Olympics fever hits town, but what about ME?

Windows Millennium Edition (ME) hit the shelves last week, but retailers are not expecting a buying blitz as consumers get caught up in Olympic frenzy.

John Slack-Smith, general manager of Harvey Norman computers, described the timing of Microsoft's Windows ME release as hugely unfortunate, but sales are expected to increase after the Olympics, when people unglue themselves from their TVs.

Paul Roworth, Microsoft Australia's Windows ME manager, prefers to see the silver lining, claiming the upshot of the Olympics is that a lot of people are going to be on holidays and will have time to start playing around with multimedia and digital attachments.

According to Roworth, pre-sales figures and sales into the channel are right on schedule to match those of Windows 98.

At $109, the operating system is designed to turn the home computer into a hub for connecting appliances to the Internet. However, the capabilities of the ME system, and consumers' understanding of it, appear a little hazy. And, according to Slack-Smith, the confusion will not clear until people start using the product.

"ME will confuse consumers for a while," agrees Ron Harris, general manager of Harris Technology. "The propeller heads will probably be rushing out and buying it, but for the rest of the population, it will take some time to get used to it. Consumers are mostly educated by computer resellers and it will take a while for the resellers to educate themselves."

This point hasn't been wasted on Microsoft, which has invested in extensive one-on-one training sessions with OEMs, systems builders, and direct access retailers. In addition, Microsoft Australia has developed an interactive tour CD to be distributed throughout stores to allow consumers to see first-hand how the movie maker works, a strategy so successful it has been borrowed by the US.

While the marketing strategy for Microsoft - with Windows 2000 targeted at the business sector and Windows ME at home computing - has travelled a rocky road, the verdict across the board gives it the thumbs up.

Slack-Smith believes the marketing campaign for Windows ME is one of the best to date. "In terms of visibility, it's crisp and clear and targeted directly to personal computer users," he said.

"On the back of the Windows box there's a really distinct ‘Which Windows is right for me?' and then there's ‘Business', with a big arrow pointing to Windows 2000 and ‘Home computer', with a big arrow pointing to ME," explains Roworth. "I don't think it gets more simple than that. The statistics from the product support group for Windows 2000 suggest the message is out there and people understand it," he added.

Windows ME is the first step, albeit a tiny one, in the race towards the computer-automated home. The grand vision at the finishing line is a system that can turn the home air-conditioner on from the office and a fridge that can message your mobile phone that you are out of beer. And the accessories do exist to make it possible - in prototype at least. Westinghouse detailed its Internet fridge in the US last year but the reality is it won't hit the Australian market for another two or three years.