Is Vista Capable? Maybe. Microsoft, not so much

The Vista Capable class-action law suit is the gift that keeps on giving.

In April 2007, two Seattle area consumers, ticked off at buying new machines labeled “Vista Capable” that were anything but, sued Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) for using deceptive “bait and switch” tactics in its marketing. It became a class-action suit last February.

Since then, Ballmer & Co. have done everything humanly possible to implicate themselves except lead the police on a high-speed chase while driving a white Bronco with US$10,000, a fake beard, and a shovel in the trunk.

The e-mails that have emerged as evidence have been damning.

Last February, we learned from internal Microsoft e-mails that the company’s own execs were teed off by Vista’s performance (or lack thereof). Former Windows czar Jim Allchin even worried that changing the labeling requirements would mislead consumers. (Microsoft mislead consumers? Next you’ll be telling me that Bill Gates hates churros.)

This week we heard from Hewlett-Packard, which invested beaucoup bucks in machines that could take advantage of the Aero Glass interface — the one feature of Vista even Microsoft’s critics agreed was mega-cool — to meet the standards for the “Vista Capable” label. And then Microsoft “relaxed” those standards, slapping that label on systems using an old Intel 915 graphics chip set that couldn’t possibly keep up, simply because Intel had a backlog of older chips it needed to move. You could see the steam coming off some of HP’s e-mails, as Computerworld’s Gregg Keizer notes:

“I hope this incident isn’t a foretaste of the relationship I will have with Microsoft going forward, but I can tell you that it’s left a very bad taste with me and my team,” Richard Walker, senior vice president at HP’s consumer PC unit, said in a Feb. 1, 2006, message to senior Microsoft executives.

The moral here: Don’t turn your back on Redmond, unless you want to be ****** in the ****.

(Kicked in the keister, of course. What did you think I meant?)

Now Ballmer may have to take the stand in his and Microsoft’s own defense. That ought to be rich.

So far, Ballmer has employed the Sergeant Schultz “I know nothink” defense. Attorneys for the litigants want to find out what Ballmer didn’t know and when he didn’t know it. Of particular interest is what Ballmer and Intel honcho Paul Otellini discussed in a phone call back in January 2006, when Intel was chomping at the bit to get Microsoft to change its labeling requirements.

Microsoft is doing everything it can to keep Ballmer out of the witness box, lest he pick up a chair and heave it across the courtroom. At the same time, its coven of highly paid attorneys are trying to drive a wooden stake into the heart of the suit, essentially arguing that a) people who bought Vista Home Edition machines should have known they would suck, despite the label hardware makers glued to the box; and b) Microsoft gained no market advantage by deceiving consumers changing its labeling requirements.

Like OJ, Microsoft might yet win the case — despite what the evidence suggests. When you can afford to hire Wolfram & Hart as your attorneys, you can fend off anything but the apocalypse. But in the minds of anyone who’s read those e-mails, they’ve already lost. And ultimately that’s the bigger battle.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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