Retailers around the world 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.

At a CompUSA store in Raleigh, only about a dozen people braved temperatures in the upper 20s to be among the first consumers to get Vista, despite free coffee and discounts on other items including printers and recordable DVDs

The low turnout wasn't surprising; even Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) chairman Bill Gates said the company wasn't pushing the midnight sales events for first major Windows update since 2001.

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"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," CompUSA manager Damon Didier said.

Employees decorated the store with balloons and set up bright new displays featuring computers equipped with Vista. The store conducted a five-second countdown over the public-address system and offered coffee and discounts on other items such as printers.

"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."

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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 (AAPL) computers have had nice graphical interfaces for some time. But it's the first time Windows has even approached that level."

In Cleveland's suburb of Brooklyn, Ohio, about 300 people braved 20 degree weather for a midnight celebration at Best Buy (BBY), which arranged free hot dogs and autographs from former Cleveland Browns player Bob Golic. About 35 Vista packages were sold just after midnight.

Microsoft says PC users will want to upgrade to Vista for its 3-D user interface and speedy desktop-search function. The Redmond, Wash., software maker also touts Vista's improved security and parental controls.

But consumers whose computers work fine with Windows XP may not see a compelling reason to switch.

"I want to see how many problems there are, what kinds of bugs are in it," Kathleen Calvin said after leaving the Brooklyn, Ohio, Best Buy empty-handed. "There have been problems when softwares came out before. I just want to make sure it's something that's going to work well."

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But for David Keller, 40, an IT consultant from Jacksonville, Fla., Vista's launch ended a two-year wait. He was among the first in line at a CompUSA store in San Jose, Calif., to pick up his new Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) laptop at midnight (3 a.m. EST).

"I've been waiting and waiting, and I've been using my personal laptop for work — it's not working well," he said. "This is a big deal for me. I'll hopefully get the better performance that I need, and I won't have to go through the trouble of upgrading later."

During the past few weeks, shelves in the computer section at one Best Buy in New York have been essentially bare, as consumer lost interest in laptops running Vista's predecessor, Windows XP, and the retailer cleared space to sell new machines running Vista, which imposes such hardware requirements as 1 gigabyte of system memory, or RAM.

Microsoft marked the Vista launch with a series of celebrations Monday in New York complete with acrobatics and blaring music. At one, 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 (SNE) 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."

Dell Inc. (DELL) says the company took tens of thousands of orders for delivery Tuesday or later.

In Tokyo, about 80 people lined up at the Bic Camera Department Store to become among the world's first consumers to own Vista. A large-screen TV displayed a countdown to the midnight launch (10 a.m. EST Monday).

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."

DSG International PLC's flagship PC World store in central London opened before dawn Tuesday with costumed characters, including Sherlock Holmes to signify security and Marilyn Monroe to emphasize multimedia. Some three dozen enthusiasts were waiting when it opened.

Microsoft shares fell 21 cents to $30.32 in midday trading Tuesday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.