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BusinessWeek


It has taken Microsoft (MSFT) a half-decade. But come this fall, it will roll out the long-awaited Windows Vista operating system (see BW Online, 11/18/05, "Microsoft's New Word: Accountability"). Like every generation of the OS before it, Vista promises to change computing. With a market share already north of 90%, any new version of Windows reshapes the entire PC ecosystem. So software developers, PC makers, and corporate tech staffers are gearing up hard for the new release.

Vista may have been the most challenging version of Windows to get to market. Delays and feature cuts along the way hurt morale, as more nimble rivals brought other tech innovations to market (see BW, 9/26/06, "Troubling Exits At Microsoft"). Now, with the finish line in sight, Microsoft is preparing for a massive launch. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Chairman Bill Gates made Vista the centerpiece of his annual speech (see BW Online, 1/5/06, "For Gates, It's Entertainment ").

BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief, Jay Greene, recently sat down with Windows Vice-President Joe Belfiore to talk about the road to Vista and the feature that will drive sales. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Windows Vista is coming out this fall. Why are people going to buy it?

There are a few ways we think about this. One, we want Windows Vista to be a PC experience that makes people confident and comfortable with their computers. So there's an awful lot of work we're doing in the areas of security and reliability to make your computing experience very smooth and confidence-inspiring. And that ranges from protecting you against sites that are phishing or trying to steal your identity in Internet Explorer, to delivering parental controls so parents can feel good about their kids using the PC, to protected-mode usage for Internet Explorer and your user account that makes it much more difficult for viruses to affect your PC.

A second big area is to make it easy for you to find the things you're looking for, to manage lots of photos, to deal with a really large music collection. So we've built search capabilities right into the operating system. Within the Start menu, you can type a few letters of a document or an application [name], and it will come right up, and then you can launch it. There's a new photo library that makes it very easy to find your photos. There's a sidebar that helps you get information from your favorite news sources and keep all that right there at a glance. So the second idea is really trying to make it easier to deal with a barrage of information that people get today.

And then the last thing for consumers is some of the great entertainment features...very cool and compelling slide shows [using the photo library]. Windows Vista includes a new Windows Media Player that has much faster and simpler ways of dealing with a giant music library. It has lots of very attractive views, including album-art views, and it integrates really nicely with some music services so that you have a great way of browsing for and buying or subscribing to music.

The breakthroughs in Windows XP were really the ease with which users could manage digital photos and music. Are the new capabilities in Windows Vista that much better than what you have in XP?

I think they're that much better than what you have in XP. Taking the two examples you gave, the photo support in Windows XP, while it's nice, really is not helpful if you have thousands and thousands and thousands of images. Anyone who's owned a digital camera for a year or two years starts to collect those, and being able to rate them and find all your good pictures really quickly, or to tag them and find all your holiday pictures when it comes time to make your holiday card, or be able to print them in simple ways or order prints from them -- all these things are fairly difficult to do with Windows XP relative to Windows Vista, and so those are the kinds of things that we've tried to improve.

I'd say the same is true for music. Since the time Windows XP shipped, there's been a lot of innovation in music services and different ways that you can buy music, or put it on a device, or subscribe to music, and the music features in Windows Vista help make all those scenarios work a lot better.

Windows XP really helped unleash digital media in ways that I don't think consumers realized when the operating system debuted. Are there new applications that will come out, that folks will discover once they have Vista, that maybe aren't so apparent right now?

Undoubtedly, there will be. It's one of those things that's a little bit hard to guess...given such a large and active sort of developer community creating new value for Windows.

But if I were to try to venture a guess, I do think that the scenario of watching TV on your PC, and having your PC enable lots of devices around your house -- like your TV set, your game console -- to give you that digital-media experience in any room, would be one.

That requires purchasing the Media Center Edition of Windows Vista, right?

The scenario I was describing requires the Media Center software, yes.

Do you anticipate with Windows Vista that the share of Windows operating-system sales for Media Center Edition will climb significantly?

I think so, yes. Today we're seeing, for example, in the U.S. at retail, about half of the desktop PCs selling with [the Windows XP version of] Media Center. And I think that the trend will continue.

