Ballmer headlines global Windows 7 launch events

The New York event caps a day of gatherings in London, Beijing, Tokyo and elsewhere

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the Windows 7 launch event in New York

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the Windows 7 launch event in New York

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took the stage in New York Thursday, playing the role of chief salesman in a day of worldwide launch events, executive speechmaking and sales promotions meant to persuade consumers and businesses to migrate to Windows 7.

With characteristic high energy and in his booming voice, Ballmer evoked the Windows 7 marketing mantra of "simplicity" to a crowd of about 250 journalists and analysts in a Soho loft space.

"At the end of the day, it's trying to make the everyday usage of the PC better in the way you want it to ... simpler, faster, more responsive, less busy."

The New York launch capped a day of similar events in cities including London, Beijing, Tokyo, Hamburg and Munich.

Though the New York event space was festively decorated with green-tinged Windows 7 Launch Party display screens and had an area in back -- dramatically unveiled in the middle of Ballmer's keynote -- where store showroom-type environments were set up as rooms in a typical house, it was an uncharacteristically small venue and audience for a major Microsoft launch.

The relatively low-key launch fits the way Microsoft is characterizing the new OS -- feature-rich, but above all, straightforward to use.

The Vista OS, plagued by a variety of issues including hardware compatibility problems, slow performance and annoying system alerts, was never embraced by the majority of Microsoft customers.

The older Windows XP still is used by 72 percent of computer users, compared to 19 percent for Vista, according to the latest Market Share Report by Web-site software company Net Applications.

One crucial difference between the making of Windows 7 and Vista -- bringing in manufacturers very early in the development process to create metrics for testing -- began three years ago, stressed Microsoft and PC company officials at the launch.

"What's special about Windows 7 and the way it came together was ... an intense collaboration with hardware and peripheral makers, developers and customers around the world," Ballmer said.

"We engaged early, there was early testing with Microsoft, working on metrics ... taking a humble approach toward really nailing the fundamentals -- boot time, resume, suspend," said Michelle Pearcy, director of worldwide consumer marketing for Dell. The result is a product that is "fast, efficient and fun," she said.

Businesses have had a chance to be early adopters since August, so the hoopla accompanying the worldwide launch Thursday is mainly aimed at consumers, noted Tami Reller, chief financial officer and corporate vice president for the Windows Business Group.

Together with PC makers and retailers, Microsoft introduced a series of promotional offers called "7 Days of Windows 7" including deals on hardware, upgrades, support and other options, listed daily at Windows.com.

On Thursday, for example, Microsoft and U.S. retailer Best Buy are offering a US$1,199 Best Buy PC Home Makeover package that includes a Hewlett-Packard laptop, netbook, desktop and monitor with Windows 7, wireless home network with router and setup help.

At the New York event, Ballmer and Corporate Vice President Brad Brooks, who demonstrated the new OS, focused on the consumer experience. Brooks showed how users can import images from a camera into Windows Live Movie Maker to make slide shows and animations with a short series of clicks.

The demo also showed off Windows 7 MultiTouch features, which let users move objects around the screen by touching them and dragging with their fingers.

Windows 7 is a "touch platform," said Ballmer, who added that he expects developers to build a wide variety of touch applications.

A high point of Brooks' demo was the HomeGroup feature, which allows users to share music, pictures, printers and documents across Windows PCs. At one point, Brooks showed how he could control multimedia content across 16 different device screens including TVs, desktop PCs, laptops and netbooks.

Talk of business uses for Windows 7 mainly took place on the sidelines of the main event. While the vast majority of consumers who bought new PCs over the past few years automatically got Vista pre-installed on their machines, corporations were offered a "downgrade" option on new machines if they wanted to stick to XP -- and most business users never migrated to Vista.

These millions of users still on XP represent a big target.

"On the business side there's still a lot of XP and there's a real opportunity to bring the value of Windows 7 to businesses, saving tremendous IT costs," Reller said in an interview Wednesday. There are, for example, more controls for IT departments to manage security and software downloads. "We're saving well over a hundred dollars per desktop in the management piece alone," Reller said.

Despite Microsoft's hopes for quick migration, however, many analysts have downplayed prospects of immediate take-up by large corporations.

"The Windows 7 release will generate renewed interest in hardware upgrades in consumers and small businesses following its release, but corporate demand is not expected to gain momentum until the end of 2010," said Charles Smulders, managing vice president for Gartner in a Gartner report. "An overdue PC hardware upgrade cycle, and the economic environment, will be as equally important as Windows 7 in determining final demand in 2010."

Microsoft is offering Windows 7 for sale around the world in 14 languages Thursday, with most of the rest of the 30-plus languages shipping within the next week, officials said.

In the U.K., retailers reported that Windows 7 pre-order sales had become Amazon's largest-grossing pre-order product ever, outpacing previous pre-orders for the Nintendo Wii and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." And retailer DSGi reported that it sold more Windows 7 copies during three weeks of taking pre-orders than copies of Windows Vista over the entire first year that OS was out.

It has not gone so smoothly elsewhere. A dispute between packaged-software importers and India's customs department has delayed retail sales of Windows 7 there. The OS is available loaded on PCs, but cannot be bought off the shelf, although the effect is expected to be negligible because packaged-software sales account for less than 5 percent of Microsoft OS sales in India, according to an industry source.

The dispute between importers and customs involves the interpretation of new taxes on packaged software that were imposed in July. Consequently, such software is not easily clearing customs for distribution and sale. Although it was unclear Thursday when Windows 7 packaged software would clear customs, Microsoft said that it hopes that will happen soon.

(This report includes information from earlier stories by John Ribeiro in Bangalore and Carrie-Ann Skinner for PC Advisor in the U.K.)

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