Microsoft is launching a new campaign to try to get consumers and businesses to take a second look at Windows Vista, its much-maligned computer operating system.
Some believe the company’s stronger push on Vista’s behalf is long overdue. How successful its attempts will be remain to be seen, but Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made it clear in a memo to all employees last week that of the company’s key strategies, “the success of Windows is our No. 1 job.” (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
In the coming weeks, Ballmer said in the memo, Microsoft will start “a campaign to address any lingering doubts our customers may have about Windows Vista.”
The effort comes about midway through Vista’s three-year life cycle, with a new Windows operating system, now called Windows 7, due out in early 2010, or late 2009 at the soonest.
“Basically, Microsoft is trying to use a second chance at making a first impression,” said Michael Silver, Gartner research vice president.
“What Microsoft needs to do is try to get people to take another look because this is what they have to sell for the next year, year-and-a-half, and they need to try to get some of the tarnish off,” he said. “And, on a new PC, Vista really isn’t a bad product, but a lot of people are avoiding it.”
Microsoft, Silver said, has “let Apple run amok with denigrating ads that take advantage of all the bad press,” referring to Apple’s TV commercials that show a geeky Windows guy battling various problems because of Vista, while his sympathetic and cool-looking Mac counterpart tries to help.
‘It’s gotten better’
Michael Cherry, analyst for Directions on Microsoft, an independent research group, said he began using Vista in beta, or test, form six months before it went on the market, and that he has seen improvements in the operating system, except in the area of speed.
“There’s no question over the months it’s gotten better,” he said. “There’s more device drivers, and Vista has become more reliable. What it hasn’t become is any faster. It still has huge resource demands.”
Vista runs better on newer computers with faster processor chips and more memory than on older or economy-scale PCs. Even on newer PCs, Vista can be slow to start, compared to Windows XP, its predecessor. Many consumers and businesses have not wanted to spend the money to buy new PCs and software needed to work with Vista.
Also, for a good part of Vista’s first year, consumers were frustrated because many drivers, or software programs, weren’t available to make their existing software or peripherals, such as printers or graphics cards, work with Vista.
After years of criticism that Windows was too vulnerable to viruses and worms, Microsoft tightened security heavily on Vista to the point that its security queries and permissions have frustrated users trying to accomplish routine tasks.
Sentiment has been so strong against the operating system that Microsoft’s retail and phase-out of Windows XP was extended from the end of last year to June 30 of this year.
Even so, a “Save Windows XP” campaign was initiated by technology publication InfoWorld, which garnered attention, more than 215,000 online signatures, but no success in getting Microsoft to continue making XP available in retail markets, as well as on most PCs sold by manufacturers.
Buffing it up
The campaign to buff Vista’s image is already underway on several of Microsoft’s Windows Web pages. At “Discover Windows Vista: Why now?” the company acknowledges the problems Vista has had, but says improvements have been made to the operating system.
“We know a few of you were disappointed by your early encounter,” the company says on the site. “Printers didn't work. Games felt sluggish. You told us — loudly at times — that the latest Windows wasn't always living up to your high expectations for a Microsoft product. Well, we've been taking notes and addressing issues.”
Microsoft says that Vista “now supports 77,000 printers, cameras, speakers and other devices and components—more than double the number supported at launch.”
Last February, the company released Service Pack 1, a free download of software improvements for Vista that has helped with several issues, including the speed at which files are copied, Microsoft said.
The ‘Mojave’ experiment
Earlier this month in San Francisco, Microsoft had a firm conduct and film interviews with 120 Windows XP, Windows 2000, Mac and Linux users who had negative perceptions about Vista, and who weren't familiar with it. The users were given a 10-minute demonstration on a computer of what was purported to be the next version of Windows, and told it was called “Mojave.”
In fact, it was Vista, and the reactions to it were very favorable, Bill Veghte, Microsoft senior vice president, said last week at the company’s financial analyst meeting.
“Actually, it’s totally different than I heard it would be like,” “I’m impressed,” and “It looks awesome, easy,” were among the comments made about Vista, Microsoft said. The company discusses the effort on its Windows Vista blog posted July 29.
“Perception versus reality, that’s a conversation that we’ve got to go have with our customers,” Veghte said at the meeting.
Whether it’s too late to have that conversation is hard to tell. Some consumers and businesses are opting to stay with Windows XP until Windows 7 is released. Microsoft said last week it has sold more than 180 million copies of Vista.
However, competitors are nibbling at Windows’ share of the operating system market. In June, Windows had 90.89 percent of the market, compared to 93.06 percent in August 2007, according to Net Applications. Apple’s Mac OS was at 7.94 percent, up from 6.18 percent for the same period, while the Linux OS was at four-fifths of a percent, up from just under a half-percent last August.
“It’s obviously been a bumpy road down the Vista path, but Microsoft has put a lot of effort into it,” said Stephen DeWitt, a senior vice president at HP. “It’s a very stable operating system. We’re certainly seeing a lot of happy customers” who are using it.
Small and large businesses have been slow to shift to Vista because of the costs of doing so, from training to new software and equipment.
On its site, Microsoft says the most minimal version of Vista, Home Basic, needs to run on a computer with a 1-GHz processor, 512 megabytes of memory and a 20-gigabyte hard drive, with at least 15GB of available space for the operating system. Other versions of Vista require a 1GHz processor, 1GB of memory and a 40GB-hard drive, with at least 15GB of space available.
But in order to get Vista to run more smoothly, many users have found the processor and memory requirements to be at least twice what Microsoft recommends.
“If a person is looking to buy a new computer, and they’re willing to pay for the kind of hardware that running Vista will require, they’ll like Vista,” said Cherry of Directions on Microsoft.
“If they want to upgrade an existing PC to Vista, they probably won’t like Vista. Their machine is probably underpowered.”