Vista: It's heeeeere (for business customers, at least)

And so are Office 2007 and Exchange 2007

After five years and numerous delays, customers can now get their hands on the final version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Vista operating system.

Well, business customers can, at least. Though Microsoft Corp. celebrated the launch of Vista -- as well as Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 -- at events across the globe today, neither Vista nor Office 2007 will be generally available through retail in the U.S. until Jan. 30, 2007. Today marked the day business customers could purchase those products through Microsoft's volume licensing program.

And while business customers can begin ordering Exchange 2007 now, the new version of Microsoft's messaging server software won't be released to manufacturing until the end of December.

Not only was today's launch party for all three products a bit premature and anticlimactic after so long a wait for Vista, it could also be the last of its kind, according to industry watchers. With more software being pushed out to customers over the Web as services, launch parties for packaged software products may soon be a thing of the past, they said.

"This is a big launch for them, but for everyone else it's ho-hum," said James McQuivey, a professor at Boston University's College of Communication who specializes in marketing research and business management. "It's the biggest wait-and-see event of the week. Customers are going to wait and see when they need [Vista] and if they need it."

These concerns aside, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was on hand with his usual enthusiasm at the New York launch event to promote what is arguably the industry's most highly anticipated product launch of the year.

"It's an exciting thing to finally be here," Ballmer said. "That's all I'll say about the past." He has already promised that Microsoft will never again have another lengthy gap between major releases of its client operating system. The vendor debuted Windows XP, Vista's predecessor, in October 2001.

"This is the biggest launch in our company's history," Ballmer said. "These are frankly the most significant releases of these two products [Vista and Office] we've ever done."

Vista was the big star of the day, though Microsoft teamed the operating system's launch with Office 2007 and Exchange 2007 for several reasons. One is that the company is trying to promote the technology links between the products to show how they can bring better worker productivity and cost savings to business customers in the hope that companies will purchase and deploy all three at once.

Another reason for the triple launch is that Vista has been so long coming, Microsoft felt it had to give customers a little extra incentive to be excited about it, said Sunil Misra, vice president of Getronics. The provider of managed services and consulting has been helping business customers prepare for Vista deployment.

"It's the love campaign," Misra said, referring to the launch of all three products together. "People have been waiting a long time for Vista."

The last time Microsoft released Windows and Office together was with Windows 95. During the heyday of Windows, customers would have flocked to the new operating system's release even without its tie to Office. "It's not nearly as exciting as it used to be in the old days," said McQuivey. "With Windows 95 and 98, you actually had people waiting in line at Best Buy" to purchase the operating system.

This certainly isn't the case now, as consumers can't purchase Vista until January. And it may not even be the case then, as consumers in addition to business customers have said they may hold off on purchasing Vista until they need a new PC.

Many of those new PCs are bought during the busy holiday shopping season already in progress, but since Vista is not available yet in retail outlets, it can't benefit from that rush. In lieu of that, Microsoft's hardware partners such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. are offering discount coupons for the operating system if customers buy PCs capable of running it this holiday season.

On the business side, customers will likely continue their Vista planning process throughout the end of the year and most of 2007, Misra said. Indeed, most analysts think the bulk of Vista business deployments won't happen until 2008.

China Martens, of the IDG News Service, contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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