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Microsoft readying Vista marketing blitz

Software giant wants to re-create the excitement that accompanied the launch of Windows 95 a decade ago.

SAN FRANCISCO--Aiming to re-create the excitement that accompanied the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft is gearing up for a massive campaign to launch Windows Vista.

Chairman Bill Gates has tasked the Windows marketing team with repeating its achievements with the decade-ago launch, such as convincing scores of people to line up at retail stores to purchase the operating system. The marketing budget won't be finalized until the end of Microsoft's fiscal year in June, but "regardless of that, we're still being held to that goal," said Dave Block, a senior product manager for Vista.

IDF Spring 2006

Speaking to a crowd of hardware developers at the Intel Developer Forum here, Block noted that there is a team at the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters focused entirely on generating buzz for the OS, planning such things as having a Vista PC make Oprah Winfrey's influential "favorite things" list.

"Can we get a cool new PC in front of Oprah?" Block asked. "Can we do stuff like that? I think we can."

One of Microsoft's chief business goals is to spur businesses and consumers to buy higher-end versions of Vista. Microsoft announced last week that there would be six major versions of Vista, including a new "ultimate" edition of the OS that will combine the best of the company's corporate and home features.

Microsoft says it expects more than 400 million PCs to be running Vista within 24 months of the launch. Block said the goal is to reach a rate within that time where more than half of the machines are running some premium version of the OS.

"We want to hit a 50 percent run rate for Windows Vista premium in the first 24 months," Block said. "That's a substantially more aggressive run rate than we were able to hit with Windows XP."

More bang for the buck?
Getting customers to buy pricier versions of the OS translates directly to Microsoft's bottom line.

Microsoft is focusing much of its efforts on touting Vista as better-equipped to handle some of the key tasks that computers don't tackle as well today. Microsoft has identified 14 of these "scenarios"--eight for businesses and six for consumers.

On the consumer side, Microsoft is focusing on digital memories, TV and movies, games, music and communications. On the small-business front, Microsoft is pitching Vista as the key to better backup and security, improved sales and marketing pitches, and improved collaboration and mobility, as well as touting it as a hub for financial management. Its big business push centers on management of PCs, security and compliance, controlling information access, and handling an increasingly dispersed work force.

"There's no rocket science here," Block said, noting that all are tasks that computer users currently want to do, but in which Microsoft is "not doing well in delivering that experience today."

In some cases these are areas where no one has stood out, but in other areas, Block said Microsoft is looking to "address competitive gaps we have today," as well as perceived gaps.

"We want to be able to build out a completely seamless experience for customers," Block said. "That's where the hard work will be."

Block noted that much of the energy in the computer world has shifted away from the PC and toward devices like digital cameras or the iPod. With Vista, Microsoft is hoping the PC will regain prominence as the machine that unites all of those digital devices.

But unlike rival Apple Computer, which makes its own hardware and software, Microsoft must convince partners to aid it in reaching its goals.

For digital photography, for example, Microsoft is looking to camera makers, printer makers, online photo finishers and software makers, all of which it hopes will want to refine their processes in order to display a "premium" Vista logo. To help woo them, Microsoft is promising that such premium products will be the ones the software giant touts at its launch events, worldwide post-launch tour, in marketing and in kiosks it is designing to go in retail stores.

On the PC side, Microsoft will also be pitching computer makers to qualify machines not just for a basic Windows Vista label, but for a special Vista Premium logo that will go only on machines that can take full advantage of Vista's high-end graphics capabilities.

And lest it lose any sales in the months ahead of Vista's launch, Microsoft plans in about a month to kick off a campaign that will allow PC makers to sell PCs with a "Vista-capable" label.

One of the challenges Microsoft is confronting with Vista is that some machines will be capable of running Vista but will lack the memory and graphics horsepower to show off its most visible improvements.

That creates some marketing challenges for the software maker. For instance, some machines will be able to run Vista and thus be eligible to be sold over the next few months as "Vista-capable." But because they lack the necessary graphics driver software, they will never be able to be sold pre-loaded with Vista, nor do they qualify for Microsoft's basic or premium Vista logos.

Still, it has been five years since Microsoft last launched a mainstream operating system--Windows XP--and the company is clearly gearing up.

Microsoft has already talked about the Vista launch as its biggest event since the Windows 95 launch, but matching the mainstream enthusiasm from consumers generated by that product is a tall order. One thing working in Microsoft's favor is its ability to simultaneously tout its launch of Office 2007, which is also coming out in the second half of this year.

To get all its marketing ducks in a row, Microsoft plans a three-day conference for its partners in early May in Los Angeles, just ahead of the computer game industry's annual E3 trade show.

"It's basically going to be a dry run for the Vista launch," Block said.