Acknowledging Windows Vista's delays, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer kicked off a demonstration of the software by saying "it's an exciting thing to finally be here" and adding: "This is the biggest launch in our company's history, that's for sure."
Businesses that buy Windows licenses in bulk have first crack at the new operating system. Consumers won't be able to get Vista on home PCs until Jan. 30.
Microsoft and computer vendors contend that Vista will make computers more secure, powerful and graphically dynamic, especially when combined with other products Microsoft is releasing simultaneously. Those include new back-end server software for businesses, as well as Office 2007, which brings sweeping changes to widely used programs such as Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint.
Ballmer repeatedly said the new offerings were suited to businesses that need to link staff, partners, documents and corporate data in far-flung locales.
"Giving people better tools to do their job is a bigger job than ever before," Ballmer said. "I think we really have the most comprehensive lineup our company has ever put in place."
Much is at stake for Microsoft. Most of its revenue and almost all of its profit comes from Windows and Office, funding the company's sexier ventures in video games and music players.
Even with all the touted improvements, analysts expect Vista to only gradually appear on corporate PCs, especially in big organizations where upgrading can be a costly, complicated affair. Gartner Dataquest predicts that it will be 2010 before Vista outnumbers the previous operating system, Windows XP, on business computers.
Big companies need to test internal business applications on Vista before they can switch their PCs to the new operating system — a process that Gartner analyst Michael Silver estimates at 12 to 18 months in many cases.
In the meantime, the last operating system, Windows XP, works just fine for most companies — especially with a security-enhancing patch known as Service Pack 2 that Microsoft released in 2004.
Kamal Anand, chief technology officer for TradeStone Software Inc., a Gloucester, Mass.-based provider of supply-chain software, examined test versions of Vista and Office and found "no compelling need" to upgrade his company's 100 PCs and laptops anytime soon. Instead, Anand expects Vista and Office to slowly permeate TradeStone as it buys new PCs for employees in coming years.
"Nobody wants to go through the extra time and effort and money to upgrade an existing, well-working system," he said.
The programs in Office 2007 have been overhauled in many ways. Generally they can make it easier for people to collaborate on documents and to manage information from multiple sources. Excel in particular packs a wallop, with vastly increased number-crunching abilities. The Outlook e-mail program performs noticeably faster searches for tidbits buried in messages — and it can integrate voice mail and instant messages when used in conjunction with Microsoft server software.
Some Office programs also have scrapped their familiar menu structure in favor of a "ribbon" atop the screen that reorders how command choices are presented to the user. While that new interface unlocks many features that were hard to find in previous generations of Office software, it will require some time to get used to — which might give tech buyers pause.
Another potential drag for Office is that the world has changed considerably since the last major release in 2003. Inexpensive, open-source alternatives to Office have gained traction. Also, rivals such as Google Inc. are increasingly delivering spreadsheets, word processing and other tools for free over the Internet, an attractive choice for smaller companies.
At Tabblo Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup that lets people assemble, print and share online photo collections, CEO Antonio Rodriguez expects to upgrade many, though not all, of the company's 25 PCs to Vista throughout 2007. Tabblo's staff expects Vista to make it easier to back up files and synch data over multiple computers. Rodriguez and crew also have energetically adopted Microsoft's latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 7.
But Office 2007 holds few such attractions for his company. Tabblo employees have largely abandoned Excel and Word for free programs on the Web, praising the flexibility that comes with having files stored online. Just about the only Office program Rodriguez still uses is PowerPoint for presentations.
"To me, Office 2007 is a complete non-event. I have no interest in an upgrade," he said. "Most of what I like about computing now lives online."