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Originally published Monday, April 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Maybe Vista is just a victim of inflated expectations

You had to wince last week when Steve Ballmer publicly jabbed Windows Vista, calling it a "work in progress. " It was like hearing a disappointed...

Seattle Times staff columnist

You had to wince last week when Steve Ballmer publicly jabbed Windows Vista, calling it a "work in progress."

It was like hearing a disappointed soccer dad tease his chubby child, wheezing on the field.Vista has a few issues, especially if you're running it on an underpowered PC oversold by the cabal of Microsoft, chip makers, computer companies and obliging retailers.

Software developers and computer hardware makers were also thrown off track by Vista's tortured, stop-start development process.

Even Microsoft executives and directors found themselves caught in Vista's riptide, suffering from overwhelmed machines or unusable accessories, according to the internal e-mails that surfaced in a class-action lawsuit filed in Seattle by frustrated consumers.

Does Vista really deserve less love than Microsoft's other children?

Perhaps it depends on your expectations.

From a business point of view, Vista's getting its stride, steadily taking over desktops around the world and making the usual billions.

Last quarter, Windows client systems accounted for $3.3 billion of Microsoft's operating income — more than half the total.

Expect a similar mix, and new Vista milestones, when the company reports its latest earnings Thursday afternoon.

Vista sales may not be growing fast, but how long will it take for Yahoo and Microsoft's other ad ventures to net $3 billion per quarter? For comparison, Google's net operating income was $1.5 billion in the stellar quarter that set Wall Street on fire last week.

Despite the buzz about the demand for Windows XP, the world's steadily moving to Vista, according to IDC analyst Al Gillen.

Vista will account for 94 percent of global PC operating-system sales this year, he predicts.

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The product is "gaining momentum," but "it's taking awhile," he said. "I think part of it is Microsoft set expectations pretty high ... Instead of having this really big rush to Windows Vista that Microsoft implied would happen, it's been more of an adoption as usual."

Does that justify the whiff of disdain I'm catching in Redmond?

Executives are already starting to talk about the next version of Windows, even though Vista's just picking up steam.

Bill Gates mentioned at a conference earlier this month that Vista's successor, dubbed Windows 7, will be done within a year.

Then there was last week's conference in Seattle for Microsoft enthusiasts, where Ballmer made his tepid comments.

Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie gave a separate speech and didn't mention Vista once.

When someone in the audience asked Ozzie if Microsoft could do a better job talking up an embedded version of Windows, he mentioned that Microsoft recently had a change of heart about what sort of operating system it should be developing.

"I would say in the past six months there has been a tremendous shift in the internal visibility of the need of, I guess I'll say, a componentized or scalable Windows that starts with embedded and is repackageable in other forms for a variety of different devices," he said, according to transcripts.

Ozzie may have been responding to recent criticism by another research firm, Gartner, that Windows has become too bloated to survive in its current form. With Apple's iPhone spurring the market for handheld computers, it's an especially tough time for Microsoft to be fielding a big, unwieldy operating system.

I shouldn't focus too much on a single speech, but the Gartner criticism also seemed to be on Ballmer's mind last week.

"Vista is bigger than XP; it's going to stay bigger than XP," he said at one point in the speech. "We have to make sure it doesn't get bigger still. ... And yet we did take some important, big steps forward with Vista."

It's probably also getting harder to find defenders of Windows Vista inside Microsoft.

Since it launched in January 2007, most of the key executives who led the project have left the company. The exodus culminated with the announcement last week that Will Poole, a senior vice president who led client computing until mid-2007, will retire this fall.

This is even more anecdotal, but it also seems like Microsoft's Vista advertising is down to a trickle.

Intel is carrying the ball in marketing campaigns with PC manufacturers and retailers, and the most visible consumer campaigns for Windows are pitching media and home-server products.

Maybe I'm tilting at windmills. Gillen said Vista's going to flourish whether its parents are cheering or not.

"All the marketing in the world doesn't necessarily accelerate the adoption," he explained. "To some extent it's going to happen whether Microsoft heavily markets it or not."

I'll have to check back and see if Gillen changes his mind — Microsoft's briefing him this week on Windows 7.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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