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Microsoft struggles with Vista's perceptions

Software maker says it has made progress on Vista's performance and compatibility. But it still faces an uphill battle to win over consumers.

In the 15 months since Windows Vista had its mainstream launch, Microsoft says it's made progress on a number of key metrics: things like application compatibility, availability of drivers, performance, reliability, and battery life.

But there is one area where the company has struggled to gain ground: how Vista is perceived.

"There's certainly a perceptual gap there," Mike Nash, a Microsoft corporate vice president, said in an interview Thursday. He pointed to Microsoft research that shows that 86 percent of those actually using Vista would recommend it to a friend.

"The perception of Vista is a lot better for the people that have used Windows Vista than (for) the ones who haven't," Nash said. "At some level, a little seeing is believing."

Microsoft has been trying different ways to promote Windows Vista, including a special pink edition in Japan that combines Vista Home Premium with Windows Live OneCare.

In terms of absolute sales, Vista has done well. More than 140 million computers have been sold with the operating system. But looking at that figure alone ignores the continued lackluster response that Vista gets from media and analysts, as well as the continued demand from businesses for the operating system's predecessor, Windows XP.

Microsoft is going on the PR offensive this week, with Nash trying to make the case to the press that Vista is getting a bad rap.

Top executives have conceded that compatibility was not where it needed to be at Vista's launch. But Nash says things have really changed in the ensuing months.

The company tries to track what the odds are that an XP user will find that all the hardware and software they use today will work with Vista.

Currently, it's above 90 percent, Nash said, excluding truly old devices like TWAIN scanners and devices that connect to outdated ports. He notes that 99 of the 100 top-selling applications work with Vista.

That number, though, can be deceiving. Although the latest versions of most programs work with Vista, many consumers and small businesses use older versions of programs. That adds to the cost of switching to Vista.

Nash resists the notion that the answer is providing another extension for computer makers to keep selling Windows XP. Microsoft already extended the deadline for large computer makers once, allowing sales through June 30, as opposed to ending them this past January. The software maker also granted a more narrow extension, allowing XP to be used on ultralow-cost computers through 2010.

Microsoft says XP plan "is the right plan"
Nash maintains that the users who really still need XP--businesses--have ways to get the operating system, while it's time for the rest of the ecosystem to move forward.

While some would argue that the fact that computer makers are "pre-downgrading" Vista machines to Windows XP should prompt Microsoft to grant another extension, Nash said the downgrade option is sufficient to address what Microsoft sees in the marketplace.

"We feel that our plan is the right plan," Nash said. Enterprises with volume license contracts can continue putting XP on machines, while small businesses can buy Vista Business or Ultimate, and have either their computer maker or service provider downgrade them to XP, until they are ready to move to Vista.

"I don't think it's a convoluted process," Nash said. "We want to make sure that customers can get what they need."

As for business adoption, Nash said things with Vista are fairly similar to what has been seen with past releases, as large enterprises take time to make sure that their applications are compatible.

"I don't think this is a different phenomenon than what we have seen in the past," Nash said, adding that it is the case that enterprises are more complex than they were when XP debuted in 2001.

Tom Norton, who works in Hewlett-Packard's consulting unit, said it remains the early days for businesses, when it comes to Vista.

Companies moving to Vista are typically doing so as part of a coordinated plan to reduce the annual cost of supporting their desktop PCs. Vista alone is often not enough to drive the cost savings, but businesses are finding that by combining Vista with better management tools, they can shave $80 or even $120 off the $300 or so they spend per year to support each PC.

At the same time, Norton said some challenges are limiting adoption, including the view that upgrading to Vista is more work, as well as the actual hardware costs that many businesses face in trying to move to the more demanding operating system.

With, XP, Norton said companies felt that they had less upfront work to do to make the transition and less anxiety about whether line-of-business applications would work smoothly.

"In some cases, we are finding that it is just an anxiety, as opposed to a reality," he said.