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Sorting out the details on Vista SP1 availability

Microsoft released the code to manufacturing last month, but it could be next month before it shows up on retail shelves--and it's unclear when PC makers will start offering the update.

(Update, March 18, 2008 5:21 AM PDT: has listed Windows Vista SP1 as ready for shipment starting Wednesday.)

So, when is Windows Vista Service Pack 1 coming out?

It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is anything but simple.

Without trying to get Clintonesque and say it depends on your definition of is, let's just say there are many different ways of getting the operating system update and each is operating on its own schedule.

In February, CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft had wrapped up development of the update, but the company cautioned that the update wasn't ready for the masses. Chief among the reasons was that some Vista drivers were rendered inoperable when moving from Vista to Vista SP1.

As a result, Microsoft said it would be mid-March before SP1 showed up for download via Windows Update and That appears to be on track and, what with mid-March now upon us, it seems likely that SP1 will be available from Microsoft's servers very shortly.

Less clear, though, is when the OS update would replace the initial Vista on retail shelves and on new PCs.

I pressed Microsoft for some answers here, but got only limited help. On the retail front, Microsoft said in a statement on Monday that "we expect Windows Vista with SP1 will be available as a full packaged retail product as soon as April." So those making pre-orders for Vista SP1 on may have to wait awhile longer to get the product (though people can always buy Vista now and upgrade to SP1 on their own).

On the question of when PC makers would start offering new machines with Service Pack 1 preloaded, Microsoft was even less forthcoming. Although PC makers got the code in February, Microsoft said, "it takes time for our OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) partners to update their assembly lines with code."

"Our partners will begin distributing SP1 on new PCs when they are ready," Microsoft said.

Hmm. OK.

It strikes me that Microsoft is missing out on a big opportunity.

Service Pack 1 is not a bunch of new gee-whiz features that are going to convince consumers to rush out and get the operating system. It's a collection of performance improvements and bug fixes, the kinds of things that were supposed to give the software maker a chance to convince big businesses that Vista has its act together. However, with uncertainty around SP1's readiness and its timing, it seems like Microsoft may be giving the opposite impression.

And that's a shame for the crew in Redmond. Because you don't get a second chance to make a second impression, either.