IT must have been the greatest show on earth last week. The launch of Microsoft Windows 95, that is. More than two years and a US$200 million marketing budget - and who knows how many sleepless nights for Microsoft chairman Bill Gates - later and the company finally gave birth to the operating system that is expected to change the face of the personal computer industry. An estimated 15 million lines of code, a whole new 'look-and-feel', and an incredible amount of hype went into Windows 95, the 32-bit operating system that finally makes IBM compatible PCs work more like Apple Macintoshes. Windows 95 went on sale in most places around the world at a minute past midnight on August 24. The response was enough to make you think Elvis had returned from the grave. People queued up for hours so they could 'be the first' to buy the new operating system. Some of them knew little or nothing about computers. I bumped into a middle-aged woman outside a Seattle computer store last week who was quite upset she had bought Windows 95 10 minutes earlier. She had heard so much about how it would change her life she had not stopped to think that she might need a computer to run it on. 'I thought it was one of those Japanese organiser things,' she said. For most computer users around the world, you would have had to have spent the past few months on the planet Uranus if you didn't know what Windows 95 was by Thursday last week. Jay Leno, the host of NBC's The Tonight Show, had been bagged by Microsoft to be the master of ceremonies - a coup for the company. To say that Leno's quips went down well with the crowd would be a serious understatement. For example, the introductory line: 'I work for the Tonight Show owned by NBC, which stands for Now Bill Compatible.' Or the barb aimed at politicians in Washington: 'Once they heard you could delete files with [Windows 95], they had to have it.' Microsoft had also bought - for an estimated US$12 million - the rights to use the Rolling Stones' song Start Me Up in its Windows 95 television advertising campaign, and few people who attended the launch should forget the tune in a hurry. Microsoft's public relations staff did an admirable job of herding the more than 500 journalists from around the world who attended the event into some semblance of an organised mob. Mr Gates once again demonstrated his legendary energy, waking up at 4 am on the day of the launch - according to a Microsoft spokesman - to give live interviews to television stations on the US East Coast. That was after giving a something like 14 interviews in half as many hours the preceding day while preparing for what must have been one of the biggest days of his life. Mr Gates said of the launch: 'It was the coolest thing I've ever been part of.' Not that the runup to the launch did not have its rough moments. Forget the fact that the US Justice Department that morning reiterated that investigations into the legality of Microsoft bundling access software to the Microsoft Network with Windows 95 was still on-going. Forget the numerous bugs the company had to iron out - and is still ironing out - of the program. That was all history. At a rehearsal on Wednesday, Mr Gates reportedly exploded over a promotional video for the event, particularly over a line from an on-screen executive who asks if Windows 95 would improve his sex life. That was the end of that video. But the launch lived without it. The event was broadcast via satellite around the world, and telecast live at computer shops around the US. These stores had been planning for the launch for weeks - in many cases in the utmost secrecy - to offer Windows 95 buyers specials on a host of other software and hardware. The operating system is such a resource hog that initial reports from some of these stores indicated that much more money was being spent on new computer hardware than on Windows 95 itself. But then, Windows 95 was selling for US$89 - or less. The main event, which ended with the curtain being raised on the entire Windows 95 development team, opened out to what can only be described as a circus. Tents manned by hardware and software vendors supporting Windows 95 filled an entire soccer field. Everything from arcade games to mimes to jugglers to a ferris wheel to a hot air balloon was there. Free software - yes, even Windows 95 itself - was being handed out, and hard disk maker Western Digital was giving away a 1.6 gigabyte drive to anyone who could throw two hoops around a spike. Microsoft fans, and even some employees and 'partners' not invited to the event lined the fences to the football field. When it was almost over, a real estate saleswoman who had used an invitee's pass to 'crash' the party said: 'I now have all sorts of goodies including a free special edition of Windows 95. Now that Windows 95 is out, perhaps Mr Gates should take a break from the technology world . . . and enter the circus business.