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Windows' new saleswoman talks '7'

q&a Microsoft Vice President Tami Reller tells CNET News more about the new operating system, the growing role of Netbooks, and the intense war of words with Apple.

In some senses, Tami Reller has one of the toughest jobs in technology. She is tasked with selling Windows 7 in the wake of Windows Vista and amid a relentless assault from Cupertino in which the PC is depicted as slow, virus-ridden, and buggy.

Tami Reller Microsoft

In another sense, though, her job is getting a lot easier. After three years of trying to muddle through Vista, Microsoft is ready to release Windows 7--a product that, by most accounts, is much better than its predecessor.

A lot has changed since the launch of Vista, including nearly all of the faces at the top of the organizational chart inside of the Windows unit.

The most notable change is the ascension of Steven Sinofsky, who shifted from heading Office development to spearhead Windows 7. He now runs the entire Windows division. More recently, though, Reller was tapped to lead Windows marketing.

In an interview late last week, Reller shared her thoughts on the launch of Windows 7 and fielded some questions about how Microsoft is handling some thorny launch issues, such as the fact that Windows 7 is a less-than-simple upgrade from Windows XP.

Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Q: The Windows 7 launch is coming up on the 22nd. What do you guys have in store?
Reller: I would first start by saying that the market is ready. I mean, the market is ready for us to launch Windows 7, and we are ready to bring it to market. And I think the "we" includes not only all of us here across the company, but also our OEM partners (original equipment manufacturers) with which we've been working so closely, the retailers, both e-tailers and traditional retailers, which are ready to take this to market. So we are ready for October 22.

How has the relationship with computer makers evolved versus where it was with Vista?
Reller: The relationship, and how we've together engaged and brought Windows 7 to market, has changed. And it's changed in an incredibly productive and positive way. In fact, just yesterday, we had time with the Dell leadership team, and I think it's a very good example of just how, from the very start of the process, we had deep technical engagement, and we had deep business-planning engagement, setting collective goals and just being clear on what each other's priorities were.

We've seen a bunch of computer makers announce Windows 7 models. Are there more rabbits that will be pulled out of the hat, or have we seen the most exciting PCs we're going to see at launch?
Reller: You'll see a few more new PCs, for sure, in all categories, whether they're gaming machines, new notebooks, or new Netbooks.

What do you see as the key feature or selling point of Windows 7?
Reller: It's fascinating. Many of us have gotten into the habit of asking, "Hey, what's your favorite Windows 7 feature?" It's a good way to engage. The good news is, because we have 8 million enthusiasts, there's a good amount of people to ask. And everyone does have an opinion.

You've got the road warrior workers, which make up a good part of the enthusiast crowd. For them, wireless is big. For the power productivity worker, Snap is huge. (Snap is a feature that lets a user manage windows by dragging an open window to one corner. It then "snaps" to fill half the screen.) There are two features that are completely common, and that is just faster (booting) and faster resume (from sleep). It's like, hey, my PC is available when I need it. The second is just the clean (user interface).

And did you have one of the Windows 7 house parties?
Reller: Mine is happening after October 22nd, just based on when I can fit it in. But I'm attending some as well.

Just as an anecdote, I often have roundtables with about a dozen or so people across my team, and I've done this for a long time. And I had one the other day, and it was most of my finance folks, who aren't always the most outgoing group. That's not always what they're known for. It was fascinating, because instead of talking about this finance process or this number, all they wanted to do was talk about their launch parties.

What was the cleverest thing that one of them did?
Reller: OK, so this was my finance team. One built (a launch party) into sort of a fantasy football theme. That was creative. The other was sort of building a montage from a vacation that a bunch of them had taken together.

Shifting gears a bit, how does Microsoft plan to advertise Windows 7? What's the pitch? With Vista, it was The Wow Starts Now. How do you advertise Windows 7?
Reller: One is, letting the product speak for itself, and letting the customers do the talking, and building a community around all of that. And you'll see that common (theme) in our marketing holistically--you know, advertising being a piece of that.

Should we expect to hear more from Kylie, or probably hearing from other voices post-launch?
Reller: Kylie has been great. I mean, she's been a fabulous spokesperson that a lot of people resonate with. There will be more. There will be more voices.

Any celebrity Windows 7 endorsers beyond, I guess, The Family Guy?
Reller: It really is about our sort of real customers. I mean, that's how you should think about our focus. It does seem like this launch is a little more low-key than past--particularly Windows--launches...With Vista, there were acrobats on a billboard. There have been other stunts for other things.
Reller: I think there (are) two reasons. One is that we're living in a different world today. I mean, communication flow is much more instantaneous, and so we've really tried to think about how we communicate through the whole life cycle of Windows 7.

The second thing is, from the way that we plan the product to the way that we market to the product, to the way we sell the product, to the way we engage with our partners, it's been collaborative. It has been letting the product speak for itself. And we'll stay true to that on October 22, and we'll stay true to that post-October 22, which just results in sort of (fewer) acrobats and more customers.

