The “Windows Vista Capable” Files: How Did Microsoft Not Avoid This Train Wreck?

vistacapableIf you compiled a list of Things Microsoft Utterly Botched With the Windows Vista Launch, it would be interminable. The top five would surely include its Windows Vista Capable program, which let manufacturers slap a sticker which seemed to tout Vista compatability on basic PCs which weren’t even capable of running the Aero interface, the upgrade’s signature feature. By doing so, it helped PC companies move some boxes during the months before Vista finally shipped. But it was a Faustian move that guaranteed that a lot of new PC buyers would be disgruntled with Vista from the moment they installed it.

It was also no shocker that Windows Vista Capable spurred a class action lawsuit against Microsoft on behalf of people who bought computers that bore the sticker. I’m instinctively inclined to be skeptical about class action suits, but Microsoft brought this one on itself, as surely as Wile E. Coyote deserves to be crushed by a boulder when he catapults it into the air. And the documents that are being released as a result make for fascinating reading.

My old friend and colleague Stuart Johnston has a good piece at Internet News on internal communications at Microsoft and HP that makes clear that some people in and around Microsoft understood that Windows Vista Capable was an inherently lousy idea. Among other things, by dumbing down the requirements for a PC getting bragging rights to Vista compatibility, Microsoft left companies that were trying to build good Vista machines feel like they were wasting their time.

Until I sat down to write this post, I’d forgotten just how clear it was from the start that the Vista Capable program was a train wreck in the making: When I Googled for “windows vista capable,” the first result I got that wasn’t at Microsoft’s site was a blog post I wrote on April 1st 2006, weeks before the first Vista Capable PCs shipped and nine months before Vista itself reached consumers. It reported that folks were already confused by the label and that it seemed to be applicable to PCs that couldn’t run Vista well. My item was one of many published at the time–just about everybody could tell the emperor had no clothes, it seems, except for the emperor himself.

All of this inevitably leads to thoughts of the upcoming Windows 7 launch. Once again, Microsoft will need to come up with a system to help people figure out whether the PCs they buy before the OS is available will be up to the job of running it. One hopes that it’s a given that the company will err on the side of conservatism this time around; it’s also true that hardware requirements should be less of a big hairy deal this time around, since Win7 is essentially a gussied-up version of Vista. Can we all agree right now that no computer should get any sort of Windows 7 compatibility sticker unless it’s ready to run all the OS’s features, and run them well?


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