NEW YORK - "Wow" hasn't tended to be a big part of Bill Gates' vocabulary, but to hear him speak in the hours before Microsoft Corp.'s planned launch of the long-awaited Vista operating system, you'd never know it.
"This 'Wow' thing is a great way of describing what we've got here," Microsoft's chairman said Monday as the software maker began a slate of splashy events in New York. "There are chances for wows all over the product."
More than five years in the making, Vista was released for businesses Nov. 30, but the unveiling for consumers of the latest edition of Windows - which runs more than 90 percent of the world's PCs - was scheduled for today around the globe. Vista retails for $100 to $400, depending on the version and whether the user is upgrading from Windows XP.
Over the weekend, Dell Inc. started taking orders for PCs with Vista for delivery today and beyond. Kevin Rollins, Dell's chief executive, said at a launch event Monday that the company's Web site saw a 20 percent jump in traffic and that "tens of thousands of copies" of Vista were sold.
The Redmond-based software maker contends that Vista is such a huge improvement over previous computing platforms that users inevitably say "Wow" when they see it.
Icons and interface
When users boot up Vista for the first time, they'll be wowed by the slick 3-D graphical user interface and document icons that give at-a-glance previews, Gates said. He said the next wow comes when people start using a systemwide search program that Microsoft's engineers built into both the operating system and new versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and other Office 2007 elements.
"When I look at Windows Vista, I see a technology that is interesting, that is relevant, but to some extent is evolutionary," said Al Gillen, an analyst at the technology research group IDC. "I do not believe it will create a lot of motivation for people to rush out and get a new operating system."
Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer said in a speech Monday that, as in the past, most consumers will switch to Vista only when they buy a new computer.
Still, Gates didn't play down the importance of Vista. He argued that as the PC has morphed from a souped-up typewriter to a networked entertainment center, personal media library and gateway to the Internet, the operating system itself has earned a higher profile.
"When people think about their PC, they think about Windows even more than who the manufacturer is. That determines how it looks, how you navigate, what the applications are that are available," Gates said. And in this case, Vista has folded in programs that users once bought separately - including automated backup systems and some spyware protections.
The digital life
Microsoft also included its Media Center multimedia software with higher-end versions of Vista and added stronger connections between the PC and the Xbox 360 game console, advancing the company's vision for a digital lifestyle in which consumers use many devices to access their games and documents such as photos and movies.
But giving users seamless access to movies, music and television on all of their devices is a way off, Gates acknowledges.
"There's definitely still some challenges to make sure that creative people get compensated and yet have it be easy for a user to move their media between devices," he said. "The technology industry and the content world still have a fair bit of work to do on this."
Establishing a more solid foothold in Web services - a field in which Microsoft admittedly is playing catch-up - is another line on Gates' to-do list. In the past year, Microsoft has faced increased competition from Google Inc. and smaller, open-source players. Microsoft, meanwhile, has yet to fully connect its disparate online services under the Live brand.
"We're investing a lot in Live," Gates said.
Microsoft shares were down 15 cents at $30.45 in midafternoon trading Monday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
From an investor's perspective, Vista is a long event: Many analysts predict Vista will need a few years before it outnumbers its predecessor, Windows XP, on PCs in use.
Companies take many months to test their software applications on the new platform, while many consumers will wait until they need a new PC. Upgrading on the same PC isn't always possible, because Vista imposes more stringent hardware requirements than XP. For example, at least 1 gigabyte of RAM, or system memory, is recommended. On the Web
Microsoft Vista: www.microsoft.com/windowsvista