Is Microsoft's delay in releasing Windows Vista good news for Apple?

This column appears in the June 06 issue of PC Advisor, available now.

Microsoft's decision to delay the launch of the consumer versions of its Windows Vista OS (operating system) until early 2007 could encourage people to buy Macs instead, analysts reckon.

"This gives Apple the biggest competitive advantage it's had in history over Microsoft," veteran technology consultant Rob Enderle, founder of the Enderle Group, said of the delay announced by Jim Allchin, co-president of Microsoft's platform and services division.

Last month Allchin told a hastily convened teleconference that Microsoft would release volume-licensed versions of Vista by the end of the year, as previously announced, but said consumer versions, including those preloaded on PCs, would not be available until January 2007.

The Microsoft executive said his company wasn't worried about competition from Apple, but Enderle said it may well be underestimating its rival's potential – especially since Apple is expected to introduce some appealing products in time for the Christmas season.

"I don't think anybody over there [at Microsoft] is really taking the Apple stuff seriously," Enderle said. "And that's a mistake."

IDC analyst Bob O'Donnell agreed that a Vista-less festive season would benefit Apple. But he added: "You have to keep it all in perspective. Even if Apple gains a full percentage point of market share because of this, that still only moves it to a market share of three-and-a-half, four-and-a-half percent."

Vista for non-existent buyers

Both Enderle and O'Donnell have noted the irony of Microsoft making Vista available in late 2006 to volume-licensing customers, since these are typically large corporations that may not migrate to Vista until 2007 or 2008 anyway. Corporate IT departments wouldn't have budgeted for a 2006 deployment, Enderle said.

O'Donnell speculated that announcing the volume-licence availability in 2006 was a face-saving ploy that allowed Microsoft to say it was meeting its earlier commitments to deliver Vista by the end of 2006.

But Christmas is by far the biggest technology-buying time of the year for consumers, and O'Donnell thinks Vista's delay is bad news for PC vendors who were counting on the OS to boost sales. "It will have to do something – maybe a free coupon for an upgrade to Vista or something like that – to lessen the blow," he said.

Major vendors had no comment on Microsoft's plans, or on the impact Vista's delay would have on them. "We don’t speculate on financial performance," Dell spokesperson Tom Kehoe explained. "As a company we remain ready to ship Vista when it's available, and are excited to do so."

HP spokesperson Melissa Stone said the firm does not disclose details about unannounced products or the terms of its partner agreements. "HP still plans to support Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista OS across the company's consumer and business product lines," she said.

According to Allchin, Microsoft decided to delay the release of consumer versions of Vista to meet industry demands for a firm product roadmap and to keep the playing field level for all of its PC manufacturing customers – but he did not elaborate.

Enderle believes Microsoft could have made the consumer versions of Vista available to direct-market vendors, such as Dell, in late 2006, but that it decided not to do so.

This would have given Dell an advantage over competitors such as HP, which need more time to get Vista PCs into retail stores.

Office into 2007

The Vista delay will affect the next version of Office as well. Microsoft has said it will put off the consumer release of Office 2007 to bring it in line with the latest schedule for Vista.

Office 2007 will be available to business customers through Microsoft's volume-licensing programme by the end of 2006 but won't be sold to consumers until January 2007.

A spokeswoman for Microsoft PR firm Waggener Edstrom called the change a "business decision", and said the development of the software will be completed on schedule before the end of the year.

Microsoft plans to release two business editions of Office 2007: Professional Plus and Enterprise. These and the OEM edition, Basic 2007, will be available to business customers through Microsoft's volume-licensing programme before the end of 2006. Consumer versions – Home and Student 2007, Professional 2007, Small Business 2007 and Standard 2007 – will be sold on retail shelves and via consumer channels starting in January 2007.