Why the Vista-Capable Case Doesn't Matter

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A group of consumers is pleading its case that Microsoft's Vista-capable designation misled purchases of low-end machines. Those PCs ended up running only Vista Home Basic, not any of the more capable--and demanding--versions of the OS. But even if Microsoft loses--and the case appears to be a long way from that possibility--consumers and business customers probably won't see much of that sweet settlement cash.

Most recently, the presiding judge revoked the suit's class-action status, meaning that the individual plaintiffs couldn't pool complaints into one case. That action is currently being disputed, but if plaintiffs have to file individual claims, that creates a lot of work for attorneys relative to the possible benefit in a settlement.

And the specifics of the case further complicate the issue. Did customers who bought computers because they were advertised as Vista-capable not get any functionality from the purchase? How do you assign a value to that difference? Would each potential member of the class have had the same need for Vista and be entitled to the same recourse? (If not, that's a reason to reject class-action status.)

But let's assume a best-case scenario for your business; the class moves forward, and you're entitled to a piece of the settlement. How much would you actually see? I'm not a lawyer, so I called someone who is to get an attorney's take on what ordinary Microsoft customers might reasonably expect from a possible class-action settlement.

"Very often it looks like a class action settles for big bucks," notes Professor Richard Marcus of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. "The defendant has offered to put up x-million dollars, but there's a real question about how anybody gets any of that." Marcus explains that Microsoft would have to first identify and contact those applicable customers, which can be difficult. Then the specific forms and documentation might be too bothersome for individuals to return.

"Fairly often there are real debates about whether the customer gets any significant advantage from class actions," says Marcus. "It's certainly not good news for Microsoft, but it may not be good news for the customers either."

Zack Stern is a technology writer and editor based in San Francisco.

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