Microsoft feared Mac vs. Vista comparison in '05, insider e-mails show

Newspaper column sparked discussion about OSes and what 'premium' meant

More than a year before Windows Vista's release -- and long before Apple Inc. started poking fun at the operating system -- Microsoft Corp. officials were already worried about comparisons between Mac OS X and Vista, insider e-mails disclosed yesterday revealed.

An e-mail thread from October 2005, more than 15 months before Vista debuted, showed that an article in The Wall Street Journal by columnist Walter Mossberg grabbed the attention of managers at Microsoft. In a column headlined What PC to Buy If You Are Planning On a Vista Upgrade, Mossberg spelled out his recommendations for a desktop PC, focusing on the features buyers should keep in mind if they wanted to run Vista when it hit the street.

But one paragraph caught the eye of Padmanand Warrier, a developer in the Windows group. Warrier e-mailed a link to Mossberg's column to several others in the company, including Rajesh Srinivasan -- at the time a product manager in the Windows group -- and Richard Russell, a Microsoft development manager. Warrier quoted briefly from the Mossberg piece.

"You won't have to worry about Vista if you buy one of Apple Computer's Macintosh computers, which don't run Windows," Mossberg had written. "Every mainstream consumer doing typical tasks should consider the Mac. Its operating system, called Tiger [at that time, the most-current Mac OS X -- Ed.], is better and more secure than Windows XP, and already contains most of the key features promised for Vista."

Warrier added his own comment. "A premium experience as defined by Walt = Apple. This is why we need to address [the column]."

That got an almost-immediate rise out of Russell, who acknowledged that Microsoft had not done its job in promoting Windows Vista. "My takeaway from Walt's article is that we have failed to communicate Vista's value," Russell said in an e-mail reply sent just 20 minutes after Warrier fired off his.

Russell went on to defend Vista, specifically its ability to "run on a very wide-ranging set of systems from the minimally capable to the incredibly capable," he said. "Apple doesn't do that."

He also touched on the idea of a Vista "premium" experience, which led him to a discussion of "Vista Ready," the name of the marketing campaign that would later be recast as "Vista Capable" and become the focus of the class-action lawsuit that led to his message going public.

"Vista Ready means that a PC will run Vista well -- it doesn't mean the users will get a 'premium' experience -- it never has meant that," Russell said. "There was some thinking and effort put into having a higher-tier Vista Ready logo, but this didn't fly with the OEMs.

"Also, if we spec Vista Ready too high, we will increase the already erroneous and popular perception that Vista is a pig with huge hardware requirements," he added.

In fact, that perception, right or wrong, became entrenched after Vista debuted in early 2007 when users, analysts and benchmark testers complained that the operating system ran slower than the older Windows XP on the same hardware.

Apple seized on Vista's reputation for many of the television advertisements in its "Get a Mac" campaign, including ads that claimed Vista came in too many versions, required users to replace their peripherals and wasn't working as Microsoft promised.

"I think we have made a mistake in equating 'running Vista well' with a 'premium experience,'" Russell continued in his e-mail. "E.g., we haven [sic] been successful in sending a 'good, better, best' message. Vista Ready == 'better.'"

Warrier's and Russell's messages were among hundreds of Microsoft e-mails that were unsealed yesterday by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman, who is overseeing the so-called Vista Capable class-action lawsuit.

In the case, which began in April 2007 and is now slated to go to trial in April 2009, the plaintiffs charge that Microsoft deceived customers by certifying PCs as able to run Vista when it allegedly knew the machines could handle only the stripped-down Vista Basic. That version lacked the new, heavily promoted Aero interface.

Microsoft has denied the allegations.

Earlier disclosures of the company's communications have showed that Microsoft loosened the graphics hardware requirements for Vista Capable PCs under pressure from Intel Corp., a move that infuriated Hewlett-Packard Co. Additional messages have pointed to heated disagreement within Microsoft about the wisdom of relaxing the program's rules.

Microsoft created the Vista Capable marketing campaign to make sure that sales of Windows XP-equipped PCs didn't falter as the release of Vista neared by trying to assure consumers that the machines they bought would be able to run the newer operating system.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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