In Seattle, midnight Vista launch is more subdued than past Windows releases

At electronics store near Microsoft, a football star, not the OS, is main attraction

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- Enlisting Seattle Seahawks star running back Shaun Alexander to promote a local late night launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft Corp. found its new operating system overshadowed by the popular football player.

By 10:30 p.m., almost 600 people had passed through the doors of the Best Buy electronics store here, a few miles from Microsoft headquarters. But most of them immediately got back in line to have their pictures taken with Alexander, last year's most valuable player in the NFL.

Among them were Tim Kelly and Sean McIlraith, students at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle. After reading about Alexander's appearance in a local newspaper, the pair arrived at 8 p.m., waiting two hours before Best Buy let them in.

After getting their pictures taken with Alexander, the two planned to look around the store but not buy anything.

"I'm not looking to upgrade to Vista right now. There's just no need," Kelly said.

Richard Herbert, who has been beta-testing Vista for almost a year, also said he didn't plan to buy Vista tonight. Herbert said he plans to buy the $399 retail version of Vista Ultimate, which he called a "physically beautiful program," later this year.

Microsoft planned late-night launches of Vista at a Best Buy, Circuit City or CompUSA store in 30 U.S. cities. It also planned events in 70 countries.

Unlike the earlier launch in Tokyo, where Microsoft maintained the tradition of opening the doors at midnight local time, the U.S. launches ran from 10 p.m. yesterday to 1 a.m. today.

And unlike the Tokyo launch, which featured a pair of comedians as its star attraction, many of the U.S. store launches boasted an appearance by a football star to add a touch of celebrity glamour with the Super Bowl less than a week away.

Elsewhere, Microsoft marked the launch of its first new operating system in five years with a marketing blitz, including commercials featuring basketball star Lebron James and appearances by Microsoft chairman and most recognizable face, co-founder Bill Gates.

"It will take entertainment to a whole new level. Even education will be changed dramatically," Gates said at an event at the British Library in London, where he used Vista to electronically bring together Leonardo da Vinci's two notebooks, one in the British Library and one in the U.S. owned by Gates.

Vista is the ninth major release of Windows in 22 years, and Microsoft had few illusions that it would be able to generate more than a fraction of the media and consumer frenzy of past launches like Windows 95, where Microsoft ponied up millions of dollars to use the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" as a theme song, and consumers responded, with crowds lined up at midnight all around the country to buy Windows 95.

But if the late-night launches around the country this time were anything like the one in Seattle, then they were a pale imitation of the Windows 95 launch. A day after the Aug. 24, 1995, launch, a Microsoft executive told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper that the company sold more software that night between midnight and 2 a.m. "than at any time in our history."

In November 2005, 2,500 people stood in line at this Best Buy to see Bill Gates launch the Xbox 360 game console, while 1,000 came for the Halo 2 release a year earlier, according to Steve Starr, manager of the Bellevue Best Buy.

Starr expected between 500 to 1,000 people to show up for last night's Vista launch. He prepared the event by ordering several hundred retail copies of Vista, evenly distributed among the five different versions available in the U.S.

James Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's platform products and services group, stood watching the line snaking around to meet Alexander, while occasionally accepting congratulations from Microsoft employees and Vista fans who may have recognized Allchin's distinctive white mane.

Back in 1995, Allchin was a lead developer on Windows NT, Microsoft's server operating system. He did not attend any of the Windows 95's launch events.

Nevertheless, he disagreed that the Vista launch lacked the sizzle and excitement of previous releases.

"Sure, it's a different world than it was 12 years ago, when there was no Internet channel," said Allchin, who plans to retire at the end of the month after shepherding Vista through its five-year development process. "But the fact that there are this many people here, despite the fact that you can go out and buy Vista from, says something."

One analyst agreed.

"I'm skeptical that the Windows 95 launch was so much bigger than Vista's," said Chris Swenson, a software analyst at NPD Group Inc. For all of the reports of buyers standing in line at midnight to buy Windows 95, the software "took time to ramp up and get to stores worldwide. Vista today is going to be available in 40,000 stores in 70 countries. Microsoft has spent months and months setting up the channels and getting them up to speed. That all is done."

Allchin also promised that the late-night launch was "just the beginning." He declined to comment on reports yesterday that Microsoft plans to spend $500 million in 20 countries on marketing Vista.

To accompany the launch, events were held near New York's Times Square. Rock band Angels & Airwaves performed to kick off the presentation, taking the stage after a three-man drumming outfit warmed up the crowd, which had been waiting in below-freezing temperatures to get in. Gates also hit the talk show circuit to hype the launch, sitting down for interviews on NBC's Today show and Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Information from the IDG News Service and Reuters was included in this report.

Find out more about Microsoft's latest Windows operating system, including:

  •  Hands On: A Hard Look at Windows Vista

     An in-depth review and visual tour.

  •  Making Your Move to Vista: What You Need to Know

     Upgrading? You'll face a number of questions surrounding hardware and operating system version. We help you sort through the details.

  •  Under the Hood: What's Different About Vista's GUI?

     In this excerpt from Windows Vista Unveiled, Paul McFedries explains the Windows Presentation Foundation (formerly Avalon), how it improves graphics performance and why software developers will love it.

  •  Buying a Computer for Vista ... and Beyond

     With some careful planning, you can buy PCs that will both support Vista and last well beyond today's standard three-year life span.

  •  Top 16 Vista Time-saving Tips

     These shortcuts will save you motion as well as time when using Microsoft's operating system. Most work for other versions of Windows as well as Vista.

See more coverage at Windows Vista A to Z

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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