When is Windows Vista going to ship?

We'll have Windows Vista available for people to get in the last half of this year.

What are you going to do to support it? What are the rollout plans?

We certainly believe, as do all or most of our significant partners, that it will be a big-deal launch. It will be a big deal for consumers, it will be a big deal for businesses, it will be less expensive to roll out and easier to manage. I think we did a pretty big Windows XP launch, we did a pretty big Windows 95 launch. We're going to see a launch with Windows Vista that's going to certainly be up there in that category.

Do you think Vista will have the same kind of industry-changing impact, and if so, how?

I do think it will. I think that it has enough platform richness in it that we'll see third parties do work that we can't even imagine today, and some of those things really matter.

And then for businesses that have to manage hundreds of thousands of PCs, simply the ability to do that at much lower cost and in an easier way will affect their business, and so that will have a significant effect as well, and I think it will really make Vista a computing phenomenon that will really matter.

You talked about security earlier, and security has always been a concern. Is this going to be a game-changing system in that it's bulletproof, in that the folks who write malware just won't be able to figure out how to get past this? Or is this just yet another iteration in the constant cat-and-mouse game?

I think this is a game-changing system. We, as operating-system creators, with Vista have the opportunity to go deep into the core of the system and make changes with the intent to make it bulletproof. There are ways that user accounts have been modified that make them much more difficult for attackers to get through. There are ways that Internet Explorer has been modified to make it much more difficult for attackers to get through. And when you do a significant revision of the operating system, it allows for enough application-compatibility testing and hardware-compatibility testing that you can make some deep changes, so that those types of attacks are much more difficult.

Bulletproof is a tricky word. Is it really game-changing enough where, if you're a ne'er-do-well, you're going to throw your hands up and say, "Gosh, there's no way to get around this thing?"

You know, people will certainly continue to make attempts at it, but I think the changes that we have in Vista this time around are more significant than any changes we've made in any past version of Windows to address this. And I think it would also be fair to say it was our No. 1 concern in trying to do a great job for our customers, and really make this as completely virus- and malware-resistant as we possibly could.

So by the time this launches, it will have been roughly five years since the last version of Windows shipped. Why did it take so long?

Well, I wouldn't characterize it as having been five years since the last version of Windows shipped. In the last five years, we've shipped three releases of Media Center and one update release with the Xbox 360, and we've shipped two versions of Tablet. And we've shipped the Windows XP Service Pack 2, which was a pretty significant update to Windows XP. But we've made it available for free to everyone, because we wanted to address as many security problems as we could.

Just to be clear, though, when you talk about new versions of Media Center Edition and Tablet, and even the Service Pack, they're all working off the same code base. There's Windows XP Media Center Edition, Windows XP Tablet Edition.

That's right.

So, granted, there are folks in the Windows division who have been working very hard. But it isn't entirely fair to say that you came out with five different operating systems, is it?

Let's take Service Pack 2 as an example. A huge number of people who work on all levels of Windows were engaged in making revisions to Windows then to improve the security experience for people who run on Windows XP. So if you think of it in terms of whether we tried to improve every layer of the operating system, with that release we did, and it was a significant focus for us, and it definitely took time and energy.

A year and a half ago, there was an event that internally is known as the Longhorn reset, where features were removed from Vista, which then had the code name Longhorn, so you could make sure that you could get it out the door. What was taken out?

There were a few decisions that we made about major components. One was the WinFS file system that we've been working on. We decided to delay for release post-Vista.

Coincident with those changes, a lot of groups that were writing features for Windows Vista had to think about how their features had to change in light of those other changes. So as a result, teams got very focused on what the core things that our customers were really asking for were, and tried to focus on those first and mostly.

And I personally think that the goals that we set out for with Windows Vista are still very much intact. We have a release that's going to be exciting for consumers, going to reduce cost of ownership for businesses. It's going to be much more secure and reliable, and it has great platform value for our developer partners.

So it was a focusing exercise, and some of those decisions caused some things to be delayed and some things to move to different releases. But, overall, I think in the end we're going to still have a terrific release.


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