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Vista's Hello; Gates' Last Hurrah

As Microsoft (Quote) Chairman Bill Gates ushered in the consumer launch of its Vista operating system (OS) at the MTV studios here yesterday, he also inched closer to his own exit from the company he helped create.

Gates announced last June that he would step down from day-to-day corporate operations in 2008, by which time Vista will only just be hitting its stride in the marketplace.

As he continued his worldwide launch, appearing in London at a Vista event today, Gates noted the many improvements in multi-media capabilities, storage, display and gaming features compared with XP. Vista, Gates said, will be "the key to the era of the digital lifestyle we have today."

Vista addresses four essential areas of the digital lifestyle: making it easier for consumers to use technology; security features such as parental controls; entertainment functionality like photo galleries that can be tagged for searching; and enhanced support for Internet connections like RSS (define) feeds.

"We've worked on making sure the software is not working against you, and that's very important," Gates told a New York audience crowded in for the launch party here. The slick graphics as well as the overall look and feel represent the feedback of 1 billion beta test sessions and 60 years' worth of performance testing to produce Vista and Office 2007. "We're not just guessing what customers want," he said.

But Gates sounded a touch wistful during his remarks as he ticked off important milestones for the company he helped create over 25 years ago, including the arrival of a graphical user interface in 1983, and the launch of Windows 95.

Gates also thanked outgoing platform products and services division president Jim Allchin for his "commitment to Vista quality." Allchin plans to retire after the Vista launch.

Gates was later joined on stage by CEO Steve Ballmer, who called Vista the "biggest launch in software history."

Although marketing and advertising campaigns were in full-swing yesterday and today -- with New York's Times Square awash in Vista-themed billboards, acrobats braving the frigid temperatures to unfurl a huge Vista sign, and a crowded launch party at the MTV studios, attendees noted a different vibe compared to the frenzy that followed the Windows 95 launch.

Some PC stores may have seen customers lined up to buy Vista at midnight today, but it was nothing like the blockbuster lines that greeted the arrival of Windows 1995.

Gartner research analyst David Smith noted that perhaps Microsoft's smooth launch of Vista had gone too well.

"By claiming that Vista is the biggest release since Windows 95, the company is inviting comparisons of the two launches. Few events have or could hope to match the excitement of Windows 95." Plus, he wrote on his blog today, "as much as there have been issues with XP, the installed base is generally happy.

"Also, by highlighting that Office 2007 and Vista are shipping at the same time, the company risks the perception that both need to be installed at the same time, and, although reviews of Office 2007 are overall positive, there is still apprehension, largely as a result of the new ribbon UI."

Directions on Microsoft lead analyst Greg DeMichellie called Vista "an improvement over XP, but still a long way from what Apple (Quote) is delivering."

Nucleus Research Rebecca Wettemann said unless Microsoft gives consumers a compelling reason to move to Vista, they will eventually migrate to other alternatives.

Gartner went even further in its predictions for 2007. "The era of monolithic deployments of software is nearing an end," the firm proclaimed as 2006 edged to a close. Gartner's take: Expect Windows to become more modular by 2009, with incremental upgrades rather than major releases such as Vista.

Look for applications as options, instead of bundled in as part of the operating system. After all, at 50 million lines of computer code, Gartner's Brian Gammage, Vista becomes the tipping point for the ever-heavier Windows. "Every release gets bigger."

It's also the tipping point for a new era taking shape at Microsoft, as Gates continues his worldwide tour introducing Vista, and gets closer to his exit from the company's center stage.

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