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Commentary: The Vista for consumers

To win consumers over to the next version of Windows, Microsoft needs to pay close attention to their needs and habits.

Commentary: The Vista for consumers
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
July 27, 2005, 10:00AM PDT

Ted Schadler and Paul Jackson with Chris Charron

Microsoft expects to ship its next operating system, Windows Vista, in time for holiday shopping in 2006. Will consumers care?

Not if Microsoft focuses solely on characteristics like security, search and reliability. Instead, the software maker must make sure that consumers feel as if Vista was built just for them, to handle their personal needs: communications, music, photos, home video, television, games or life management. Microsoft must also help hardware makers like Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Intel, and providers like Kodak, Sony and Yahoo, customize Vista and incorporate it into their own end-to-end experiences.

Forrester met recently with Microsoft Group Vice President of Platforms Jim Allchin to learn about his vision for Vista, then still known by its Longhorn code name. He is responsible for the entire Windows product line and is the executive chartered by CEO Steve Ballmer to get Vista out the door on time. Allchin shared Vista's product features in three areas:

Security: Security has been a painful subject for Microsoft in the past five years. Allchin expects to greatly reduce the company's security problems with Vista by building a top-to-bottom security architecture, checking code quality with tools developed by Microsoft Research, and designing Vista to be primarily an Internet-connected--rather than standalone--operating system.

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Reliability: To more deeply integrate computers into their lives, consumers must be able to rely on them the way they rely on their telephone or refrigerator. While Windows XP is much more reliable than previous versions of Windows, it's still not steady enough to be an essential ingredient in a consumer appliance. Allchin aims to make computers running Vista as consistent and reliable as consumers' televisions.

Experiences: The Vista team is focusing on characteristics like instant-on, dynamic search, and automatic network and device connections to make this version of Windows easier to use than Windows XP. These characteristics will also make Vista a better foundation for applications like communications, entertainment and games.

What consumers really want
Mainstream consumers don't care much about features--they care only about the benefits that the features deliver. This makes Microsoft's marketing challenge doubly difficult, especially considering that:

• Many consumers are pessimistic about technology. Forty-two percent of U.S. households agree with the statement, "Technology sometimes intimidates me," and only 19 percent strongly agree that "Technology has made my life easier." Note, for instance, that affluent technology optimists are three times more likely than equally affluent technology pessimists to have satellite radio.

• Consumers often don't know which features their products have. Asking consumers about features is like asking them what kind of sparkplugs their car has or what they had for dinner on March 15. To wit: Only 13 percent of mobile phone owners say that their phones support, and that they use, caller ID blocking or three-way calling--features included in most calling plans. And almost 3 million U.S. households that purchased a computer in 2003 or 2004 believe that their computer runs Windows 95 or Windows 98--an unlikely fact given that Windows 98 stopped shipping in the U.S. in 2000.

• Benefits that are obvious to engineers are mysterious to consumers. Early adopters take on challenges that mainstream consumers won't. Even in a relatively mature technology like home networking, 57 percent of online households without a home network see no reason to get one--the benefits aren't clear enough to them. Microsoft, as an engineering firm, has this problem in spades, touting features like "auto-complete" and "secure by default" that leave consumers wondering why they should care.

Personal experiences count
Consumers will value an operating system that delivers a deeply personal experience like communications, music, home video or photography. To make Vista relevant to consumers, Microsoft must make sure that:


Microsoft's Windows
chief talks about
challenges ahead
with the new OS.

• Consumers feel as if Vista was built just for them. Consumers are tremendously diverse, and they divide into distinct segments based on their primary personal activities. To reach these consumers, Microsoft must make sure that Vista handles each activity as if it were purposely built to do so. That means instant wireless connections to portable devices for those who communicate continuously, a remote control play list interface for those who listen to music, high-definition video editing tools for those who produce video, and a solid video scheduling interface for those who control TV.

• Partners can mass-customize Vista to differentiate their products and services. Increasingly, PC makers like Dell and HP, media extender manufacturers like Linksys and Roku, and digital camera suppliers like Canon and Sony need to differentiate their offerings based on a superior end-to-end experience rather than just a cool box. These partners will be far happier with a Vista that they can easily tailor to their needs.

Partners matter, too
Microsoft alone can't make Vista relevant to consumers' increasingly sophisticated needs. It needs the help of PC partners like Dell, Gateway and HP; device partners like Kodak, Samsung and Sony; and applications and service providers like Electronic Arts, Verizon, Vonage and Yahoo. Microsoft's challenge is to make Vista mass-customizable so that it can be a solid building block in these partners' offerings.

• Create bundles that address specific scenarios. Although regulators won't allow Microsoft to create product and service bundles itself, the company can make sure that partners will be able to adapt Vista to their end-to-end packages. The payoff? Partners will sell more PCs dedicated to specific personal scenarios, and Microsoft will sell more copies of Windows.

• Make sure plug-and-play lives up to its label. Seeing a "found new hardware--insert driver CD" message is hardly what a consumer looks for when they plug something into their computer. A focus on end-to-end experiences would force Microsoft and its partners to streamline every process that a consumer must master: installation, configuration, operation and retirement. The Vista launch is also a good time for Microsoft to extend its "Plays For Sure" music logo program to apply to third-party software, media players, game downloads and digital cameras.

• Reassure consumers that they have a partner dedicated to their safety. Viruses, spam and identity theft are the scourges of the digital home. Consumers need reassurance that providers like Comcast, HP, Intel and Microsoft understand their problems and are diligent in protecting them. Industries like airlines and automobiles have overcome early safety problems by addressing their intrinsic process failures and reassuring their customers that all will be well. It's time for Microsoft to step up to organize an industry group that trains software engineers on safety precautions, certifies software security, and helps state and federal legislators craft appropriate laws.

• Make sure that Vista PCs improve the experience of every device--old and new. For every new home PC powered by Vista, there will be approximately four or five older PCs and related technologies. It's unlikely that Microsoft will be able to offer a full upgrade path for older devices, but it can at least retrofit Windows XP with Vista communications and security protocols. Microsoft should emphasize the synergy between Vista and other MS-powered devices, like portable media players, Xbox 360 and mobile phones.

© 2005, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.