How much attention are you personally giving to Netbooks, given that they've commanded so much of the market and account for so much of the growth in the market?
Reller: It's been a very interesting scenario to watch. What we've seen is that customers are thinking about how to use PCs in new ways, which I think has inspired a lot of creativity among all of us...I think that Netbooks have a purpose, and Netbooks have some limitations. I think that the screen size and the keyboard size are intriguing, but they may have less long-term use than I think some people initially think about.

That sounds like a nice way of saying what Michael Dell said more bluntly a few days ago--that basically, they're fun for the first 72 hours, and then people wish they had a PC. That does seem to be an issue, given that people are ascribing the experience they have with that Netbook to Windows.
Reller: I think that there are two important points. One is that Windows 7 will run brilliantly on a Netbook. No. 2, there are a lot of thin, high-value notebooks coming to market that will give people long battery life and performance, and be light. And so there will be a whole new class of notebooks, which will fill many of the demands that customers were looking for in the initial Netbooks.

After the launch on October 22, are we going to see Windows Vista anywhere other than sort of on the clearance rack?
Reller: I'll answer where I started, which is, the demand for Windows 7 is high, very high. We will see customers both upgrading and gravitating toward new PCs with Windows 7, no doubt.

You're relatively new to the Windows team. What lessons do you take away from Windows Vista? I've talked to a lot of the folks that have been in Windows a long time, and they've sort of shared what they've learned from the Vista "challenges."
Reller: I talked about the ecosystem a lot, and for a good reason. And I think that is such an important lens for us always to keep, as we plan a product release and as we take a product release to market: Our ecosystem needs to be involved from the start, and the readiness of our ecosystem, when we launch a product, is a huge priority. And we are ready. I mean, the ecosystem is ready, applications are compatible, devices are compatible, our OEMs are ready to sell...but machines that light up on Windows 7. So, that's a big, important front and center lesson.

The second thing I would say is that there's a convergence between what consumers use at home, what users use at home, and how they think about that deployment in their business, regardless of the business size. And so generally, end-user acceptance and enthusiasm for a product matter. And that's why we've put so much emphasis on the last year, in making sure that we had strong, strong engagement from users broadly across many demographics.

Do you think the fact that Vista wasn't terribly popular among consumers hurt it, in terms of what we've seen as its relatively low enterprise adoption, and conversely, that if Windows 7 gains enthusiasm among consumers, we might see businesses move to it more quickly?
Reller: Yes. We are confident that Windows 7 deployment in the enterprise will be helped by end-user enthusiasm for Windows 7 at home and at work. There's an absolute correlation.

Microsoft is opening two retail stores this month. What role do you think those stores are going to play in the launch of Windows 7 through the holidays?
Reller: It will showcase the strength of the ecosystem together with Windows 7, and it will allow this connection with customers, and we'll learn together with the partners.

Apple has said it sees Windows 7 as a chance to attack Microsoft and even gain share. I'm curious how you see things.
Reller: We think that the market is ready and very, very interested in Windows 7. And we are quite confident. The range of PC choice, the clean new user interface, and great media functionality make Windows 7 even more appealing to a wider range of customers. It's a great time to be a PC.

It seems as if the softest part, if you will, is the case for those on Windows XP. The fact is that, for most of those who want to move, it basically means getting a new computer. When I've talked with folks, the sense they get is, any time you get someone to buy a new computer, it's a chance to get them to switch platforms. I'm curious how you are thinking about what do you do for those XP users.
Reller: Our XP customers have great options. They will have the widest array of new PC choices at just about every price point and with whatever types of functionality they're looking for. So, (it's) sort of the best time ever for Windows XP customers to think about whether a new PC is the right answer for them. Frankly, part of October 22 is going to be all about some screaming deals, which will I think really resonate well with that audience.

And then for some XP customers, an upgrade is the right answer. And we have been laser-focused on making sure that experience, for them, is one where we provide them the tools and the answers and the capabilities in our channel to make that a good experience. They've got choice.

I'd be remiss if I didn't bring this up: One of the loudest pieces of feedback that I tend to get is from Vista Ultimate customers wondering, hey, with Vista Ultimate, we were promised sort of the best experience--all these extras we didn't get. And then you had limited-time offers on Home Premium and Pro, but there really wasn't any way for Vista Ultimate customers to stay at the same version on Windows 7.
Reller: A couple of things: One is that obviously, some of the launch party kits did reach a number of our enthusiasts and some of our strongest enthusiasts, who would have been Ultimate users. A number of our Ultimate customers did take advantage of the Pro offer. There will be some interesting deals from OEMs and through our retailers to come. So it's definitely our goal to make sure that our Ultimate, enthusiast customers find a great path to Windows 7.

What can people expect on the 22nd at retailers?
Reller: Two things. One is, they can expect retailers to be ready. They have the training, and they are well-equipped. It will be obvious that Windows 7 is here, so they can expect retailers to be ready. And the most important thing they can expect are great, great deals. This is where we've put a lot of coordination effort, to make sure that customers more than ever get some great, great value, starting on October 22 and continuing.

Do you know if any stores are planning to be open at midnight?
Reller: There are (stores planning to be open then).

I know when Vista launched, Bill Gates went on "The Daily Show." Any plans for any late-night TV appearances?
Reller: You'll certainly see a lot of coverage from us that day, but no commitments on the exact venue.