RALEIGH, N.C. - Retailers across the country stayed open through the wee hours of Tuesday morning to sell the long-awaited Windows Vista operating system, even though most knew customers wouldn't be lining up out the door for the midnight launch of Microsoft Corp.'s latest product.
At a CompUSA store in Raleigh, only about a dozen people waited around to be among the first to get Vista. The store reopened at 10 p.m., offering customers coffee and discounts on other items including printers and recordable DVDs, and planned to stay open until at least 2 a.m.
The low turnout wasn't surprising, especially after Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said the company wasn't pushing the midnight sales events.
CompUSA manager Damon Didier said the midnight sales met his expectations, especially given the late hour with temperatures in the upper 20s.
"I think we'll see sales pick up throughout the rest of the week, especially on Friday and over the weekend when people have more time to download it," Didier said.
Employees decorated the store with balloons and set up bright new displays featuring computers equipped with Vista. There was a five-second countdown over the public-address system to let customers know they could buy the software.
Those who came for the midnight launch were almost as enthusiastic.
"I guess I'm a geek at heart," said Chad Janko, 29. "I wanted to process the whole thing myself before all the reviews surface about it."
Mike Johnson, 29, of nearby Rolesville, bought a laptop computer with the new software preinstalled.
"The biggest reason for me is the new interface. It looks so much better than XP," he said. "Apple computers have had nice graphical interfaces for some time. But it's the first time Windows has even approached that level."
Microsoft celebrated the Vista launch Monday with a Times Square bash complete with acrobatics and blaring music. Dancers clad in Microsoft colors dangled from ropes high above street level and unfurled flags to form the red, green, blue and yellow Windows logo against a building wall.
Vista went on sale in 70 countries Tuesday, along with new versions of Microsoft Exchange e-mail software and the flagship Office business suite, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
But unlike the recent launches of next-generation game machines like Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3, customers haven't been camping out for days.
"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."
In Raleigh, CompUSA advertised its special sale in Sunday newspapers and ran radio ads letting people know it was the only place in the area where people could get their hands on Vista at midnight.
"For geeks like us, this is very exciting," Didier said, adding that he expected Vista's launch to boost computer sales. "It gives people a compelling reason to buy a computer now."
Though consumers can download Vista over the Web for the first time, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told one audience that, as in the past, most consumers will switch to Vista only when they buy new computers.
More than five years in the making, Vista was released for businesses Nov. 30, but the unveiling for consumers only came Tuesday. The software retails for $100 to $400, depending on the version and whether the user is upgrading from Windows XP.
Microsoft contends that Vista is such a huge improvement over previous computing platforms that users inevitably say "Wow" when they see it. Gates ticked off some examples, such as how Vista presents a slick 3-D graphical user interface and document icons that give at-a-glance previews.
Vista comes as changing dynamics of computing - notably the rise of open-source software and Web-based services that replicate what traditionally could be done only on a desktop computer - are threatening Microsoft's dominance in the industry.
But Gates contended that the operating system has a higher profile than ever before, as the PC has morphed from a souped-up typewriter to a networked entertainment center, personal media library and gateway to the Internet.
"When people think about their PC, they think about Windows even more than who the manufacturer is," Gates told The Associated Press. "That determines how it looks, how you navigate, what the applications are that are available."
And in this case, Vista has folded in programs that users once bought separately - including automated backup systems and some spyware protections.
Microsoft built Vista so that different layers could be upgraded separately, so it's possible that this is the last massive, all-in-one update for Windows. No matter how Microsoft chooses to roll out Vista's successor, Ballmer said there's still work to be done.
"Developers need a richer platform if we're going to get speech, voice, natural language, and more rich 3-D-type graphics into the user interface," Ballmer said. Plus, the technologies around the PC - chips, storage, high-definition DVD - will all evolve, he said. "The operating system will need to evolve with them."
Over the weekend, Dell Inc. started taking orders for PCs with Vista. Kevin Rollins, Dell's chief executive, said the company's Web site saw a 20 percent jump in traffic, with "tens of thousands of copies" of Vista sold for delivery Tuesday or later.
In Tokyo, about 80 people lined up Monday night at the Bic Camera Department Store to become among the world's first consumers to own Vista. Celebrities and executives were on hand as a large-screen TV displayed a countdown to the midnight launch (10 a.m. EST).
The second person in line, Fumihiko Koyama, 33, waited three hours and was hoping the new operating system will make his work in Web design easier.
"My expectations are very high for Vista," he said. "I want to try it out because it's new."
For a Tuesday morning store celebration, DSG International PLC's flagship PC World store in central London hired costumed characters, including Sherlock Holmes to signify security and a movie star to emphasize multimedia.
PC World spokesman Hamish Thompson said some retailers are banking on Vista to push customers toward the higher-end machines needed to run Vista - which imposes such hardware requirements as 1 gigabyte of system memory, or RAM. Consumers will also need to upgrade older software and devices to work with Vista.
Microsoft shares fell 7 cents to close Monday at $30.53 on the Nasdaq Stock Market.