On Friday, I posted that Windows Vista was unofficially set to ship in November. I was right. What I didn’t realize was that businesses were the only ones that would be getting it in Q4.

At 5:30 PM EST this afternoon (March 21), Microsoft Windows chief Jim Allchin dropped a bomshell in a conference call with the press. He announced that Microsoft would release a wider public beta of Vista in Q2 (no surprise there), would release Vista to businesses with volume licensing contracts in November (yeah, okay), and would then release Vista to consumers in January 2007 (uh oh!).

To address the Vista delay, Allchin explained, “Product quality and a great out-of-box experience have been two of our key drivers for Windows Vista, and we are on track to deliver on both. But the industry requires greater lead time to deliver Windows Vista on new PCs during holiday. We must optimize for the industry, so we’ve decided to separate business and consumer availability.”

I’m generally a Jim Allchin fan, but that statement rubbed me the wrong way. So all of the sudden Microsoft wants us to believe that “Oops, it takes a little longer for PC makers to prepare for a new OS than we realized.” Give me a break. Microsoft has been delivering Windows operating systems for two decades. They know exactly how long it takes for computer manufacturers to prep a new OS. The truth is that Microsoft simply isn’t going to have Vista ready to release by the deadlines that they needed to hit. So just come out and say it and save the PR department the valuable time they wasted on that lame spin.

I can handle the truth — especially in this case because the truth is that Allchin is deadly serious about getting Vista right and not releasing it prematurely. Last year I heard live from Allchin’s own lips that he unequivocally would NOT release Vista until it is ready (and have no doubt that Allchin is the one who makes the final call on that). The thing to realize is that Jim Allchin is retiring after Vista is released. This is his last hurrah and the final piece of his legacy in the software business. So, in that sense, he is a little more beholden to his customers than he is to his boss. No one wants Windows to overcome its reputation of being buggy and insecure more than Allchin and he knows that Vista offers a narrow window of opportunity for changing those perceptions.

“We could have just gone ahead [and released Vista this fall], but I didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” said Allchin, “We’re setting stringent quality bars on what we do.” 

He also added, “Product quality is the first priority. We won’t compromise on that.”

That’s all he needed to say. Product quality comes before those juicy profits available in the fourth quarter. That’s it.

OEMs and the partners in the Windows ecosystem will groan about it (their plans for a big fourth quarter just went down the drain), but I think IT pros and general users can forgive the delay if it means getting a truly finished product rather than a release candidate that users essentially pay to test for Microsoft.

I just don’t want Microsoft blowing smoke at me about how “the industry requires greater lead time to deliver Windows Vista on new PCs during holiday.” They’ve always known that, so to use it as an excuse for this delay is completely disingenuous.