Is Microsoft Windows Vista Culpable?

Will Microsoft handle the release of Windows "7," the next version of the operating system, slated for 2010, a lot better than it did with Windows Vista? We can only hope that Microsoft will do a better job of making clear which hardware will run which of the many versions of Windows 7 that are likely to ship, perhaps preventing a recurrence of the customer lawsuit the company is currently battling in Washington.

There is little doubt that Microsoft is guilty of poor marketing ahead of the Windows Vista launch and of doing a pretty shoddy job of getting a clear message out to consumers about what Windows Vista was, and what was needed to run it ahead of its launch.

That confusion, along with the fact that Microsoft (a) wanted to help push as much Vista-capable hardware in advance of Vista's much delayed release and (b) that those delays meant it missed both the critical 2006 back-to-school and end-of-year holiday sales cycles, resulted in the embarrassing lawsuit the company now faces.

In brief, Dianne Kelley of Camano Island, Wash., bought a new PC in November 2006 that had a sticker labeled "Windows Vista Capable" affixed to it. As Windows Vista had not been released at that time, customers bought machines with Windows XP preloaded and were given a coupon that allowed them to upgrade to Vista when the operating system was released at the end of January 2007.

Kelley then discovered that her machine was only capable of running Vista Home Basic, which does not include the new Aero user interface, advanced graphics and other "signature" features available in Vista Home Premium and other more advanced, and more expensive, versions of the product. So she sued Microsoft.

I asked Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, what he thought of Kelley's case and its likely impact on Microsoft.

While the case would have no impact on future Vista sales as it is based on hardware sold prior to the product's release, Enderle said, he believes Kelley has an argument that appears sustainable, but also feels that Microsoft may want to let the matter become a class action before offering to settle, thereby helping prevent similar cookie-cutter filings.

"The concept of what Vista was, and was not, wasn't particularly clear before the launch. Much of the information on the product wasn't decided until late in the game, and then the marketing communication was spotty. From Microsoft's side, Vista was everything branded Vista and literally that's true, but from the consumer's side Vista was the new rich graphics interface that was being featured in beta reviews and other coverage, and the consumer was confused," he said.

While the circumstances responsible for the lawsuit no longer exist given that new hardware now largely ships with Vista preloaded, "You'd hope they wouldn't make a similar mistake with Windows 7, though," Enderle said.