March 21, 2006 3:01 PM PST

Vista debut hits a delay

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Microsoft on Tuesday announced a delay of Windows Vista that will mean PCs with the new operating system won't go on sale until January.

The software maker said it will still wrap up development of the operating system this year and make it available to volume-licensing customers in November. However, Microsoft said a delay of a few weeks in Vista's schedule meant that some PC makers would be able to launch this year and others would not. As a result, Windows chief Jim Allchin said the company is delaying the broad launch of the product until January.

Listen up

During a Tuesday conference call, Windows chief Jim Allchin speaks to reporters and analysts about the Vista delay.

Download mp3 (3.7MB)

"We needed just a few more weeks, and that put us in a bubble...where some partners would be impacted more than others," Allchin said during a Tuesday afternoon conference call with reporters and analysts.

The delay is the latest setback for Vista. Microsoft scaled back several key features of the operating system last year in order to try to ensure a 2006 release. The operating system, which has been in development for years, was delayed by, among other things, the fact that Microsoft had to put so much time and testing effort into Windows XP Service Pack 2, a largely security-oriented upgrade to the current version of Windows.

Vista's changing vista

Tuesday's delay in the release of Vista wasn't supposed to happen. In 2004 Microsoft specifically removed a key ingredient, called WinFS, from the new operating system so that it could assure PC makers of delivery of the OS for the crucial holiday selling season. Here are quotes on Vista's schedule from two top Microsoft executives:

Allchin said that although PC makers were not universal in wanting the delay, there were concerns from some companies that they could not ensure a holiday quarter launch if Microsoft pushed back its development schedule even slightly.

Analysts have been warning that Microsoft's schedule left little room for error if it was to make a fourth-quarter launch.

As recently as January, Allchin expressed confidence that Microsoft would make its deadline, although he reiterated his caveat that quality issues could lead to a postponement.

The delay would likely hurt retail PC vendors the most, said Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis at NPD Techworld. Dell, which sells most of its PCs directly, could probably handle a delay of a few weeks without too much trouble. Hewlett-Packard and Gateway, on the other hand, have to have their PCs ready for retail partners weeks ahead of when they will actually go on sale, and can't change gears as quickly, he said.

"It scares you," Baker said, when asked about the impact of the delay on fourth-quarter PC sales. The PC industry's largest quarter of the year always comes around the holiday shopping season, and expectations were high for that period this year, given the expected introduction of the new operating system.

Microsoft does not expect the move to affect this year's overall PC sales, Allchin said.

"There's no (change) to the PC forecast from our perspective," he said. "You can ask the partners what they think."

Allchin also said the product will still launch in the same earnings period for Microsoft, whose fiscal year runs from July to June. That means Microsoft's overall business for next year shouldn't be affected, he said.

Tweaks in the works
Allchin said some of the additional time would be used to ensure security levels, and the company is also working on ironing out usability issues.

"We're trying to crank up the security level higher than ever," Allchin said. "This came down to a few weeks. We're trying to do the responsible thing here."

FAQ
Windows Vista
Getting a handle on the update.

Microsoft released its most recent test version of Vista in February. Late that month, the company also announced plans for six distinct editions of the operating system.

Allchin said Tuesday that Microsoft still plans next quarter to launch a broader test version of Vista, with the new version to be tested by about 2 million people.

Microsoft had hoped to have a massive marketing push around Vista and Office 2007, which is slated for the second half of this year. It is not immediately clear how the delay will affect those plans.

Allchin, whose official title is co-president of Microsoft's platform, products and services division, is slated to retire later this year.

CNET News.com's Tom Krazit contributed to this report.

See more CNET content tagged:
Jim Allchin, delay, PC company, Microsoft Longhorn, holiday

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