Microsoft softened 'Vista Capable' requirements for Intel, e-mails indicate

Although its CEO claims no knowledge of the event, and other Microsoft execs raised opposition, Microsoft dropped a key requirement for "Vista Capable" PCs at Intel's request in 2006, according to e-mails now unsealed by a federal judge.

In a lawsuit charging deceptive marketing around Windows Vista, a chain of e-mails now unsealed by a federal court judge suggests that, under pressure from Intel, Microsoft relaxed its standards for "Vista Capable" PCs, enraging its partner Hewlett-Packard. Meanwhile, Microsoft has sought to excuse company CEO Steve Ballmer from testifying in the case.

The e-mails suggest that, to avoid losing hundreds of millions of dollars or more in business to AMD, Intel officials might have leaned on both Microsoft and HP in January of 2006 to drop the requirement for PCs designated as Vista Capable to support the Windows Device Driver Model (WDDM) -- which during Vista's development period had gone by the name Longhorn Device Driver Model (LDDM) and which is still sometimes called WVDDM outside of Microsoft, to account for Vista.

A court filing on behalf of plaintiffs Dianne L. Kelley, et al, claims that "the documents demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt the reasons why Microsoft temporarily dropped the WDDM (Windows Device Driver Model) requirement: (1) to help itself by nearly doubling the number of PCs that would qualify for the Vista Capable designation, and (2) to help Intel sell millions of chipsets by calling them 'Vista Capable' even though they could never support WDDM."

The e-mails support the premise that in December 2005, Microsoft still envisioned a qualification program of at least two tiers (at one time, it considered three), which distinguished between "Vista Capable" (meaning, capable of running Vista Home Basic, which didn't use the Aero user interface enhancements), and "Vista Ready" or "Vista Premium Ready" (meaning, capable of running the Vista Premium SKU).

At the time, though, both PCs in both the Vista Premium and Vista Standard categories were supposed to support WDDM, even though three other Microsoft OEM partners -- Dell, Sony, and Fujitsu -- had each asked Microsoft for special consideration around this stipulation.

Although Microsoft rejected the requests of all three OEMs, the software maker then changed its mind at the end of January upon urging from Intel, after pushing up the start date from June 1 to April 1 for its branding initiative.

Intel had expressed concern to Microsoft that the Intel i915, still installed in large numbers of laptops, couldn't support WDDM -- the key requirement of being "Vista Ready," qualifying for the upper-tier logo.

"[CEO Paul Otellini] thinks you really don't understand that almost all of our mobile SKUs for the next 5 months are with Centrino and Alviso and therefore NEVER Vista ready - and Mobile is a huge portion of retail and growing," wrote Renee James, then VP of Intel's Microsoft Program Office, in a confidential e-mail on January 27 to Will Poole, then Microsoft's director of Windows desktop development.

Rajesh Srinivasan, another Microsoft exec, then estimated that Intel would lose about $600 million in April and May 2006 -- and possibly billions in all -- if Microsoft did not drop the WDDM requirement.

"Retailers are looking for 80+% of notebooks to be Vista Capable and [will] thus shift business to AMD. Intel will continue to see loss in market share due to this decision. Here is how their potential cost could get into billions," he wrote in an e-mail.

Apparently, Intel tried unsuccessfully to gain intervention with Microsoft through HP, a company that was infuriated over any change in requirements after having built two motherboards specifically to support Vista.

"You have bowed to pressure from a partner who would have been embarrassed in the April timeframe because their line-up was not completely compliant. That same partner called me Monday to enlist my help in applying pressure to you to get this decision made; what were they thinking?" wrote an HP exec.

"The decision you have made and communicated has taken away an investment we made consciously for competitive advantage knowing that some players would choose not to make the same level of investment as we did in supporting your program requirements," according to Richard Walker, an HP consumer exec.

"I can't be more clear than to say you not only let us down by reneging on your commitment to stand behind the WDDM requirement, you have demonstrated a complete lack of commitment to HP as a strategic partner and cost us a lot of money in the process."

E-mails from some Microsoft officials also indicated awareness that WDDM was needed for more than just support of Aero, which also went by the nickname "Glass" or "Aero Glass" during development.

"915 systems absolutely WILL be able to run Windows Vista. They will not run Glass. They will not get some other benefits that come with WDDM drivers that cannot be ported to them," according to Poole.

"Intel 915 and 915GM will also now qualify for 'Windows Vista Capable,' per the change in Windows Vista Capable marketing program last week. However, [they] will not support WDDM and will not offer any graphics stability or performance improvements over Windows XP, nor will they support any of the visual quality/productivity/style improvements over Windows XP. These also will not qualify for Designed for Windows Vista logos," said Srinivasan.

The e-mail chain also indicates, though, that not all Microsoft execs were at all in favor of dumping the WDDM proviso.

"I'm sorry to say that I think this plan is terrible and it will have to be changed. I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program. OEMs will say a machine is Capable and customers will believe it will run all the core Vista features," wrote Jim Allchin, who was then co-president of Microsoft.

"Now we have an upset partner, Microsoft destroyed credibility, as well as my own credibility shot," Allchin wrote later.

For his part, Ballmer denied any involvement with the WDDM decision, even then. "I had nothing to do with this," Ballmer wrote to Allchin and Kevin Johnson, the other co-president of Microsoft at the time. "I am not even in the detail of the issues."

Meanwhile, a court filing by Microsoft, issued on October 3 of this year, sought to get Ballmer excused from deposition testimony in the case.

"Mr. Ballmer has no unique personal knowledge of any facts at issue. He was not involved in the decisions with respect to the Windows Vista Capable program that Plaintiffs challenge; instead, he learned of those decisions only after the fact from subordinate Microsoft employees," according to Microsoft's filing.

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