New Microsoft Windows 95 Owners Are Flooding Help Lines

By Scott McCartney

Wall Street Journal Staff Reporter

Lured by the promise that Microsoft Corp's Windows 95 software makes computers easier to use, Philip Jackson couldn't wait to start it up. But after more than six hours on the phone over two days with Microsoft technicians Don, Madeline, Robert, Carter and Ron, he's still waiting.

"I'm ready to throw the whole thing against the wall," said Jackson, owner of Steel City Bolt & Screw Inc. in Birmingham, Ala. "My phone bill is going to cost me more than I paid for this."

Windows 95, which has been flying off the shelves at an unprecedented rate, is supposed to make computing about as simple as driving a car. But many enthusiasts are finding it difficult to get out of the garage.

Installation of the complex operating system - the PC's command center - is proving to be downright agonizing for many. And if early complaints are any indication, it appears the industry is still a long way from its goal of making computing simple even for novices.

Since the Thursday release, Microsoft help lines - requiring a long-distance call, but no additional service fee for the first 90 days - have been jammed. Busy signals were standard during the day Friday and Saturday. Within 10 minutes of opening yesterday morning, callers got busy signals. And the lucky customers who got through faced typical holds, with toll charges accumulating, of 45 minutes to an hour.

"Even we have to sit on hold for 70 minutes if we have a question," said a Digital Equipment Corp. technician manning a Windows 95 help-line. Digital, which was one of five companies hired to help field calls, received 600 calls on a toll-free line by mid-Friday from people willing to pay $30 for help.

"Our teams are pretty busy because people are getting sick of waiting on the Microsoft line," said Bob Webb, another Digital trouble-shooter.

Frustrated customers found little help from computer manufacturers, whose help lines referred Windows 95 questions to Microsoft unless the software had come preinstalled on the PC. Microsoft, in turn, appeared understaffed despite the months of elaborate launch plans.

The software giant added capacity to handle 20,000 Windows 95 calls a day, nearly doubling its usual load. But with more than 300,000 copies sold in the U.S. just the first day, capacity was overwhelmed. A spokeswoman said the technical assistance lines were so overloaded at peak times that officials turned on the busy signal to keep customers from running up huge bills with "unreasonable" waits.

Microsoft says its normal capacity for all its other products, not including the special Windows 95 support, is 23,000 calls per day. Microsoft projected its Windows 95 needs based on historical call data, a spokeswoman says. Company executives had predicted their help lines would be overwhelmed in the first few weeks.

"All calls tend to be on setup," said Jennifer Moede, a spokeswoman for Microsoft. "Once they get it on their system, they see it's easier to use."

Getting there was a battle for Burns Searfoss, a stamp and coin dealer in Los Altos, Calif., who rushed out to buy the software after midnight Wednesday and then spent 13 hours over two days installing it. "I'm extremely disappointed in it," he said.