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Here’s One Reason Why Microsoft Can’t Sell Windows Vista

One of the most telling jokes during the presentation of Leopard at Apple’s WWDC was that it was $129 for the “Basic” version and $129 for the “Ultimate” version. In stark contrast to Microsoft’s confusing lineup of Vista choices, Apple stayed with the program. One “client” version and one “server” version, basically. Yes, there’s a Leopard family pack that lets you legally install it on up to five Macs, but the software is the same, and the limited and unlimited versions of Leopard Server don’t scrimp on features either.

The reason Apple lampoons Microsoft is because Windows Vista’s marketing plan, such as it is, confuses almost everyone, including the company’s own product managers. As we speak, there’s a flap over a legal action folks have initiated against Microsoft charging deceitful tactics.

At issue is the “Vista Capable” branding label that appeared on many cheap PCs before Vista was released.

Only thing is, by “capable,” Microsoft means that the box in question can only run the “Basic” version of Vista, which lacks the fancy 3D Aero interface, scheduled backup capability, and various and sundry multimedia features when compared to the higher-end consumer version, dubbed Home Premium.

To make matters worse, there are also Business and Ultimate versions with additional features that command even higher price tags. If you’re already confused, I can’t blame you one bit. But go ahead and check out Microsoft’s site for the full comparison among these basic four versions. But let’s not forget the Enterprise version for larger businesses.

I won’t even begin to list the multiple user variations, because the mind is already boggling over the basic four, and I would also hope that what you get from the site is accurate and up-to-date. Oh, and by the way, the actual Vista DVD contains all the main versions, and your serial number determines which one is installed. To upgrade, you pay the appropriate fee and get a new license number from Microsoft.

There wasn’t that simple?

Now I can well understand if the student who works part-time at your local consumer electronics store isn’t quite clear about the distinctions between the various versions of Vista. That would make sense, unless someone forced them to memorize all this stuff, which is hardly likely.

At the heart of the legal action that’s in progress at U.S. District Court in Seattle is the claim that consumers were deceived when they bought those Vista Capable PCs, only to discover that they are saddled with Basic and, without costly hardware upgrades (which aren’t possible on note-books), they cannot take advantage of Vista’s most advanced features, including the highly-touted animated interface.

Microsoft’s defense has it that their ads on the Vista upgrade program made it quite clear precisely what the various labels meant, so consumers who were fooled only had themselves to blame.

Sure, that’s it. Blame the customer when something goes wrong. After all, Microsoft couldn’t possibly have botched their consumer information campaign — or could they?

Well it seems that Microsoft’s director of marketing, Mark Croft, made a boo-boo when he tried to explain what all this meant in a hearing on whether the case should attain class-action status. He said that the word capable “has an interpretation for many that, in the context of this program, a PC would be able to run any version of the Windows operating system.”

After Microsoft’s lawyers took a break to appropriately chastise their disobedient or confused witness, he came back to claim he misspoke, that he meant to say that “capable” meant that the PC was “able to run a version of Vista.” This didn’t necessarily mean all versions of Vista.

But the damage is already done, although I suppose it’s possible Microsoft’s high-priced legal team will be able to provide a sufficient level of convoluted arguments to explain away Croft’s blunder, or at least confuse the judge appropriately.

On the other hand, you have to wonder how a marketing executive charged with selling a product can’t even explain the meaning behind stickers placed on products that describe its upgrade capabilities. Unless Croft was suffering from some level of amnesia or was, perhaps, ill at the time of his testimony, it only goes to show that customers can become just as confused, if not more so. Notice, I didn’t say he was incompetent. That may be going too far.

This is, of course, a grave that Microsoft is only digging for itself when it tries to figure out just what it’s selling and what the terms and conditions are.

I am reminded of the convoluted efforts from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer over the years to properly define their .Net framework development strategy. Yes, I know some of you use those tools and find them quite suited to your needs, but that doesn’t mean that Microsoft had a good handle on what the product actually was, and how it might benefit their customers.

Sure, I realize that .Net is a pretty sophisticated technology, and the average consumer shouldn’t be expected to understand the technical niceties. But, when they go to a store or order a new PC online, they should have a pretty fair idea of what they are getting before they break out the credit card or write a check.

It’s pretty clear that Windows Vista is a horrendous product to sell, simply because Microsoft gave little thought to a concept that Apple well understands, which is “keep it simple stupid!”

I understand that having a Home and Business version might make sense, in the fashion of the two versions of Windows XP. However, subdividing it into more product versions only dilutes the pitch.

Of course, Microsoft is probably between a rock and a hard place to some extent, simply because they built an operating system that millions and millions of PCs can’t run, or at least run efficiently with all features intact.

Compare that to Leopard. You can run it with great performance on millions of Macs that range from four to six years old. Sure, you might need more RAM, but most of the animated goodies will remain intact except, perhaps, on some very old hardware that lies at the very bottom of the compatibility list.

None of this means that a federal judge will grant class-action status in that action against Microsoft. Besides, even if the defendants win, at best they’ll receive some discount coupons or perhaps a rebate. But isn’t that the way these things always turn out?