Where on the horizon is Vista?

Analysts will be looking for answers from Microsoft, but a firm ship date may not be among the details they are given.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
REDMOND, Wash.--Just when is Windows Vista going to ship?

That's likely just one of many questions on the minds of investors waiting for Microsoft's annual meeting for financial analysts on Thursday.

The arrival date for Vista, also top of mind for tech enthusiasts and the entire computing industry, may not get much clearer this week, however.

Officially, Microsoft said last week that it is sticking to its most recently announced schedule of shipping Vista to business customers at the end of this year and launching it for consumers and on new PCs in January.

Few, though, are taking Microsoft at its word.

"Our estimates have already assumed a delay in the Vista launch to March or April," Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund said in a research note Friday. Market researcher Gartner said in May that the full launch of Vista could be pushed back until the second quarter of next year.

Even Chairman Bill Gates, during a recent swing through South Africa, pegged the chances of a January launch at only 80 percent.

The big concern is that Vista, though it has all its features in place, is still not ready for prime time. The company has gotten credit from enthusiasts for some changes made in an interim test build released earlier this month. But concerns linger, including whether there will be enough third-party drivers and how stable the operating system will be.

There has also been concern over a new feature known as user account control, which enables more users to run in standard mode rather than as administrators. But people both inside and outside the company have complained that users are too often prompted for administrator credentials.

Even as it is publicly sticking to its schedule, Redmond is also stressing that a further delay would not amount to a financial disaster.

"If we were to see a slip, let's say, of a quarter, to give you a financial magnitude, we think that would have an impact of around $200 (million) to $400 million," CFO Chris Liddell said during a conference call with analysts. "So obviously, (it's) revenue that we'd like to see but not significant in an overall way."

There are similar, though less intense, concerns around Office 2007. Office, like Vista, was originally set to ship in time for this holiday season.

The company delayed Office back in March, the same week it pushed back Vista. At the time, the company said Office development was still on track and that the change in timing was a marketing decision. However, late last month, the company said it had encountered new performance concerns and would not finish development work until year-end, rather than in October, threatening a January launch as well.

Looming larger, from a financial perspective, are the added investments Microsoft plans to make in the current fiscal year to better compete against Google, among other things. Microsoft first outlined its spending plans in its April earnings report. At the time, though, Microsoft was cagey about where the extra billions of dollars were going.

Spending details
Last week, Liddell offered a bit more clarity, breaking down about $2.7 billion worth of added spending. Included in that is $450 million in product launch and marketing costs as Microsoft updates Windows and Office. Another $450 million is earmarked for growing its overall sales and marketing strength. And $500 million will go to online-services investments, including its AdCenter ad-serving tool, its search engine, Office Live, Live.com and its CRM Live service.

A further $1 billion is for development of "high-growth products, and new products and services,"--an umbrella for all kinds of new ventures. That leaves about $300 million in general corporate spending and potential acquisitions, Liddell said.

One of the usual questions that is likely to be less pressing this year is what Microsoft plans to do with all its cash. The company answered that for the short term, it will be used toward last week's announcement of a $40 billion stock buyback plan, which included an almost immediate plan to reacquire $20 billion through a tender offer, and a separate plan to buy another $20 billion over several years.

However, investors will certainly be looking for more detail on where all of those investment dollars are going--and more importantly, when some of these investments might pay off.

Microsoft has been investing in its emerging businesses--things like software for televisions, cell phones and midsize businesses--for years. And yet Office and Windows still account for the vast majority of the company's profits.

There is concern that continued investment won't help Microsoft's share price, which has not grown for years. In a report last week, Credit Suisse analyst Jason Maynard said Wall Street is likely to put continued pressure on the company's stock price, relative to its earnings, "until there are signs that the company can generate an adequate return on its emerging businesses."

And profits are not likely to grow with all of that investment. "With the company's business model in transition, we expect little improvement in margins in the coming years," Maynard wrote.