Ballmer's Nixonian moment in the Vista "Junk PC" case?

Steve Ballmer has long denied that he played any role at all in the Vista "Junk PC" marketing scheme. But recent documents show that not be the case --- is Ballmer involved in a Nixonian coverup?

The latest documents are part of a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft for a marketing scheme in which people claim that Microsoft misled consumers into buying "Windows Vista Capable" PCs, even though the PCs couldn't run the most important features of Vista.

Greg Keizer reports in Computerworld that Ballmer has apparently played a larger role in the scheme than Microsoft had previously claimed. Back in October, lawyers for those suing Microsoft wanted Ballmer to give testimony. In a filing, Ballmer responded:

"I do not have any unique knowledge of, nor did I have any unique involvement in any decisions regarding the Windows Vista Capable program."

But as Keizer reports, that does not appear to be the case. Keizer quotes documents that show that Ballmer spoke with executives at both Intel and HP about the Microsoft "Vista Capable" scheme.

Of particular note is a discussion that Ballmer had with Paul Otellini, CEO of Intel. Documents show that in essence, Intel pressured Microsoft into putting "Vista Capable" stickers on PCs with 915 chipsets, even though PCs with those chipsets couldn't run Aero or other parts of Vista.

Ballmer and Otellini spoke about the Vista Capable scheme, and lawyers for the plaintiffs say that discussion may be at the heart of the suit. They ask in a filing:

What did Mr. Otellini say? Why had the issues escalated so far? How did Mr. Ballmer react? The only way for plaintiffs to know the answers to these and other questions is to ask the participants on the call.

Microsoft, though, insists the call was a mere "courtesy."

Apparently, Ballmer also talked with Mark Hurd, the chief executive of HP, as well as with Best Buy Vice President Ron Boire about the scheme. HP was particularly angry about the Vista Capable plan, because the company had invested millions in PCs that would adequately run Vista, unlike the PCs with the 915 chipsets. HP called the Microsoft move "totally unacceptable."

If it turns out that Ballmer's discussions, particularly with Intel, involved decisions about the Vista Capable scheme, then in essence, he'll have been involved in a coverup by claiming "I do not have any unique knowledge of, nor did I have any unique involvement in any decisions regarding the Windows Vista Capable program."

And as history tells us, the coverup is often worse than the act that needs covering up, because then it's credibility that's at stake. It's tough to run the world's biggest software company if your credibility is shot.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld, and the author of more than 35 books.

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