Steve Ballmer Must Testify In 'Vista Capable' Suit

E-mails show that Microsoft's CEO knew of decision to lower specs for Vista PCs.
Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer must provide a deposition in a class-action lawsuit that claims a company marketing program misled consumers into thinking that certain PCs were capable of running the full version of Windows Vista.

Judge Marsha Pechman, of U.S. District Court in Seattle, last week ruled that Ballmer must testify because the plaintiffs in the case "have met their burden in demonstrating Mr. Ballmer may have relevant, unique personal knowledge of relevant facts."

The plaintiffs must limit their deposition to three hours and must conduct it "at a time and place of Mr. Ballmer's convenience," Pechman wrote in her rulling.

Microsoft had asked the court to reject the plaintiff's bid to compel testimony from Ballmer because, the company claimed, Ballmer did not have operational knowledge of the decisions behind the marketing campaign.

Consumers Dianne Kelley and Kenneth Hansen sued Microsoft for consumer fraud last year. They contend that Microsoft intentionally duped customers by advertising as "Vista Capable" computers that lacked the horsepower to fully support all of Vista's features, such as its 3-D Aero interface. A judge earlier this year granted the case class-action status.

In requesting Ballmer's testimony, the plaintiffs entered into evidence e-mails -- unsealed by the court last week -- in which Ballmer appears to have been informed of changes to the Vista Capable definition that allowed inclusion of an underpowered Intel graphics chipset.

"We have changed our branding program such that Intel's current integrated parts (915, or 'Alviso') qualify for 'Vista Capable' branding," wrote Will Poole, Microsoft's former director of Windows desktop development, in an e-mail to Ballmer dated Jan. 30, 2006.

Ballmer's reply indicates that he had discussed the issue with Intel CEO Paul Otellini. "I thought they had other issues, certainly Paul described other (non graphics) issues. Is this really resolved?" Ballmer wrote.

Other e-mails entered as evidence in the case revealed that the Windows Capable campaign was the source of deep divisions among Microsoft executives.

Former Microsoft co-president Jim Allchin called the company's decision to allow PC manufacturers to label machines not capable of running all of Windows Vista's features as Vista Capable "terrible" and "misleading," according to one e-mail.

"I believe we are going to be misleading customers with the Capable program," Allchin wrote in a message to a group of Microsoft product executives.

Other e-mails show that Microsoft lowered the specifications for Vista Capable PCs in order to appease Intel, whose 915 graphics chipset was not capable of running Vista's slick new interface.

Changes that Microsoft made to the definition of Vista Capable in early 2006, just a few months before the operating system was finalized, also irked hardware maker Hewlett-Packard. HP invested heavily in components designed to meet the original, more stringent definition, according to e-mails filed in the case, which is ongoing.