Last-minute changes to Windows Vista broke drivers, forcing key hardware vendors to "limp out with issues" when the operating system launched last year, according to a presentation by Dell Inc. that was made public this week.
"Late OS code changes broke drivers and applications, forcing key commodities to miss launch or limp out with issues," said one slide in a Dell presentation dated March 25, 2007, about two months after Vista's launch at retail and availability on new PCs.
The criticism was just one of many under the heading "What did not go well?" Others ranged from knocks against Vista's Windows Anytime Upgrade scheme, an in-place upgrade option, to several slams on "Windows Vista Capable," the marketing program that targeted PC buyers shopping for machines in the months leading up to Vista's debut.
Dell's postmortem, in fact, was one of several after-launch appraisals included in the 158 pages of e-mails and other documents unsealed Wednesday in a class-action lawsuit over Vista Capable.
"Stronger messaging regarding hardware requirements (the bar was set too low when Aero was dropped as a requirement for Vista Capable)," Dell's presentation noted in another slide.
That response wouldn't have come as a surprise to Microsoft Corp. Dell had voiced its dissatisfaction with Microsoft's marketing plans a year and a half earlier. In August 2005, Gretchen Miller, Dell's director of mobile marketing -- responsible for the Texas company's laptop marketing -- gave feedback to Microsoft on its Vista programs.
"[The dual logo] adds another level of complexity to an already complex story, which in turn will create confusion for our customers, both corporate and consumer," said Miller in an e-mail. Although Dell advised Microsoft to scale back the logos, the software developer eventually went ahead with its plans for two stickers, one that announced a PC was "Vista Capable," the other advertising that the system was "Vista Premium Ready."
Dell also used the March 2007 presentation to call out other things it thought Microsoft got wrong in the push for Vista. "Windows Automatic Update was not what was advertised and has lead to a number of poor customer experiences," Dell charged. "Upgrade program needs a complete overhaul."
Microsoft's response to Dell's criticisms was not included in the documents revealed by U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman this week. A Microsoft OEM account manager who passed the Dell presentation to others at her company, however, said that she had told Dell that Microsoft would "have a more detailed postmortem discussion around capable and upgrade in the May  time frame."
Microsoft only just tweaked Windows Anytime Upgrade this month. As of Feb. 20, Microsoft started mailing DVDs equipped with a product activation code, rather than e-mailing the key and expecting the user to dig out the original Vista installation DVD.
Company managers and executives also did their own postmortems on Vista, the unsealed e-mails revealed. One that presumably carried more weight than others was written by Steven Sinofsky, chief of Windows development. In an e-mail to CEO Steve Ballmer written less than three weeks after he took over the post, Sinofsky spelled out his three reasons why Vista stumbled out the gate.
"No one really believed we would ever ship, so they didn't start the work until very late in 2006," Sinofsky said. "This led to the lack of availability [of device drivers]."
Next on his list: Changes to the operating systems' video and audio infrastructure. "Massive changes in the underpinnings for video and audio really led to a poor experience at RTM," he said. "This change led to incompatibilities. For example, you don't get Aero with an XP driver, but your card might not (ever) have a Vista driver."
Finally, said Sinofsky, other changes in Vista blocked Windows XP drivers altogether. "This is across the board for printers, scanners, WAN, accessories and so on. Many of the associated applets don't run within the constraints of the security model or the new video/audio driver models."
According to the e-mails made public this week, Microsoft will apply the lessons it learned with Vista the next time around. "There is really nothing we can do in the short term," noted Joan Kalkman, general manager of OEM and embedded worldwide marketing, in a message written a week after Sinofsky's. "In the long term, we have worked hard to establish and have committed to an OEM theme for [Windows] 7 planning.
"This was rejected for Vista. Having this theme puts accountability and early thinking on programs like Capable/Ready so that we make the right decisions early on."