Microsoft evades promise of Vista Ultimate Extras

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

The Microsoft Corp. in January released Vista Ultimate, the priciest version of the company’s new operating system, with the promise of additional downloadable “Extras,” available only for the top-of-the-line product.

Months later, buyers of Vista Ultimate have seen no new Extras since the mere handful that were offered around the initial Vista rollout.

Extras were to enhance expensive Vista edition

When Windows Vista was released to consumers on Jan. 30, the operating system debuted in a number of different “editions” — versions with different features and price ranges for different customers.

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The so-called Ultimate edition combines the features of Vista Home Premium and Vista Enterprise. Vista Ultimate includes Media Center, DVD Maker, and Movie Maker — multimedia features of Home Premium that aren’t in Vista Enterprise. Also, Ultimate offers BitLocker drive encryption, support for Unix-based apps, and Virtual PC Express, which Home Premium does not.

But third-party multimedia and encryption features can easily be added to Vista Home Premium and Vista Enterprise via downloads. The real allure of Vista Ultimate was something that none of the other editions would ever have: Ultimate Extras. Some of Microsoft’s promises for these Extras are shown in a Help screen in Vista’s Windows Update control panel (see Figure 1).

Windows vista ultimate extras
Figure 1: In the task pane of Vista’s Windows Update control panel, you can click Learn about Windows Ultimate Extras to display the things Microsoft promised.

Summarizing this feature, the marketing site for Windows Vista Ultimate states, “These cutting-edge programs, innovative services, and unique publications provide a richer computing experience for Windows Vista Ultimate users.”

As indicated on the Vista Ultimate site, three Extras were released in connection with the launch of the product itself in January of this year. These were:

• Language packs for the Multilingual User Interface (MUI).

• Enhancements for Vista Enterprise’s BitLocker and its Encrypting File System (EFS). Some sources, including the Microsoft marketing site for Ultimate, count these as two separate Extras.

• A poker game in which you play “Hold ‘Em” against the computer.

Since January, no completed Extras have been released. A pre-release version of Windows DreamScene — which lets you display videos as screen savers on your desktop, something that was possible with previous Windows versions using HTML — has been available for download since March, but no finished version has yet been offered.

Ultimate users start to notice — and complain

The absence of new Extras has not been lost on the online community, some of whom are beginning to complain vociferously in their blogs. For example, a commenter named Larry on Josh’s Windows Connected blog opines, “It’s high time someone brought this scam to light. $400 for Vista Ultimate, and nothing about it has been ultimate so far.”

Keith Carey, another poster on the same site, echoes the sentiments of many that even the few existing Extras are nothing special. “Ultimate has been a three trick pony with 1 trick few use (BitLocker), one that is so-so (Texas Hold’em) , and the other more of a preview (DreamScene),” he writes. “If this was a standalone product and not a version [of an operating system], we would be calling it vaporware.”

Windows Secrets contributing editor Woody Leonhard goes further, saying, “The BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool really is a prerequisite for using BitLocker, unless you perform a clean install.” Even then, he points out, “You have to go through some extraordinary machinations, from the command prompt, prior to installation.” (The steps are explained in a forum posting by developer Mark Minasi.) Leonhard concludes that the Drive Preparation Tool should have been part of Vista Enterprise in the first place and is hardly an Extra.

In addition, the MUI language packs are not unique to the Ultimate Extra program. They’re available to all Vista Enterprise purchasers who used Microsoft’s Volume Licensing Program (as large enterprises typically would), according to infrastructure design consultant Raymond Comvalius.

Adding mystery to the mix, one blogger, Long Zheng, claims that a confidential source has revealed to him the real reason why Microsoft’s video screen saver has been released in final form. Dreamscene Extra, he writes, has such serious code problems that the company may have to keep it in perpetual beta. Dreamscene, for example, is reportedly unable to work properly on systems configured to use right-to-left languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew — an unbelievable architectural flaw for a product that Microsoft would like to market as finished.

Why is Microsoft not following through on its Ultimate Extra promises? Blogger Zheng has his own theory:
  • “Another reliable source suggested there is not even an Ultimate team in existence anymore. Some suggest there were never a team to begin with, more of a collection of people all over Microsoft who worked with marketing on Ultimate Extras. This would explain the lack of direction, insight and progress on Ultimate Extras if no one’s responsible for it anymore.”
For its part, Microsoft officially maintains the position that nothing is wrong. Asked about the lack of Extras or whether the responsible team has been disbanded, a Microsoft spokesman responded only that:
  • “We’ve released four Windows Vista Ultimate Extras this year — Windows Hold ‘Em, Language Packs for the Windows multi-language user interface, Secure Online Key Backup, and BitLocker Drive Preparation Tool. We plan to release more in the future. We have no additional updates at this time.”
More than 30% of Windows Vista buyers choose the Ultimate version, according to March 2007 figures quoted by the iTechNote blog. Many of these purchasers selected Ultimate on the promise of its Extras alone.

In my opinion, Microsoft has an ethical obligation to honor its own marketing hype and follow through with useful tools in a timely way.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He is also a contributing editor of PC World Magazine, where he has written a monthly column since 1992, and co-author of 101 Windows Tips & Tricks (Peachpit) with Jesse Berst and Charles Bermant.
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