by Shane O'Neill

Microsoft Tied Its Own Hands with ‘Vista Capable’ Fiasco

Nov 21, 20084 mins
Data Center

I suppose if Microsoft could turn back time, it would not have allowed Intel’s 915 graphics chipset to qualify for its “Vista Capable” marketing campaign given all the trouble it caused them during the early days of Vista and is causing them now in a class-action lawsuit.

Internal e-mails from 2005-2006 are now showing that many executives at the software giant were vehemently against relaxing the Vista Capable rules to accommodate Intel’s entry-level 915 graphics chips. Enough high-level people opposed it that it’s amazing it happened.

Loosening up the requirements for the program, created to promote PCs in 2006 as capable of running Windows Vista when it shipped months later, allowed older Intel 915 graphics chips to qualify as Vista-ready even though the 915’s did not meet the requirements of WDDM (Windows Device Driver Model), which was a prerequisite for the original Vista Capable program, and could not run Vista’s new graphics interface, Aero.

Because of this, the lawsuit claims, Microsoft deceived customers by promoting slower, cheaper PCs as able to run Vista when the company allegedly knew that the machines would handle only Vista Home Basic, the least expensive version.

Internal Microsoft e-mails show a conflicted company struggling with the knowledge that by appeasing an important partner, it was misleading customers.

That the man in charge of Vista’s development at the time—Jim Allchin—was one of the most exasperated about the change to Vista Capable’s rules says a lot.

In a Feb. 1, 2006 e-mail to CEO Steve Ballmer, Allchin wrote: “I am beyond being upset here. This was totally mismanaged by Intel and Microsoft. What a mess. Now we have an upset partner, Microsoft destroyed credibility, as well as my own credibility shot.”

The partner that Allchin refers to is Hewlett-Packard. HP was rip-roaring mad about the relaxed Vista Capable rules because it had invested $7 million on technologies to suit the original Vista Capable program, including building two new motherboards. An HP executive fired off e-mails to Allchin and Microsoft COO Kevin Johnson saying that Microsoft’s credibility at HP had been “severely damaged” because it had “change[d] the rules at the last minute” without notifying HP.

It makes more sense now when I hear people complaining about how their HP printers don’t work with Vista.

I kind of feel for Allchin here. If the man in charge of Vista didn’t want the rules to change, and they got changed, one can conclude that the decision to give Intel what it wanted with its 915 graphics chips was made at the highest level.

Yet Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has denied having any “unique involvement in any decisions regarding the Windows Vista Capable program” and has said that responsibility belonged to Will Poole, then in charge of the client version of Windows. The plaintiff’s lawyers are now trying to force Ballmer to testify.

Based on the disclosed e-mails, Poole made the final decision to relax the WDDM requirement for the Vista Capable program despite protest e-mails from Allchin and others including: Mark Croft, Director of Windows Marketing; Mike Ybarra, a Director of Product Management; Michael Wallent, a General Manager in the Windows Client Group; and Bob Aoki, a Microsoft General Manager.

How did Poole pull this off? Wasn’t Allchin above him? This seems too important to be an under the radar type decision. It’s easier now to understand why Allchin left Microsoft about 30 seconds after Vista shipped.

Saying “my hands are tied” is the most common excuse of the modern era for not doing the right thing. Sometimes it’s the truth: you couldn’t do anything about it—forcing the issue would get you in trouble or cost you your job. Not everybody is cut out for whistle-blowing.

Yet too many people in powerful positions at Microsoft saw the dangers of relaxing the Vista Capable rules, and it still happened. From where I stand, they tied their own hands on this one.

What do you think?