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Microsoft views family input as key to its Vista

Ordinary users served as beta testers of the new operating system, which the company touts as easier to use.

January 30, 2007|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Melissa Regan is not your typical "beta tester," the hardy breed of computer geek who seeks out the maddening bugs and glitches in software that other people try to avoid.

But the 39-year-old mother of three agreed to test early versions of Microsoft Corp.'s new operating system, Vista, with a single goal: to banish generic, and generally unhelpful, computer terms such as "tools."

"I told them, 'I want nothing labeled tools,' " said Regan, who lives in Germantown, Md. "I told them that's a terrible computer name: tools. The first thing you think about is a hammer."

In addition to being the first new Microsoft operating system since Windows XP in 2001, Vista's debut today marks an unprecedented effort by the company to solicit the feedback of everyday users such as Regan and her family. It's a recognition that computers play an increasingly integral role in daily life and that using one should be simple and intuitive.

Convincing consumers that Vista lives up to its marketing campaign -- "the wow starts now" -- is crucial for Microsoft. Its Windows operating systems and companion software, Microsoft Office, accounted for more than half of Microsoft's $44.3 billion in revenue last year and 92% of the company's operating income.

"Despite significant effort and significant improvement in their other business areas ... the reality is a substantial portion of Microsoft's profits come from two products: Windows and Office," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent researcher that focuses on the company. "That's not likely to change in the foreseeable future."

Vista's arrival, two years later than initially promised, comes at a time of profound change in the PC world. New Web-based services threaten to challenge Microsoft's dominance in areas such as e-mail and word processing.

Microsoft faces an immediate challenge as it spends a reported $450 million or more this year on marketing. It must persuade consumers to buy the new operating system (and a new computer powerful enough to run it) -- instead of, say, a high-definition television to watch Sunday's Super Bowl game or a new video game system such as Sony's PlayStation 3.

There are three consumer versions of Windows Vista, with prices starting at $199 for Vista Home Basic to $399 for Vista Ultimate, which has enhanced data and security protection. Most older computers are not powerful enough to run Vista but are more than adequate for the tasks many people use them for.

"I think people treat [computers] now much more like a television set," Cherry said. "If my TV set is starting to go, the people can be green before I admit the color's gone. Until the day I turn it on and it just won't work, I'm not predisposed about relacing it."

That explains Microsoft's emphasis on how the new operating system makes it easier for people to edit and share their digital photos, more easily find any document, e-mail messages or video through an enhanced search feature or get real-time weather, news or other information delivered to the desktop through simple programs called gadgets.

To better understand how people use computers in their lives, Microsoft found 50 families from around the world who, over two years, lived with Vista from its early test phase, known as Beta 1. Microsoft created a way for these families to offer daily feedback -- by sending smiles or frowns -- and company executives periodically dropped by to observe people using the operating system.

This group of beta testers sent 5,000 comments and identified 800 bugs that no one else had found.

Microsoft said the only compensation they received was a new computer, monitor and printer -- and the occasional pizza. Regan and her family also joined company Chairman Bill Gates and Chief Executive Steve Ballmer on stage at the Nokia Theatre in New York's Times Square to launch Vista.

Trish Miner, research manager for the Life with Windows Vista family feedback program, said the program offered surprising insights: including how changes to the Web browsing experience had some unintended consequences.

"We had changed the scroll bar, we had kind of made it disappear," Miner said. "You would think we might have caught that ourselves."

Regan, a digital photo buff, takes pride in helping Microsoft simplify the program's photo editing software, which, in previous versions, required painstaking, pixel-by-pixel manipulation.

"You had to click on the paintbrush icon, try and fix the photo, save it 10 different times," she said. "Thank goodness that is gone."

The new photo editing software has simple buttons for common fixes including correcting red eye, adjusting the exposure or cropping images. There are equally easy buttons for sharing images: buttons to print a photo, e-mail it or burn it to a CD.

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