Intel Exec Thanked Ballmer for Vista Capable Help

Court documents may contain a "smoking gun" reference to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's participation in a crucial decision to downgrade capabilities needed to gain Windows Vista Capable certification in new PCs.

Microsoft is being sued for deceptive marketing practices in U.S. District Court in Seattle over claims that the changes were made to help Intel sell off millions of existing 915 chipsets that could not handle all of the requirements of a Windows Device Driver Module (WDDM) and could not be "Vista Capable."

The smoking gun within the court documents is an e-mail from Intel executive Renee James to Will Poole, who at the time ran Microsoft's Client business. James passed along thanks from Intel CEO Paul Otellini to Ballmer "for listening and making these changes" to remove the WDDM requirement from initial Vista Capable devices on store shelves.

The suit alleges that Vista-capable device buyers were deceived because systems that didn't meet the WDDM requirement could only run the OS at the Vista Basic level.

The court documents contain e-mail correspondence between Microsoft and Intel executives, including strident requests by Intel to either move the Vista release date back three months or remove the WDDM designation. Microsoft did not move the release date. However, in the months leading to the launch of Vista, the company dropped the WDDM capability as a requirement for promoting PCs as Vista Capable. The day Vista launched, the court documents allege, WDDM was reinstated.

The WDDM brouhaha started between June 2005 and January 2006 when OEMs Dell, Sony and Fujitsu asked Microsoft to wave the requirements. Microsoft wouldn't budge, according to a story in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which has closely followed the case. Then Otellini got into the mix by allegedly sharing "feedback" with Ballmer. By Jan. 30, 2005, after refusing requests from the OEMs, Microsoft said it was dropping the WDDM requirement from the Vista Capable program.

This plan, the documents said, was not well received by Jim Allchin, Microsoft's co-president of platform products & services, who reported to Ballmer.

"I think this plan is terrible and it will have to be changed" because it would be "misleading customers" if OEMs say a machine is Vista-capable and will run all the core Vista features, Allchin stated in an e-mail. "I know we don't want to hurt the OEMs, but end customers must be the top priority. We must avoid confusion. It is wrong for customers. And we probably will have to change your current plans."

Ballmer's alleged involvement revolves around a series of e-mails between James and Poole. James requested a later release date -- June 1 as opposed to April 1, 2006 -- for devices with Vista Ready stickers because "the April 1st date in retail means a significant change in terms of our ability to meet demand with Vista ready parts and in short will cost us significant business."

Poole didn't change his mind, but, according to the court documents, Otellini chipped in with "feedback" for Ballmer. At the same time, James sent an e-mail to Poole telling him that Otellini "thinks you really don't understand that almost all of the mobile SKUs for the next five months are with Centrino and Alviso and therefore NEVER Vista ready."

Poole circulated that e-mail within Microsoft and got executive feedback --none specifically from Ballmer -- essentially stating this was Intel's problem, not Microsoft's and the release date should stand with the WDDM requirement. Two days later, however, Poole told Intel that Microsoft would drop the WDDM requirement for the Vista Capable logo so that the Intel chipset would qualify but warned it "will not get some other benefits that come with WDDM drivers that cannot be ported to them."

The end result is James' e-mail to Poole after that decision that "Paul [Otellini] did send a note to Steve [Ballmer] thanking him for listening and making these changes."

Ballmer has said he was not in the loop on the Vista Capable decision, and a Microsoft spokesman reiterated that stance to the SeattlePI by stating that "Ballmer has no unique knowledge of the facts in this case. Anything he knows about the Windows Vista Capable programs he learned from executives whom he empowered to run the program and make decisions."

Plaintiffs have asked to depose Ballmer to learn more. Neither Poole nor Allchin is now with Microsoft.

About the Author

Jim Barthold is a freelance writer based in Delanco, N.J. covering a variety of technology subjects.