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Was Best Buy To Blame For Vista Capable?

While everyone's pointing fingers at Intel, it's worth noting that Best Buy's approval of Microsoft's 'two-tier' marketing plan got the ball rolling.

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But if we learn anything from slogging through the 158 pages of electronic discovery, it's that Best Buy, not Intel, was apparently a prime driver of Microsoft's decision to stamp many more computers with the Vista brand than it had originally planned.

And really, how much of this can honestly be laid at the feet of the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant? Sure, Microsoft executives said things like, "We are caving to Intel," and "We are allowing Intel to milk [the] 915." And Microsoft's Will Poole, senior VP of Windows Client Business, does describe an alleged desire from Intel to loosen the WDDM graphics requirement for Vista Capable systems, in detailing his contacts with Intel counterpart Renee J. James, VP of the chip maker's Software and Solutions Group.

Dumping the WDDM requirement meant Vista Capable systems wouldn't be able to run Aero Glass, the heavily promoted new graphic user interface that provides what Microsoft called "the full Vista experience." Intel still had WDDM-incapable 915 chipsets to sell, so it's natural that it wouldn't want those boards locked out of the Vista branding campaign.

But all of this happened well after Best Buy apparently gave the thumbs up to a confusing, two-tier marketing plan that seems to have been cooked up by a small group of Microsoft executives -- Vista product manager Shanen Boettcher, marketing director Rajesh Srinivasan and quite possibly Will Poole.

In an e-mail dated Aug. 9, 2005, Srinivasan informs Boettcher that "Best Buy validates your two tier approach." Included in Srinivasan's two-tier plan is a chart listing hardware requirements for what he calls Vista "Capable" and "Ready" systems.

That chart apparently emerged from "a review with Best Buy today" that included the retailer's "VPs for PC business and strategy" -- quite likely attended on Microsoft's side by Will Poole.

The "Ready" systems in Srinivasan's chart are required to have a "GPU with WVDDM support." The "Capable" systems are not. Srinivasan recommends that a logo be placed on the Vista Ready systems but not on the Vista Capable systems. Later, both categories in the two-tiered Vista marketing campaign would get stamped with the Vista brand.

The Srinivasan-Boettchner exchange happened almost six months before Poole related the news that James "is pleased with the outcome" of Microsoft's decision to drop the WDDM requirement for Vista Capable, giving the 915 chipset a new lease on life. It's difficult to say how much Best Buy influenced the decision to go with the two-tier approach. But it was clear, at least to Srinivasan, that Best Buy liked the fact that "100% of PCs" would be associated with Vista, thanks to the creation of a "Vista Capable" category.

And it gets better. In an e-mail dated Aug. 10, 2005, Srinivasan tells Microsoft marketing director Mark Croft that it would be a good idea to delay the Vista marketing ramp-up to "May or June [2006], then use that as leverage with OEMs to put pressure on Intel to end of life by 915 by Oct 06, that is a big win for us."

Who was pressuring who again? Intel certainly isn't under any obligation to tailor its roadmap to meet Microsoft's marketing needs, or vice-versa.

The upshot of all this is that we don't really know who "pressured" Microsoft to engage in a marketing campaign that landed it in hot water. The unsealed discovery gives us unprecedented visibility into the whole Vista Capable debacle, but not 100 percent visibility. As more companies and documents are subpoenaed in this case, that may change.

At the end of the day, Microsoft may have botched Vista Capable all by itself.

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