Sales of Vista and Office 2007 officially begin tomorrow in North America, although it has already begun shipping new product in New Zealand and other places on the other side of the international dateline. Vista and Office 2007 were made available for enterprise customers in November 2006.
Ballmer took pains to note that this launch is not an end in itself, but the start of a vast opportunity for hardware vendors and software engineers developing other forms of software running on the new Vista OS.
He noted that while many new features of future versions of the OS may be delivered online, Microsoft will continue to deliver new standard versions of Windows in order to keep up with changes in how consumers use PCs.
In addition to providing a platform for consumers, he said, Windows is an important software development platform.
"With every new release of Windows, I suspect I'll be able to tell you about how much more innovation there is to come from all of us in the industry," he said during a press conference here today.
In order to emphasize the importance of the new product launches to the vendor ecosystem, Ballmer was accompanied on the dais by executives from HP (Quote), Dell (Quote), Intel (Quote), AMD (Quote) and Toshiba.
Microsoft expects to sell more than five times more units of Vista than it did Windows 95, and twice as much as Windows XP, during the first three months of availability, Ballmer said.
According to the Microsoft chief, the bulk of these sales will come from sales of new, more powerful equipment loaded with faster processing speeds and ramped-up graphics cards.
But he said that sales will also be driven through word of mouth as customers upgrade their "Vista-ready" PCs to the new OS.
"The fact that you can get upgrades helps create momentum," he said.
Alluding to the fact that delays in the launch of Vista created hardship for PC vendors and retailers, particularly around the traditionally active holiday season, he said, "we tried hard to avoid sales slowdowns through our technical guarantee program and the Vista-ready program."
Ballmer deflected the suggestion that offering three versions of Vista is symptomatic of Microsoft's growing size and bureaucracy.
"The truth is, there are a variety of needs in the home. Some people work from home, some don't, some people have a high-end consumptive use-style, some people are looking for things that are much lower-end, and we were trying to meet that range," he said in response to a question from internetnews.com.
Ballmer also predicted that sales momentum will build as customers follow an upgrade path from Vista Basic to Premium and Ultimate.
"The opportunity that we see to drive the technology industry, to drive PC sales, to drive new value, is huge," he said.