Vista's Lesson in Bad Buzz
Microsoft's rocky rollout could have been avoided
Microsoft says Windows Vista, the newest version of its franchise product, is a roaring commercial success. Perhaps. It's also been a lesson in bad public relations. Vista has come under withering criticism across the Internet, with consumers hurling complaints about incompatible hardware and software, suspected bugs, and design mistakes. Polls suggest that the negative buzz could stall Vista's adoption and that consumers may veer from what's been an inevitable march on the upgrade path.
New versions of Windows have always drawn gripes, and sneering was sure to get amplified in blogs and Internet forums that hardly existed when Windows XP appeared five years ago. Among other things, Microsoft is a victim of anecdote, of the "newly unsilent minority," says analyst Samir Bhavnani at Current Analysis West. The bottom line? Vista isn't giving PC makers the sales boost they expected, Bhavnani says.
Plugging holes. Microsoft numbers show Vista succeeding-return rates are low, demand remains high, and crash reports relatively few, says Brad Brooks, a marketing manager at the software company. But he concedes some mistakes and says Microsoft needs to better understand and respond to bloggers. Vista, he says, is unfairly pegged as less compatible than its predecessors with existing hardware, such as printers and scanners. Vista actually came with drivers for a higher percentage of hardware and was compatible with more software than any previous Windows, Brooks says, and the remaining holes are being plugged.
But some gaps were big-problems with commonplace printers, snafus with dominant software such as iTunes, and high-profile glitches with expensive graphics cards that are popular with gamers and bloggers. Blame rests partly with companies outside Microsoft, which depends on them to update wares to work with Vista. But Microsoft also scrambled in the waning days; final test versions of Vista were more like early XP betas, sowing confusion for outside companies trying to keep up, says Michael Silver, a market analyst at Gartner.
Too complicated. Many critics describe Vista as running too slowly or taking painfully long to start and shut down. Most of those complaints probably come from consumers running the minimum hardware that Microsoft recommends for Vista, says Michael Cherry, an industry consultant at Directions on Microsoft. Microsoft offers software that can warn if Vista will run slowly on weak hardware, but that's too complicated, Cherry says: "Consumers just want to know the operating system will work."
Vista also comes in too many flavors, Cherry says-three just for home users, in an effort to milk profits. Many consumers opt for the high-end Vista Ultimate because they don't want to be disappointed at missing something. But paying Ultimate's price ($400 full, $260 upgrade) makes it easier to be disappointed.
It was also easy to be disappointed after five years, the longest yet for a Windows upgrade. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has promised it will never take as long again, and Microsoft is studying how to revamp Windows development. Microsoft may need to slice the system into pieces for future upgrades and take better advantage of the Internet's ability to deliver them.
Meanwhile, consumers felt the brunt of Vista's release and initial problems. Microsoft worked harder this time to make sure that Vista, and only Vista, was available on consumer PCs, while business users get coddled with XP for another year. Brooks says the idea was to give PC makers the benefit of spotlights on Vista's release. But it surely added to consumer resentment, as Vista, along with other Microsoft products like Office 2007, is also measured against the success of earlier versions. Upgrading XP is somewhat like New Coke against Coke, says Silver, the Gartner analyst. "Coke was a pretty good product to start with."
Vista is not New Coke, says Microsoft's Brooks, because it's not going away. Mistakes were made, but Microsoft is happy with the system and will base future Windows upgrades on Vista, Brooks says: "It is the future."
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.