Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, said on Tuesday he was prepared to delay further the company’s long-awaited Windows Vista operating system.

Mr Gates told software partners in Cape Town, South Africa, there was only an 80 per cent chance that Vista would be ready to ship on new PCs in January. It had set this date in March when it said Vista would not be ready for the public as planned by this November.

The European Union is expected to fine Microsoft hundreds of millions of euros on Wednesday for not making available adequate information about its existing Windows operating system for others to design competitive products.

Mr Gates said Vista had to be got “absolutely right”. If feedback from testing of a pre-release version of Vista showed it was “not ready for prime time, I’d be glad to delay it,” he said.

He added that he hoped the Office 2007 suite of programs to accompany Vista would be ready in December. Earlier this month, Microsoft said it would be released near the end of the year – a postponement from October.

Speaking at a partners’ conference in Boston, Steve Ballmer, chief executive, said there would never again be as long a gap between operating systems as between the existing Windows XP and Vista, which will be appearing five years after XP was launched.

He added that while Vista had been a long time coming it was “a blockbuster release”.

The conference was also told that Microsoft planned to host customer relationship management software on its own servers for customers from the middle of next year. The move to “software as a service” and away from a boxed product imitates efforts of companies such as

Security has been a high priority in perfecting Vista and Microsoft also announced on Tuesday four fixes for flaws in the existing operating system. It also said it would stop offering security fixes for older versions – Windows 98, Windows 98 Second Edition and Millennium Edition. It hopes to persuade users to upgrade to newer software.

Microsoft shares closed 1.7 per cent lower at $23.10 in New York.

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