Has Vista lost all credibility?

Even internally Microsoft couldn’t agree on what the base requirements to run Vista were but that didn’t stop it from inaccurately promoting the OS as running on some hardware new email evidence in an ongoing consumer class action suggests. What do the latest revelations mean for the future of Vista?

Ever since Vista was placed on a firm release schedule Microsoft has adopted a united front when it comes to explaining the multiple flavours (Home Basic Home Premium Business Enterprise and Ultimate). Each had clear benefits and a well-defined set of hardware requirements; consumers could choose the option that met their performance and budgetary needs. To get the souped-up interface known as ‘Aero’ Home Basic wouldn’t be any good but it still offered some improvements.

Dell’s Windows Vista Post Mortem: a snippet from 185 pages of damning documents being used against Microsoft in a class action case over VistaMicrosoft’s external front might have been firm but internally there were endless arguments over whether that strategy was appropriate and how much PC manufacturers were going to get annoyed by the shifting requirements and endless delays. That information has emerged as a result of court documents filed in a US class action which argues that systems labelled as Vista-ready and sold in the months prior to Vista’s official debut were not in fact capable of running the OS.

Microsoft is always in something of a no-win position when it comes to minimum system requirements. If it specifies huge hardware needs then the opportunity to sell upgrades is reduced since most existing PCs can’t handle the new version. If it sets a minimal baseline platform then it’s difficult (though arguably not impossible) to add any features that make upgrading worth the hassle and risk.

But the worst-case scenario – the one that increasingly looks like the most plausible explanation for what happened with Vista – was that it dithered so much over which path to take that neither new system buyers or upgrading owners were satisfied with the outcome. The end result was an unprecedented number of versions of Vista (including the Aero-free Vista Home Basic) and a bunch of programs designed to stop PC sales tanking while the code was endlessly tinkered with.

Whether the class action succeeds or not the 158 pages of email evidence released this week (even with numerous redacted pages) shows the internal challenges Microsoft faced in getting the software off the ground and balancing the apparent hardware requirements of the new OS with what hardware vendors were currently selling and planned to sell.

Even MS executives in the Windows group had trouble comprehending whether or not Vista could easily run on a given hardware combination. “Is it true that Vista Ready doesn’t necessarily mean Aero capable?” senior VP for Windows engineering Steven Sinofsky asked in one email.

Microsoft’s preferred strategy would have been to set much higher graphics requirements for Vista regardless of the consequences in terms of partner relationships. “Originally we wanted to set the capable bar around Aero but there are a bunch of reasons why we had to back off . . . a bit messy and a long story” general manager of the Windows Client Product Management Group Brad Goldberg wrote.

Some PC manufacturers took a similar view. “The bar was set too low when Aero was dropped as a requirement for Vista Capable” an internal Dell analysis (also included in the evidence) concluded. “Set and keep the configuration bar high or don’t bother.” Dell planned to offer only some versions of Vista arguing that too many options would confuse consumers.

In the end however the need to placate other hardware vendors became a major factor — particularly Intel which was keen to keep selling its 915 graphics chipset which couldn’t handle Aero at that point. “In the end we lowered the requirement to help Intel make their quarterly earnings so they could continue to sell motherboards with 915 graphics embedded” general manager John Kalkman wrote. “It was a mistake on our part to change the original graphics requirements.”

Microsoft’s own most senior executives were completely bamboozled by the “Vista capable” labelling scheme. “I personally got burned by the Intel 915 chipset on a laptop that I PERSONALLY (e.g. with my own $$$) [bought]” said Mike Nash Corporate Vice President Windows Product Management who bought a “Vista capable” laptop only to find it couldn’t run the Aero interface. “I now have a $2100 email machine” he concluded.

“Intel has the biggest challenge” Sinofsky wrote in an email following Vista’s release. “Their 945 chipset which is the baseline Vista set ‘barely’ works right now and is very broadly used. Their 915 chipset which is not Aero capable is in a huge number of laptops and was tagged as ‘Vista capable’.”

By then other executives were also complaining. “I cannot understand with a product this long in creation why there is such a shortage of drivers” board member John Shirley wrote. “I suppose the vendors did not trust us . . . enough to use the beta for driver testing?”

“You are right that people did not trust us” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a brief email response. 

In an email to Ballmer Steven Sinofsky wrote “No one really believed we would ever ship so they didn’t start the work until late 2006. This led to lack of availability. For example my home multi-function printer did not have drivers until 2/2 and even pulled their drivers and re-released them [Brother].”

