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Debunking Myths In Microsoft's Vista Capable Case

New reporting has opened fresh lines of inquiry about who was responsible for the botched marketing campaign, but unfortunately some falsehoods are being spread around as well.

Ars Technica Seattle Post-Intelligencer e-mail

It's odd, because the P-I performed the public service of publishing the unsealed discovery on its own Web site. It takes a bit of work, but the evidence is there for anybody to sift through before jumping to conclusions. At any rate, here are three major Vista Capable myths that need to be put to rest:

1. Microsoft is trying to blame other companies for its Vista problems. Some Web sites and blogs have stated or strongly implied that Microsoft is attempting to pin the blame for the Vista Capable campaign or problems with the operating system itself on companies like Nvidia, Intel, Best Buy and others. But what needs to be understood is that the unsealed electronic discovery in the Vista Capable suit was not released at Microsoft's behest. Rather, U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ordered those e-mails and charts to be unsealed.

So while we can see a lot of internal finger-pointing by Microsoft executives at other companies -- particularly Intel -- to date we have no evidence that Microsoft made any of those complaints public of its own volition. We get to see the blame-game that went on inside Microsoft because Judge Pechman unsealed the discovery, not because Microsoft intentionally threw its partners under the bus.

This distinction seems pretty simple, but some commentators don't seem to get it.

Take the Nvidia driver crash story. There is a chart in the unsealed discovery that lists Vista driver crashes by organization during some unspecified time period labeled "2007." Nvidia tops the list with nearly 29 percent of all driver crashes. Some Websites or their readers have twisted the reporting on this chart to state that Microsoft itself is attempting to blame Nvidia for user problems with the Vista OS.

But the chart is just data that Microsoft presumably collected and collated from driver crash reports sent in by Vista users. Unless Microsoft fudged the data somehow, for which there is absolutely no evidence, there is no reason to think there is any kind of "spin" or "blame" contained therein. It's just neutral data. And again, Judge Pechman, not Microsoft, released it to the public.

2. Intel "pressured" Microsoft to lower its hardware requirements for Vista. This may very well have happened, but the e-mail discovery just doesn't show it in any conclusive way. For starters, the basic structure of the two-tiered Vista marketing campaign was devised some six months before any mention of actual discussions on the Vista Capable designation between Intel and Microsoft representatives.

More importantly, what we do see of Microsoft's direct interactions with Intel on Vista Capable is what Microsoft's Will Poole, senior VP of Windows Client Business, reports to colleagues from his contacts with his Intel counterpart Renee J. James, VP of the chip maker's Software and Solutions Group. There's really no other way to describe Poole's reports on James' statements than "hearsay." Meanwhile, the most I can gather from Poole's description of James' (and presumably Intel's) attitude towards Microsoft's lowering of its hardware requirements for Vista Capable is that she was "pleased" by that change.

That's some pretty soft "pressure" if that's all we can find Intel saying, via hearsay no less, on the subject.

Which isn't to say that all the grumbling by Microsoft executives about Intel and its 915 chipset isn't worth reporting. Of course it is. Those executives clearly thought Microsoft was "caving to Intel" in lowering hardware requirements so that systems with the 915 chipset could get the Vista Capable logo. That's huge. But what does it mean? Honest reporting on the subject has to reflect that as of now, we just don't know whether Microsoft "caved" to Intel in the sense of blinking in a game of marketing "chicken" or if it was actually, demonstrably asked to do so by the chip maker.

As I stated in an earlier blog, Intel is under no obligation to tailor its roadmap to Microsoft's marketing needs. To elaborate on that point, Intel's sticking to its own plans vis-a-vis the 915 chipset can only be called "pressure" on Microsoft in the sense that the legal, self-interested behavior of companies you don't control is "pressure" on yours.

3. Best Buy "pressured" Microsoft. I was the one who raised this question, so I want to clarify some things in light of new reporting on the subject by Joel Hruska of Ars Technica. The first clarification is that the rules that apply to discussions of Intel, Nvidia drivers, etc. also apply to discussions of Best Buy's role in Vista Capable. The unsealed discovery raises questions but does not necessarily provide concrete answers. The work that I and others have done has led us to some reasonable conclusions about some things -- Microsoft executives were plenty ticked off at Intel, confusion reigned internally at Microsoft about Vista Capable, to name a few. But in other areas, the work we've done has simply opened up lines of inquiry that have yet to be resolved.

One such is the question of Best Buy's role in the creation of the two-tiered Vista marketing program. My take on that is here. The short version is that, per e-mails written by marketing director Rajesh Srinivasan on Aug. 9-10, 2005, the first iteration we see of what would become the Vista Capable campaign is closely associated with a meeting with Best Buy executives. That raises questions about whether Best Buy was the first outside company or among the first to sign off on Vista Capable's lowered hardware requirement -- or even whether it helped devise Vista Capable with Microsoft.

It should be noted, as Hruska is right to point out, that the WVDDM/WDDM requirement for Vista Capable systems wasn't officially dropped by Microsoft at the time of the Best Buy meeting in August, 2005. That happened considerably later, perhaps at the urging of several Microsoft partners. I would also re-iterate that Srinivasan originally did not want to put logos on Vista Capable systems, though later they were put on. It's not clear to me where the decision to logo Vista Capable systems originated.

Hruska and I agree on a great deal, but where I think he gets off track is in focusing on Intel's 915 chipset, which didn't have the WVDDM/WDDM support required to run Aero Glass, the slick new Vista GUI that Microsoft promotes as necessary for the "full Vista experience." Hruska writes:

But it's only "an Intel problem" if Intel was saying the chipset could do something that it couldn't. Or pressuring Microsoft to say that, which again, is tough to prove. The real "problem," in fact, is not whatever hardware couldn't load the "full Vista experience." The real problem is the confusing -- and allegedly deceptive -- marketing campaign that qualified laptops for Vista Ready despite their hardware deficiencies. The lawsuit isn't about a technology product that couldn't do something, it's about a marketing campaign that allegedly said the technology product could do something that it couldn't.

So in other words, if Steve and Brad decide to deceptively market Paul's toaster oven as a microwave, that's on Steve and Brad, not Paul.

It's a little more complicated than that, but not much. Paul may have some responsibility to make sure Steve and Brad are on the up-and-up when reselling his products. And we're not entirely sure how much Brad had to do with it, anyway. At the end of the day, the buck stops with Steve -- Hruska and I definitely agree on that.

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