Microsoft, Not Intel, Scrapped Vista Capable Hardware Requirements

Court documents unsealed last Thursday by Judge Marsha Pechman in the class-action suit over Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's Vista Capable stickers add some new details and famous names to the explosive, inside-baseball narrative of a marketing campaign gone terribly wrong. Pechman also unsealedhundreds of internal Microsoft e-mails this past February.

The plaintiffs' lawsuit, begun more than 15 months ago, contends that Microsoft in 2006 deceptively labeled PCs that could not run the full array of Windows Vista graphics features as "capable" of running the operating system ahead of its launch in January 2007. The plaintiffs' major claim is that Microsoft misrepresented Windows Vista Basic, a barebones version of the OS that lacks the Aero Glass graphic interface (GI) arguably marketed by Microsoft and its OEM, system builder and retail partners as a fundamental part of Vista.

They argue that Vista without Aero Glass and other features is not Vista at all, and furthermore, that the labeling of PCs that could not run the GI as "Vista Capable" caused the inflation of the prices of such systems to the detriment of consumers.

Microsoft's argument has been that older hardware—such as Intel's 915 graphics chipset, which is at the center of the storm—may lack the Windows Device Driver Model (WDDM) support required to run Aero Glass and other new features, but that the software giant "never told anyone that every computer qualifying as 'Windows Vista Capable' would run those enhanced features."

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The case is set to go to trial in April.

The new evidence sheds a good deal of light on exchanges between Microsoft and Intel just prior to the announcement on Jan. 31, 2006, that the WDDM requirement was being dropped from PCs getting a Vista Capable logo starting April 1, 2006. Notably, the plaintiffs' motion reveals that Intel CEO Paul Otellini "did send a note to [Microsoft CEO] Steve [Ballmer] thanking him for listening and making these changes," according to an e-mail sent to then-Microsoft senior vice president Will Poole by Intel Vice President Renee James, general manager of the chip maker's Software and Services Group.

The correspondence between James and Poole, detailed in both the plaintiff's Sept. 25 motion and Microsoft's Oct. 3 answer, is especially instructive in deducing how Microsoft decided to drop its core requirement for WDDM support on graphics chipsets it would label as "Vista Capable" via stickers on finished desktop and notebook PCs. The assumed answer to that question, bolstered by commentary by various Microsoft executives revealed in the earlier batch of e-mails, has been that Microsoft "caved" to Intel, which supposedly wanted its 915 chipset included in the Vista Capable campaign from the start.

But the latest evidence suggests that it was Microsoft, led by Poole, which initiated that change all on its own—and that, in fact, Intel may never have asked that the WDDM requirement be dropped at all.

Intel, it seems, was pushing Microsoft to delay the beginning of the entire Vista Capable logo campaign from April 1, 2006, back to June 1, 2006—the "date we thought we had agreed," according to James' Jan. 20, 2006, e-mail to Poole. Intel, James writes, was not happy at all about the new stickering date:

We believe this will cause material business issues and would ask again that we relax the retailers back to June.

A few days later, James again e-mailed Poole with Intel's concerns about its hardware's inadequacy for running Vista, also introducing the concept of an "Osborne Effect," described in the plaintiffs' motion as "[t]he phenomenon of consumer purchase delays awaiting the release of products incorporating new technology." Otellini, James wrote to Poole, was concerned about "the Osborne potential" of launching Vista before enough hardware in the market was ready to handle the new OS.

At this point, just days before Microsoft would remove the WDDM requirement for Vista Capable logos, Intel was still operating under the assumption that its 915 mobile chipset, also known by its former code name Alviso, would never be rated for Vista in any way, shape or form.

But Microsoft, which had indeed originally scheduled a "Marketing Start date" for June 1, 2006, had also green-lighted "Capable PC availability" in stores for May 1, 2006. The software giant then bumped the first shelving date up to April 1, 2006, based on pressure from some retail and OEM partners, which were concerned about "the timing of retail sorting decisions for Spring refresh and the subsequent lead time back in OEM factories."

Microsoft seemingly had two options—either ignore Intel's request for a later start to the Vista campaign or push back the date to the detriment of some retail and OEM partners. Instead, the software giant devised a third option, dropping the WDDM requirement for its second-tier, Vista Capable logo initiative.

The new development clearly surprised Intel, as evidenced by James' reply to Poole's Jan. 30, 2006 e-mail informing her that "915 systems absolutely WILL be able to run Windows Vista":

Another comment...after re-reading. We are seriously confused. We believed that 915 is NOT vista ready as it will never have WDDM drivers. We believed your Vista ready requirements doc said it had to be WDDM drivers to qualify for the program sticker. It is Grantsdale/Alviso in mobile. Are you saying these parts qualify for Vista Ready logo?

Not Vista Ready, but Vista Capable. Microsoft announced the next day that WDDM support was no longer necessary for a Vista Capable logo. James, in her e-mail informing Poole that Otellini had personally thanked Ballmer for "making these changes," added, "(I know you did it.)"

After hearing from Poole about the changes, James wrote to her Intel colleagues, including Otellini, in what is the e-mail version of a happy dance:

It feels good to win one -- and this was a big one.

James' acknowledgement of Poole's role in getting the WDDM requirement dropped is actually backed up by Microsoft's own Oct. 3 motion. That filing is principally Microsoft's argument against the plaintiffs' request that Ballmer give deposition testimony concerned the phone call with Otellini.

But it also reads as the positioning of Poole, and to a lesser extent Poole's former boss, James Allchin, as the fall guys for the Vista Capable debacle.

In one extraordinary passage (pgs. 12-13), Poole is referred to as the person "who made the decisions" to "relax the Windows Vista Capable requirements" no less than three times in consecutive sentences. An e-mail attributed to Ballmer has the Microsoft CEO telling Allchin that he "better get [Will Poole] under control" after Hewlett-Packard executive Greg Taylor complained vociferously to Microsoft about the lowering of the Vista Capable standards, because HP had invested $6.8 million to get its PC lineup ready for the new OS with WDDM-supporting hardware from Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia.

Poole and Allchin are no longer with Microsoft. Poole was recently named co-chairman at Redwood City, Calif.-based thin client developer NComputing. Allchin, who in some e-mail correspondence appears deeply opposed to lowering Vista Capable standards, resigned from Microsoft following the official launch of Windows Vista on Jan. 30, 2007.