers sold about $80 million worth of Windows 95 packages in its first four days on the market.

“It’s unprecedented. Sales have been 20% to 30% above retailers’ expectations,” said Ann Stephens, president of PC Data. She said retailers typically sell just $250 million in software for all of August.

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But the number and range of problems buyers are having installing the software may also be unprecedented. Microsoft has the capacity to answer 20,000 calls a day. But lines have been so overloaded, the company has been putting out busy signals to discourage people from calling and waiting too long on the phone. Seven hundred users have paid $30 a call to get their questions answered by Digital Equipment, one of several companies offering fee-based support on contract with Microsoft.

“We’re doing everything we can to help customers access the technical information they need and [we] apologize for this inconvenience,” said Deborah Willingham, vice president of support at Microsoft.

Microsoft has invited criticism by suggesting in its marketing that installing and using Windows 95 is a breeze. In a repartee with talk show host Jay Leno during a celebration of the Windows 95 launch last week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said Windows 95 was so easy “even a television show host can install it.” Two members of the audience were brought onstage to demonstrate how easily it can be done.

In real life, installations have proved burdensome.

Encino real estate broker Eddie Bernard was first in line when Windows 95 went on sale at midnight last Wednesday at the Woodland Hills CompUSA. But after rushing home to put it on his computer, he stayed up until 4:30 a.m. before giving up, bleary-eyed and disappointed. After numerous efforts to reach Microsoft support, he and his wife finally sat down one afternoon and spent nearly an hour repeatedly pushing the automatic redial button on two separate phone lines before getting through.

“I consider myself a pretty experienced user, but it [the installation] hasn’t been exactly smooth,” said Bernard, who has used computers for 15 years and actually built the two computers he has at home. He is still working out glitches, which relate to conflicts between some of his applications and the operating system.

Robert Reber, a medical lab technician, spent 12 hours installing the system, and had an especially hard time getting his modem and printer to work with Windows 95. Microsoft’s skimpy manual says the entire task should take 30 to 60 minutes.

Eduardo Chan, a graduate student studying civil engineering at Caltech, managed to get the program installed but said he keeps finding small bugs in the operating system that bring his computer to a crashing halt.

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Irvine computer consultant Martin Anderson has discovered a bug that sometimes inactivates the left button used to open programs. The solution? Push the right button.

Installation problems and bugs are likely to contribute to the reluctance of many businesses to upgrade to the software right away.

Bill Walters, president of a Long Beach mobile office rental service, said he finally got Windows 95 installed after days of problems by loading it from MS-DOS instead of Windows. But he said he will hold off putting the software on his 10 office computers.

But those who do get Windows 95 running on their systems seem pleased with its performance. Jeffrey Monroe, director of creative services at Irvine media company Mob Media Inc., spent several days getting Windows 95 installed but is now thrilled with his ability to easily jump from graphics to programming tools to Internet sites as he designs World Wide Web sites for customers.

James Prell, an electrical engineer at Santa Monica-based Lear Astronics, spent $500 on new software and hardware and about six hours cleaning out his computer and installing Windows 95. He said his games have better sound and his scanner works better now. Others report better performance on their children’s CD-ROM programs.

Gartner Group’s Gartenberg said the widespread installation problems among consumers is a byproduct of Microsoft’s strategy of targeting consumers, who have less technical support than corporate customers but are quicker to jump on the latest technology.

And in the long run, that strategy will work, Gartenberg said, if for no other reason than because Microsoft is phasing out the old Windows program and most new applications are being designed for Windows 95.

Tai Siska, a marketing vice president at a Miami groceries distributor, is reluctant to switch to Windows 95 because of the horror stories he has heard. But he knows he must eventually switch.

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Trying to avoiding “Win95,” he said, would be “like an Indian holding up his hands to stop the railroad. I would get run over. Everywhere there will be applications for Windows 95. It will be a juggernaut.”

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Karen Kaplan in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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How to Avoid Windows 95 Installation Problems

1. Wait a couple of months before buying Windows 95, particularly if your computer is critical to your business. By then, Microsoft is likely to have released updates with most of the common problems resolved.

2. Buy one of the hundreds of Windows 95 books, geared to every level of competence. The Microsoft manual is insufficient.

3. Wait until you have plenty of time to spend on the installation. Unexpected problems can arise that may take substantial time to resolve.

4. Enlist the aid of a friend or neighbor experienced in computers. This will help avoid the frustration of spending hours trying to reach Microsoft’s support service when things go wrong.

5. Organize your files and clean up fragments of data that may be cluttering your disk drive: a “de-frag” program for this purpose is included in recent versions of DOS. This will free up memory and ease installation. Some utilities will also point out problems likely to arise in a Windows 95 installation.

6. Make sure to back up all the files in your computer you consider important. Files can be lost or erased during installation. A backup tape capable of storing the entire disk drive is recommended. That way if you have problems with the installation you can return your computer to its prior state.

7. Erase memory managers and disable any screen savers or anti-virus programs. They are likely to cause problems during installation.

8. If you still have problems, try erasing the entire hard disk drive after backing up data and install onto an empty disk. You will then have to manually reinstall your applications.

--LESLIE HELM


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