Hurd's the word in Ballmer's e-mail nightmares

A letter from HP CEO Mark Hurd to Steve Ballmer after the release of Vista gives observers a sense of how miserable life became thereafter at HP -- plus that delicious feeling of snooping into someone else's cranky e-mail.

A court document filed last month in the class-action suit pitting Microsoft against disgruntled buyers of "Vista Capable" machines seeks to require a deposition from CEO Steve Ballmer. The plaintiff's motion states that "Mr. Ballmer's deposition is vitally important to this litigation" -- three hours max, at Microsoft or off campus, during the workday or on the weekend, whatever it takes.

Why so eager, when Ballmer has already said he doesn't know anything but what he was told about birthing Vista? Because, according to the filing, it's essentially impossible that he didn't know, not only because he was CEO of a company undertaking the largest software release in history, but because plenty of people were trying to tell him what was up.

As first detailed in a report by TechFlash's Todd Bishop, Ron Boire, an executive vice president at Best Buy, sought a face-to-face meeting to have words about the Express Upgrade program in 2006. After the 2007 launch, HP CEO Mark Hurd e-mailed Ballmer to complain about HP's "call lines being overrun" with consumers angry over problems with the upgrade process. Hurd pointedly said "I'm sure you're aware of this," and a later memo from Ballmer to others at Microsoft indicated that he followed up with Hurd on the matter (though there's no e-mail trail).

At one point, industry analyst Rob Enderle reached out repeatedly to Ballmer with concerns that Dell allegedly had concerning Vista Capable, but about which the company was "reticent to confront Microsoft directly," as the plantiff's motion puts it.

The heart of the document describes the known parameters of a crucial phone call between Ballmer and Intel CEO and "#1 sales person" Paul Otellini on January 30, 2006. That's also the day on which Microsoft dropped the WDDM (Windows Display Driver Model) requirement for Vista Capable certification -- the graphic driver architecture on which Desktop Windows Manager relies. (The requirement was reinstated exactly one year later.) Microsoft refers to the chat as "a courtesy call," but information from Intel indicates that Otellini had been planning out the call for at least a week. Why? What was said? That's what the plaintiffs would like to know, and that's what they mean to ask about if Judge Marsha J. Pechman rules that Ballmer must sit for deposition.

And if Ballmer continues to assert that the Vista Capable suit has nothing to do with him, well, the plaintiffs would say that's news too.

"Mr. Ballmer's declaration, together with some documents Microsoft has produced, reveal a CEO trying to distance himself from decisions on the Vista Capable program," reads the plaintiffs' motion. "However, the document trail shows Mr. Ballmer was directly involved. If Microsoft's position now is that he was not involved at all -- or was involved only at a meaningless, irrelevant, 'very general level'...plaintiffs still should be entitled to explore this remarkable position. Putting aside issues of credibility...his desire to avoid taking responsibility in and of itself is telling."

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