The wait is finally over. After two years, hundreds of millions of consumers and PC users worldwide will be able to pay Microsoft to get their copies of Windows Vista and Office 2007. These programs, which are the latest editions of the programs that are at the heart of Microsoft's revenues and profits, were unveiled in New York City at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square with a fanfare of loud music, free booze, and decent hors d'oeuvres.
Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, is the closest thing to a rock star in the information technology market, and because he was speaking at the event, hundreds of customers, partners, and reporters braved the 15° wind chill factor for 45 minutes to get into the event to see what Vista and Office 2007 were really all about. It apparently was about the 'Wow!' factor, the reaction that Microsoft is trying to get from users who see the new software. ('The Wow starts now!')
Computer product launches have to be exciting events in and of themselves these days, and the more a company wants to convince you that it is excited, the louder and more visually stimulating a launch becomes. Microsoft and its partners, who are looking at billions of dollars in software and hardware sales, certainly have a reason to be excited.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive officer, is always excited, which is understandable since the man loves his job. But even Ballmer cannot convey the excitement of Windows Vista and Office 2007, which is why Microsoft rolled out Angels and Airwaves, a San Diego alternative band that played a live, punked up version of Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' while a slick video showed some of the new features of Vista that will likely be appealing to consumers. Then Gates sauntered out on the stage and spoke.
Gates said that the combination Vista-Office 2007 launch, which kicked off yesterday and rolls around the globe today, would be a milestone in the history of Microsoft. He said that it was 23 years ago in New York City that Microsoft staked its future on a graphical user interface called Windows for its DOS operating system.
"Our vision of graphical interfaces has succeeded," he said, adding that the last time that Microsoft did a double-whammy launch was the Windows 95-Office 95 combo 12 years ago in 1995.
Windows 95 and Office 95 were arguably the most successful products in IT history - even if you adjust for the size of the computer market at the time. Most people were not online in 1995, and the Internet was just a few years into its commercial cycle. And because of the vastly bigger consumer and corporate PC base in the world today, Microsoft expects to sell five times as many copies of Windows Vista in the early phase of its launch cycle than it did Windows 95, which had one of the fastest ramps in IT history.
Of course, this stands to reason, since Gates himself admitted that there were one-fifth as many PCs in the world back in 1995 on which to install an operating system. Even adjusting for PC installed base inflation, a ramp equal to Windows 95 is pretty impressive - and of course, Windows 95 was a lot less expensive. So it will work out to more than five times the money.
There is at least one reason why Gates is usually smiling. That is a lot of money.
But Vista, at least as Gates paints the picture, is about more than money. It is about bringing a richer, more visually stimulating, more integrated set of software to consumers who are frustrated with some of the limitations of Windows XP. Several times during the event, Microsoft executives and end users who participated in an in-depth beta program for Vista called Vista Families said that they wanted an integrated button to burn DVDs right from a photo album. This sounds obvious, but the 50 families who participated in the program turned in over 800 recommendations for the combined Vista and Office 2007 products - and many of them apparently were obvious to everyone but Microsoft's own coders.
With people taking 2 billion digital pictures a year and some 200 million people playing games on Windows machines, Vista's integrated media capabilities are going to be appealing to people who are familiar with Windows XP. The ability to add tags to digital photos to make them searchable seems obvious too, but people will respond to this feature of the new operating system.
Integration of XML file formats and RSS feeds is a technical thing, but real people exchange files (which makes XML useful) and link to podcasts and news media using RSS, so having this all built in and seamless is also a good thing. Ditto for anti-phishing and anti-virus software. Of course, unless you are a third party who is selling a product that provides such functionality.
Mike Sievert, corporate vice president of Windows client marketing, demonstrated some of the features of Vista on stage, showing how the Media Center extensions that have shipped in 10 million Xboxes are now integrated into Vista, which will allow Vista PCs and Xbox game consoles to log into the same network and let people join multiplayer games over the Internet.
Sievert logged into the Microsoft Live site and started a game of Uno back in Seattle with his son, Jonathan, and said this feature would be great when he was on the road. Any child or parent in the audience instantly could understand the value of being able to play a game across 3600 miles and three time zones. Moreover, he logged into the home network and made some setting changes to his son Nathan's PC, restricting his hours of usage to certain times. He also said that Vista had other parental controls which would show what kinds of sites kids tried to access, what kinds of programs they tried to load, and so forth. It is not just what they do, but what they try to do. Again, most parents will respond positively to this, despite the strong Big Brother overtones.
When Ballmer took the stage, he spent a lot of time rattling off statistics to show the depth of the code encompassed in Vista and Office 2007. Vista and Office 2007 are available today in 19 languages, and will be sold supporting 99 languages by the end of the year. "I do not even think you can name 99 languages," Ballmer said.
Over 1,5 million hardware devices are supported in Vista, comprising over 31 000 different software drivers. More than 2500 applications have already been certified on Vista, and untold thousands are waiting in the wings. Thousand of OEMs are ready to sell Vista boxes starting today, and over 39 000 retail outlets in 70 countries are also ready to ring up sales on the cash register. Ballmer predicted that over 1 million people in Europe and over 2 million people in the United States would buy, install, or support Vista in the coming year.
"This is not just the biggest launch in Microsoft's history, but the broadest," Ballmer said.
Because of this, and the pesky nature of security in the 21st century computer age, Microsoft has spent a lot of time and money on testing. Over 5 million people participated in the Vista beta program, and over 60 years of performance testing was done on the software. Microsoft's techies analysed the results of over a billion Office 2007 sessions among its beta testers, which gave them the feedback to see how people were using the software and what parts were not working correctly.
Gates thanked Jim Allchin, who had been at Microsoft for 16 years until he retired last year. Allchin was singled out for the 'huge commitment to Vista quality' that he made. Allchin was group vice president of platforms at Microsoft and he retired at the end of last year in the wake of a management reorganisation at Microsoft and just after Vista was launched for business users.
"This is by far the most tested, highest quality release we have ever done," Gates said.
The one thing that neither Gates nor Ballmer said in all of their excitement was the obvious: that for hundreds of millions of people in the world, Windows is, for all intents and purposes, what it means to do computing. They are not interested in learning other platforms - they are interested in using e-mail, instant message, taking photos, and such. And as long as Vista is the default operating system on new PCs, they are going to take it when they upgrade their PCs. Some will actively upgrade their machines because of Vista, too.
As a case in point, Kevin Rollins, chief executive officer at Dell, said at the event that over 2 million PC customers of Dell had registered to get a Vista PC already.
Very few IT analysts expect companies to invest heavily in Vista or Office 2007 the first year, mainly because such upgrades are costly and disruptive to business. Those costs and disruptions add up over hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of seats at corporations and governments, and they scare IT managers. But upgrading a household's IT infrastructure is a much simpler affair.
The Vista and Office 2007 upgrade may be just as disruptive to the household budget as it is to IT shops, but then again, people have splurged on their cars and their home electronics for decades. It is a safe bet that people will do it again. The issue will be how much money it costs to upgrade PCs in a household and how much disposable income is available.