Analyst: Price cuts don't get to heart of Vista's problems

The muddle of multiple SKUs and hardware uncertainty stymies sales

If Microsoft thought a lower price for Windows Vista was what the operating system needed to kick-start sales, it should have thought twice, an analyst said.

"In some ways, it's an attempt to remove any barriers that may be dissuading people from buying Vista," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a research firm. "But the missing step here is simplifying what people need to know to buy. People are so confused about the versions and what they need on hardware that they don't even get to the price."

Late last week, Microsoft announced plans to cut Vista's retail prices. The company did not flesh out the details -- how much prices will drop or the exact timing -- but it did say that customers in some developing countries will see cuts of as much as 50 per cent. The price cuts will be synchronized with the retail release of Vista Service Pack 1 "later this year," said a company executive.

"You can justify three versions of Windows, I think," said Cherry. "Consumer, business and server. But as it is, it's too confusing." Consumers often never reach the "What is the price again?" moment, he added, because they're too confused by the multiple choices and bewildered by the hardware requirements needed to run the flashier Windows Home Premium and Ultimate.

In the US, Windows Vista is available in four retail editions: Vista Home Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business and Vista Ultimate. In some markets, Microsoft also sells a stripped-to-the-bone version called Vista Starter.

Confusion over hardware and Vista's stock-keeping units (SKU), in fact, is at the heart of the class-action lawsuit that Microsoft now faces over the marketing program dubbed "Windows Vista Capable." The program, the plaintiffs have claimed, misled consumers into thinking that older, less-powerful PCs sold in the last half of that year would be able to run all versions of Vista, not just the scaled-back Vista Home Basic.

But Microsoft didn't reduce the number of Vista versions last week; instead, it said it would cut the price of the operating system. The company's didn't specify the size of the price cuts except in general terms: In developing countries, some prices will be slashed in half, while in established markets such as in the US and Europe, prices may fall just a few percentage points or not at all.

"So is this really that big of a deal?" Cherry asked rhetorically. Perhaps not, he argued, since Microsoft makes more than 80 per cent of its client operating system revenue from sales to rellers, which preinstall Windows on new PCs. "That's the heart of the problem. How many people are going to walk in and buy a retail copy, even with a price cut?"

Instead, Cherry said, this is a pragmatic move that probably doesn't come with a lot of hidden motives. "They're playing with price," he said. "That's maybe not their usual thing, but these are potentially unusual times.

"For one thing, I don't sense the need that people think they need to have the latest technology anymore," Cherry continued, giving his interpretation of what has forced Microsoft's hand. "That's one. The other is that Microsoft has always gambled that if their software got bigger and they added more features, they didn't have to fine-tune it because the hardware would be there to bail them out.

"That's not what happened here with Vista."

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