Vista's actual launch? Think whisper, not bang

The day was filled with fanfare, but the late-night launch at CompUSA was anything but extraordinary. Photos: At CompUSA, 'Vista can wait'

NEW YORK--The actual New York City release of Microsoft's new Windows Vista operating system, at midnight on Tuesday, couldn't have been more different from the prelaunch events that filled up many a reporter's business and social calendars on Monday.

All day, Microsoft had presented an agenda of glitz, glamour, and unusual spectacles. There was a by aerial dancers forming the Vista and Office 2007 logos on the wall of a building; a press lunch hosted by Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer at the posh Cipriani restaurant (the sea bass was great, by the way); and finally, an official launch party at the Nokia Theater in Times Square that featured a live performance by the alternative-rock band Angels and Airwaves.

But the launch itself was a quiet affair in a midtown CompUSA store (the chain had organized midnight events at several of its stores), where it seemed like there were just as many reporters and camera crews as there were customers hoping to take home a copy of Vista.

I arrived shortly before 10 p.m., when the store was slated to open, and as I walked from the Herald Square subway stop to the CompUSA on Fifth Avenue, I wondered whether there would actually be a line outside. There was: it barely rounded the corner, but there was still a line. I estimated that it probably consisted of about 60 people, far fewer than the thousand-plus gaming enthusiasts who had lined up for Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii at their New York launches several months ago. But it was still a line. Poll

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I spoke to the first group in the queue, three Australians who said they had to wait only for about an hour and were looking forward to trying out Vista. Ironically, in their home country, Microsoft's new operating system had already been on the shelves for hours, given the time zone difference. But while the trio was planning to stay until midnight and purchase Vista, that was the exception to the rule.

Ulterior motives
Because, as I learned shortly before the doors opened at 10, there was more to the late-night event at CompUSA than Windows Vista. The store had offered up a smattering of impressive deals on tech gear and peripherals--including Bluetooth headsets, webcams, printers and monitors--designed to complement to the Vista launch.

But it couldn't possibly have helped Microsoft's PR efforts, as it was quite clear that the majority of the people waiting in line were eager to capitalize on the slashed prices and had no real interest in Vista or Office 2007. There were Microsoft-hued balloons on the ceiling, and prominent displays for the new products out of Redmond, Wash., but most of the late-night customers at the store were completely blind to the decor as they dove for the specially priced gadgets. (Microsoft's Zune music player, by the way, was not among the specially priced items.)

"I'm just here for the discount," said a customer named Maureen as she walked out the door with a new 19-inch monitor. I asked her if she was planning to get Vista at a future date. "No, not yet," she answered. "I'm not an operating-system expert. Plus, it's the first generation." Maureen added that she wanted to see how Vista was received by buyers and experts before choosing to invest in it herself.

Another CompUSA deal-seeker, James, had a similar story. He'd purchased a Canon photo printer, which would cost him a total of $10 once he mailed in a rebate. "Vista can wait until I get a new computer," he said.

I talked to a handful of the customers leaving the store before midnight, and only one was really enthusiastic about Vista. This was a man named Joe, who had stocked up on DVD cases and a Bluetooth headset. "Got it already," he said with a grin as I asked him about whether he planned to purchase Vista in the future. As it turns out, Joe was one of the Vista beta testers who had been in attendance at the Times Square launch party earlier that day, and had consequently been rewarded with a free copy of the software. He said that pure curiosity had piqued his interest in Vista, and that he'd give the full version a whirl on his next day off from work.

Around 11 p.m., I ventured out to see if the scene was more lively at the Best Buy store several blocks farther north on Fifth Avenue. There were no launch festivities, as the store was closed, but employees were nevertheless hard at work putting giant Vista and Office displays in the windows.

By midnight, things were picking up at CompUSA--somewhat. The frenzied discount hunters were gone, replaced by a similar number of actual Vista buyers who had not waited in line before the store opening. (I should note that it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to make even the most warmly dressed of Microsoft fans reconsider waiting outside for more than five minutes.) It wasn't a particularly rowdy set, either--most of those present were middle-aged, the majority male, and one couple had even brought along a small dog that went by the name of Paris Hilton.

The first person in line, however, broke the mold: this was 20-year-old Sable Fields, a journalism student at the nearby New School who was buying a Hewlett-Packard laptop preloaded with Vista. "My boyfriend broke my old HP," she said with a laugh, and recounted how she'd gone to purchase a new one on Saturday but decided to wait a few days until she could have the new operating system. Despite the fact that her Vista interest was stimulated only when she realized she needed a new computer, Fields said that over the past few days she had grown genuinely excited about the operating system. "It looks so fun!" she squealed, talking about the new graphical interface and media-sharing capabilities.

I asked her what she was planning to do when she got home. "(I'll) plug this baby in," she responded, patting the box for her new laptop, "see if I get wireless, load some pictures on, everything."

The camera crews--and there were plenty of them--flocked around Fields as she made her purchase, and a few CompUSA employees were eager to catch a photo-op with the first New Yorker to buy Vista. But then she left the store, and the cameras backed off, and the atmosphere began to resemble an only slightly busier-than-usual day at CompUSA--albeit at midnight.

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