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Thursday, November 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At last, Microsoft ships Vista

Seattle Times technology reporter

Microsoft reached the finish line Wednesday of a five-year marathon to develop its biggest-ever product, Windows Vista.

The "release to manufacturing" of the operating system also serves as the starting gun for a 12-week sprint to Jan. 30, when it will be available to consumers.

The long-awaited final version of the software, which may eventually power nine out of 10 computers, was handed off to computer manufacturers and software vendors, who must finalize development and testing of their products to ensure they work with Vista.

"Now that we've completed our work on the operating system, the rest of the ecosystem is going to kick into high gear and finish off the rest of the compatibility work," Jim Allchin, co-president of the division responsible for Windows, said during a conference call with reporters and analysts Wednesday.

Computer makers such as Hewlett-Packard will "immediately start working through the qualification process," said John Dayan, a marketing and business-development vice president with HP.

"Once we get the final bits, we go through and make sure all of our drivers are lined up and we're delivering a high-quality product that's fully integrated with their operating system," Dayan said.

The companies are not starting from scratch, however. Microsoft has released several near-final versions of Vista this year to help companies prepare.

Software developers whose programs will be pre-installed on new Vista computers are under the most pressure, said Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

"PC manufacturers will want to do more than just test Vista," he said. "They'll want to test everything they put on the new computer."

Vista, the first new version of the operating system since Windows XP five years ago, will be broadly available Jan. 30, Allchin said.

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Microsoft intends to give the final product to volume-license customers, mainly large businesses and organizations, by Nov. 30.

The release dates reflect a series of delays that plagued Vista and ultimately caused Microsoft to miss the holiday season, a key time for retail computer sales.

Microsoft now faces a balancing act as it turns up the volume on Vista marketing in the coming months, Wilcox said.

Vista ads before and during the holidays could put a drag on PC sales — which already may suffer from the operating system's timing — because buyers may decide to wait until Jan. 30, Wilcox said.

But Microsoft still has to get the message out about Vista's features and persuade people to upgrade, Wilcox said.

The company and PC makers are offering free or discount coupons for Vista to people who buy PCs before the new system is available.

The significance of Vista extends to Microsoft financial results as well. The operating segment that includes Windows generated $10.17 billion in operating income during the past fiscal year. That's 61.8 percent of Microsoft's profit.

A new version of Microsoft Office, the company's other major cash generator, was released to manufacturing Monday and is on the same schedule as Vista.

Microsoft's stock gained 3 cents in regular trading and 17 cents more in the after-hours market to touch $29.15, a 52-week high.

An exuberant Allchin, who has led Windows development for 16 years and is retiring with Vista's completion, had a long list of accolades and superlatives for Vista during Wednesday's conference call.

"We've made some big claims about Windows Vista, and I truly believe that we will deliver them," Allchin said, asserting it's the company's most reliable operating system to date. "It's undergone more testing than any Microsoft operating system we've ever shipped," he said.

The Windows operating system, used on 93 percent of computers, is the "plumbing" that connects software applications such as word processors and media players to communicate with the PC's hard-disk drives, monitors, printers and other hardware.

Vista's features include the capability to search for all types of files on a PC, a network and the Internet in one step. It has a new "glass" user interface and, coupled with the right hardware, "mind-blowing" graphics capabilities, Allchin said.

"The gaming experience on Windows Vista is going to go beyond any of the gaming consoles and anything that's been done before," he said.

Microsoft has made a huge investment in improving the security of all its products, particularly the operating system.

Security vulnerabilities emerged shortly after Windows XP was released. That spurred Microsoft to build a huge service pack — which some analysts say qualified as a new version on its own — to patch the holes.

To ensure Vista's security, the company developed new security-focused engineering practices and used third parties to evaluate potential risks to the system.

Allchin said hackers will continue their attacks on software and may eventually find vulnerabilities in Vista.

"But people should end up feeling much safer and much more secure [with Vista] compared to anything that we've ever done before," he said in a video interview posted Wednesday on Channel 9, a Microsoft Web site geared toward software developers.

In that interview, Allchin said Vista will represent incremental improvements to XP in some areas, especially if users don't have powerful hardware to take advantage of it.

"Performance is a mixed bag," Allchin said. "If you've got a low-memory machine, then, Windows Vista, depending on what you're doing, could be slower than XP, not dramatically, but it could be slower. ... As you get above 1 gig [of system memory], then Vista starts to pull away pretty dramatically from XP in terms of performance."

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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