Microsoft E-mails Detail Internal Fight on 'Vista Capable'

Numerous Microsoft employees, including some top executives, urged their company to hold the line on the graphics requirements for the " Vista Capable " marketing campaign, both before and after the decision was made to loosen the rules, according to insider e-mails recently unsealed by a federal judge.

Relaxing the requirements for the program, which was designed to promote currently-available PCs as capable of running Windows Vista when it shipped months later, allowed the entry-level Intel 915 integrated graphics chipset to qualify, a move that pleased Intel but made another major partner, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), furious.

In the months leading up to the late-January 2006 decision to drop support for Windows Device Driver Model (WDDM) as a requirement for a Vista Capable PC, Microsoft employees lobbied hard to hold fast even as some computer makers started to complain. WDDM was Vista's revamped driver architecture.

In June 2005, for instance, Dell Inc. essentially asked for a waiver that would let it build and sell systems with graphics that did not support LDDM, but still sport the Vista Capable sticker. (LDDM, or Longhorn Device Driver Model, was the name for WDDM when the operating system was still code-named "Longhorn.")

Microsoft refused Dell's request. "We have discussed this with the graphics team. We will be holding the line on LDDM for Standard Logo," an unidentified Microsoft employee wrote in an e-mail explaining the waiver rejection. "LDDM is fundamental to stability and graphics is one of the primary contributors to OCA [online crash analysis]."

Another internal message around the same time expanded on why LDDM was important to Vista Capable. "Our data shows that customers are significantly impacted by the stability of the display drivers, and the LDDM architecture in LH [Longhorn] is explicitly designed to address that customer issue."

A third message spelled it out even plainer that the LDDM/WDDM requirement was where Microsoft would draw a line in the sand. "We NEED to hold the line here. LDDM = LOGO. no LDDM, no LOGO," the message read.

These e-mails, and others, were included in a motion unsealed last week in which the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman to rule that Microsoft's decision to change the Vista Capable requirements meets the definition of an "unfair or deceptive act or practice" under Washington state law. The motion quoted extensively from the documents and messages that the plaintiffs' attorneys have received from Microsoft during the discovery process, but it did not always attribute them to an individual. The plaintiffs have until next week to file the supporting documents, which will conceivably include the cited messages.

The plaintiffs' motion also noted that someone at Microsoft felt that Intel 's 915 chipset -- the focus of much of the discussion, even in 2005 -- "should not even be on the list of recommended hardware for Windows Vista" and lumped it with technology suitable for the older Windows XP, not the still-in-development Vista.

During a short span of less than two weeks in January 2006, Intel complained about a change in the Vista Capable program's launch date, saying that it wouldn't have enough higher-end chipsets available to sell to computer makers. Several days later, Will Poole , then responsible for the desktop version of Windows, told Intel that Microsoft had dropped the WDDM requirement, making the 915 chipset eligible.

Intel, of course, was pleased, with its liaison between the two firms wrote Poole to say, "thank you for your commitment to embrace 915."

But even in the days before the change was communicated to Intel, some at Microsoft said that the problem was Intel's mess to fix.

"Basically from Intel's point of view, the longer they sell non-glass [ "glass" was the term used at times internally for what would become known as Vista's Aero GUI -- Ed. ] capable integrated graphics, that is an outdated part that OEMs won't want to handle," said Bob Aoki, a Microsoft general manager, in a message to Poole. "Frankly, Intel should have thought of this 3 years ago."

The most vehement opponent of the relaxed requirement was Jim Allchin, who was in overall charge of Vista's development and delivery. In a Feb. 1, 2006, e-mail to his boss, CEO Steve Ballmer, Allchin said, "I am beyond being upset here. This was totally mismanaged by Intel and Microsoft. What a mess. Now we have an upset partner, Microsoft destroyed credibility, as well as my own credibility shot."

That "upset partner" was HP, which went ballistic when it heard Intel's 915 chipset could be used in Vista Capable PCs. Contrary to some of its competitors, HP had spent millions on developing new motherboards to qualify its low-priced computers under the original rules of the program.

Others in the company sounded almost as upset, and seemed to argue that the decision should be reversed. "This kind of shit drives me crazy, Chris," said Mike Ybarra, a director of product management. "We have pushed the UI [user interface] in Vista so hard in the last 18 months, and we get our OEMs to go with higher end chip sets and graphics parts on existing PCs to really drive the experience for consumers, and at the last minute, we cave to Intel and give 915 and other chip sets a back door into the programs."

Mark Croft, the director of Windows marketing, weighed in as well. "If we give on these then the Logo does not 'mean' anything," he said. "I think that pulling out WDDM is a bad decision for customers."

The plaintiffs' motion quoted snippets of other e-mails that it argued represent more feedback inside Microsoft advocating a 180-degree turn. "Regarding the 915 -- I really wish we hadn't capitulated on this," read one message. "A 915 system will never every [sic] run Aero -- saying it is 'Vista Capable' when this means 'aero' is just disingenuous."

This is the second wave of insider e-mails that have been made public during the 17-month-old case. Last February, Pechman unsealed several hundred messages that, among other things, described the problems that some top Microsoft officials had with Vista shortly after it was released and -- as in the newest disclosures -- revealed serious disagreements by some over the program.

In the class-action lawsuit , which is now set to go to trial in April, the plaintiffs claim that Microsoft deceived customers by certifying PCs as able to run Vista when it allegedly knew the machines were able only to handle the stripped-down Vista Basic. That version lacked the new, heavily-promoted Aero interface.

Microsoft has denied the charges, arguing that it offered consumers different versions of Vista and clearly spelled out the requirements of each.

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