Sinofsky continued “Massive changes in the underpinning for video and audio led to a really poor experience at RTM especially with respect to Windows Media Center. This change led to incompatibilities. For example you don’t get Aero with an XP [graphics] driver but your card might not (ever) have a Vista driver.”

And then this admission: “Many Windows XP drivers are not really working at all — this is across the board for printers scanners WAN accessories (fingerprint readers smartcards tv tuners) and so on . […] Microsoft’s own hardware is missing a lot of support (fingerprint reader MCE extender etc.)” 

Changing Vista’s hardware requirements also upset vendors such as Dell HP and Toshiba who kept having to alter their release plans. It also meant that XP lasted much longer in the marketplace since consumers displeased with the experience of running a stripped-down Vista were offered the option of ‘downgrading’ to XP. Prior to Vista’s launch Microsoft’s early attempts to promote “Vista-capable” PCs met with much resistance from retailers who feared consumers would be confused and put off buying new machines.

When Microsoft was working on the wording of an email to HP communicating that an Aero-capable graphics chipset was no longer necessary for “Vista capable” labelling of a machine even the Windows chief Jim Allchin just one step below Steve Ballmer was angry about the changes.  “We really botched this. I was not involved in this decision process I supported it because I trusted you thinking through the logic” he told his inferior reports. “You put me out on a limb making this commitment. This is not OK.”

Later he added “It might be a mistake. I wasn’t involved and it is hard for me to step in now and reverse everything again.” 

The message reinforced by the damaging email trail is that every level of Microsoft management appeared to recognise the problem of machines being sold as “Vista capable” when they simply were not “capable”. “The problem with the ‘capable’ program is that the customer who buys a ‘capable’ machine and Vista retails does not know that ‘Vista capable’ [does not equal] everything just works” program manager Hakon Strande wrote. 

Looking to the future

Does any of this matter in the long run? Sales of Vista (100 million in the first year) are described by the company as “solid”. While hardly a minute number “solid” is by any measure a long way from “spectacular” and quite possibly a tad too far away from “sufficient”.

Earlier this year CEO Steve Ballmer declared that far more effort needed to be put into pushing Vista. “We’re going to have to invest more than we ever have in consumer excitement” he told a group of financial analysts. Improving the software would be tricky (as the lacklustre first service pack demonstrates) so Microsoft is going to try the other obvious tack: price cuts.

Price cuts for Vista are another one of those not-so-startling coincidences that mark the software giant’s recent history. 

In the past couple of days Microsoft has slashed the price of Vista Ultimate Upgrade (in the US) from $US299 to $US219 and Vista Home Premium Upgrade from $US159 to $US129. Whether having some dollars shaved off the pricetag will enthuse consumers about Vista remains to be seen but Microsoft thinks it will. In an interview with CNet Windows’ new marketing chief Brad Brooks admitted that the company had screwed up Vista’s release with its offer of so many versions some of which were very expensive. “We probably got the pricing mix wrong” he said. “You don’t always get it right but you make the adjustment.”

Microsoft also announced that it is planning major changes to how Vista is packaged and priced. Astonishingly despite the ever-growing evidence that people find so many versions confusing the new model adds another layer of variation: geography.

Different countries will see different prices and options (and then presumably get confused when they go online trying to fix their first round of Vista problems and can’t work out which bug belongs to which release). The exact price and package details will largely be confirmed after Vista SP1 becomes widely available taking advantage of the necessary changeover in retail supplies to reflect the new service pack.

Microsoft argues that the multiple versions will help it sell more upgrade copies of Vista rather than relying quite so heavily on bundling with new PC sales. Details differ between markets but the main targets for discounts are Home Premium (which could be read as a tacit admission that Home Basic is now a dead duck at retail) and Ultimate (the one Microsoft can’t be bothered producing Ultimate Extras for).

As a strategy for creating “consumer excitement” however the price tweaks seem a bit hollow especially given the growing evidence that “Vista-capable” is a meaningless mark.

When XP disappears as an OEM option mid-year consumers won’t have much choice other than Vista if they want to run Windows on their machine. Of course they could always choose to run Linux or OS X or BSD instead. That’s a scary prospect for Microsoft and one that presumably gets scarier if the main coverage for Vista for the next six months keeps suggesting that Microsoft can’t be trusted even to tell consumers what hardware is suitable.