As Microsoft prepares Windows 8 and Office 2013, the software giant keeps comparing today's upgrade opportunities to those from 1995, when Windows 95 and Office 95 reshaped the software market. Then Windows NT Server 4.0's arrival in 1996 created an even bigger Microsoft revenue wave. But here's the problem: It's not 1995, and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) should stop comparing the Windows 8-Office 2013 combination to the Windows 95-Office 95 tidal wave. They aren't the same. Here's why.

"It feels like it's 1995 at Microsoft again," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said yet again today, according to PC Magazine. "We have the most exciting, vibrant, dynamic operating system in years with Windows 8 and we combine that with the most exciting, vibrant new version of Office in years."

Microsoft Channel Chief Jon Roskill made similar statements during the Worldwide Partner Conference 2012 (WPC12) in Toronto last week.

On the one hand Ballmer and Roskill are absolutely correct: Microsoft does have an exciting product lineup in the pipeline:
  • Desktops and Mobile: Windows 8 for PCs, notebooks and tablets plus Windows Phone 8 for smartphones. Say hello to a single code base for developers to write lots of apps. Smart.
  • Applications: Office 2013 with multi-touch capabilities and tight integration with various cloud services and social media networks.
  • Servers: Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V improvements to compete with VMware. Partners are optimistic here.

Is Microsoft Right?

It all sounds so great. And in some ways it does sound like 1995 again -- when Microsoft and its partners enjoyed incredible growth.

But here's what's different:
  • Operating Systems: In 1995, Windows 95 delivered capabilities that users and IT managers craved. A 32-bit foundation, built-in TCP/IP networking, preemptive multitasking, long file names, Plug and Play (which occasionally worked right). Quick: Name the five killer features of Windows 8. Can you? Meanwhile, Windows 7 is running just fine for many customers. Other than first-time tablet sales, getting Windows 8 upgrades going will be challenging, The VAR Guy believes.
  • Software Suites: In 1995, Office 95 delivered the first truly integrated 32-bit software suite for mainstream use. Most businesses and consumers had been purchasing applications in stand-alone mode. Office 95 solidified the suite concept and destroyed desktop rivals like Novell-WordPerfect and IBM-Lotus. Today, cloud suites like Google Apps are doing the disrupting, and Microsoft is working extremely hard to make sure Office 365 and Office 2013 deliver the alternative goods.
  • Server Operating Systems: In 1996, Windows NT Server 4.0 disrupted both the NetWare file-and-print market and the Unix application server market. SQL Server, Exchange Server, SNA Server and Systems Management Server launched Microsoft into the business software market. Today, Windows Server 2013 must face off against cloud services, virtualization rivals, Linux, and more. It won't be easy.

This Could Be Great

Don't misunderstand The VAR Guy: Generally speaking, our resident blogger is really, really (really) impressed with Microsoft's product and cloud services pipeline.

But 1995 was seventeen years ago -- when Microsoft disrupted PC software rivals and Unix rivals, and defined the client-server age. Today, Microsoft is the market incumbent trying to find off cloud and on-premises rivals while the PC market delivers flat growth.

It ain't 1995. Not by a long shot.