Microsoft Brands Longhorn as ‘Windows Vista’

Microsoft has decided to dub its new version of the Windows operating system “Windows Vista,” chucking the “Longhorn” nickname that had become associated with the first major makeover of the company’s flagship product in several years, a release with enormous stakes for the software giant.

Microsoft could not be reached for comment, but a video posted on its Web site shows the new name being unveiled yesterday at the Microsoft Global Sales Briefing, or MGB.

On a Windows Vista Web site, Microsoft says the new operating system will enable “a new level of confidence in your PC and in your ability to get the most out of it,” introduce “clear ways to organize and use information the way you want to use it,” and connect users “to information, people, and devices that help you get the most out of life.”

Portraying Clarity

Branding experts and Microsoft watchers said the name-change move might stem at least in part from a desire for the company to distance itself from the Longhorn name, which has become associated in some circles with an uncertain release schedule and reported delays in the product’s development. Others say the name is aimed at forging a new image for the Microsoft operating system and note that “Vista” has a much softer, more creative feel than the bullish “Longhorn.”

Whatever the motivation, the name change comes just weeks before the first beta version of the new product is expected to be delivered to developers and testers. A formal launch date has not been nailed down, but Microsoft is said to be shooting for late 2006.

The video depicts the operating system on a number of different devices, from tablet PCs to desktops and smartphones. The tag lines read: “Clear, confident, connected” and “Bringing clarity to your world.”

“So there’s no more Longhorn, we’re now officially Windows Vista,” Brian Valentine, senior vice president of Windows Core Operating System, told the crowd of sales people as he unveiled the new name.

For years, Microsoft relied on version numbers (Windows 3.1), release dates or other abbreviations to distinguish its products, rolling out Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME for Millennium Edition and Windows 2000. Windows XP, which was released in 2001, was known as “Whistler” while still in development.

The fact that Microsoft went through the effort of choosing a name might be a sign that it understands the importance of the new release. Many analysts say the stakes are very high as Microsoft seeks to fight off the most significant competitive challenges to its dominance of the operating system market in years from various versions of the Linux open-source platform.

Marketing Challenge

“Names are really important and branding is hard. Really hard, because names themselves invoke a strong visceral response in people. It’s one of the reasons why parent’s agonize over the names of the their children,” said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.

Gartenberg said the product is going to pose a marketing challenge because it is meant to appeal to a wide range of customers, from home users to CIOs at the world’s largest companies.

“This branding drives home a powerful lifestyle message that’s been sorely lacking at Microsoft in recent years,” he said. “This is a different time from that of Windows 95 and Windows XP. Consumers are different, IT is different and there’s an awful lot of folks that will view XP as being ‘good enough.’ The Vista message will need to be strong enough to get those folks past their overall inertia to stay with XP. The name is a good place to start.”

Branding expert Rob Frankel told the E-Commerce Times that Microsoft seems to have missed the mark with the Vista name. “It lacks credibility and reeks of ‘consensus,'” he said. “This is what a committee thinks won’t offend the public, rather than leading with a concept that will inspire them.”

Frankel pointed to the code names used by Apple for its OS: Jaguar, Panther and Tiger. “The former is gray, politically correct, dull. The latter is ready to pounce.”

The Long View

Microsoft’s larger problem is that despite its powerful position in the market, it lacks a clear brand, one that Microsoft loyalists can spread informally to others. Vista, Frankel added, “is just another example of the world’s most powerful software company exhibiting its lack of branding sophistication, which is too bad. If they had that branding ability, they could also be the world’s most loved software company.”

Microsoft might be starting to get on board with that notion. The company is said to be seeking bloggers who will hype the new operating system ahead of its release.

Webster defines vista as a “view, especially as seen through a long passage.” The word is versatile; since it comes from Latin, there are similar or identical words that mean essentially the same thing in many languages, including Spanish. Those who are familiar with the work on the new software say one of the features will be clear see-through windows that will enable users to stack applications and see more than one at a time.

Tech companies often struggle with naming, resulting in some arcane company and brand names or names that don’t seem to mean anything, such as eBay.

Microsoft is hardly breaking new ground, however, and in fact others have found the Vista name a powerful brand maker. Vista is the name of a maker of small business software suites, while a Massachusetts-based Web printing company calls itself VistaPrint. Also, AltaVista was one of the first Web search tools

Still, Michael Volpatt, a consultant with branding firm Larikin/Volpatt Communications, told the E-Commerce Times that being distinctive is a key branding issue. “‘Me too’ doesn’t sell product — differentiators that solve problems do,” Volpatt said.

As one blogger noted, the name better work, since it will likely be bandied about by Microsoft and others for the next seven to eight years.

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