Editor 1-Jun-06
The Next Windows - Vista
or is it Waterloo?


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Two things even Microsoft can't deny - Windows Vista is late, years late, and most of the important features like the WinFS database filesystem have been dropped in hopes of getting something out the door. Vista was supposed have at least one version out in 2003 but now it's set for January 2007 and some analysts expect it to slip more (V1).

Oh, they say they'll get a corporate version out before the end of 2006, but only because they have to to avoid an avalanche of lawsuits over corporate contracts. Nobody expects it to work right, but the corp guys won't try deploying it for at least a year anyway, and by then maybe they can fix it.

Vista probably marks the end of the line for Microsoft's entire design philosophy and developmental process. Windows / Microsoft Office / SQL Server are all encompassing and tightly integrated to lock customers in and competitors out. Disorderly in design, largely undocumented and way too big to manage they have to spend most of their development time just trying to keep this house of cards from collapsing.

An even bigger problems for Microsoft is that hardly anybody wants Vista. Nobody who isn't in Microsoft's pay one way or another has had much good to say about it. Right now it's rather a dog - and it'll probably still be barking when finally released.

About the only real reason anyone seems able to come up with to move to Vista is that XP's security sucks so bad it gets infested with scumware every time you use the Internet, and sometimes even if you don't - surely Vista will be better.

So what are the Beta testers saying?

  • The new GUI (Graphic User Interface) is confusingly redesigned from XP with everything you need even harder to find and get to. Even if you set it to "Classic View" it's still a lot different. Its main function seems to be to look different so people can see you're running Vista, not XP. The traditional File Edit and View menus in the top menu bars are gone and their functions scattered (fortunately that is one of the things you can restore if you know where the settings are).
  • Video for the GUI has two modes which will confuse support staff to no end. The Vista Aero video with translucent window borders and other eye candy is available only to those with at least 128 Megabytes of video card memory and a brand new video card. Everyone else has to run in Vista Basic mode. Basic takes more system RAM and is significantly slower than the XP GUI. Video and desktop settings have been made more complex and more difficult to access.
  • Hardware requirements are intensive. As with previous Windows versions Microsoft's minimum recommended configuration is absurdly weak and will not run Vista usefully. Beta testers provide this minimum configuration: 2.0 Megahertz CPU, 1 Gigabyte memory, 250 Gigabyte hard disk and a brand new 256 Megabyte video card. More than this is better (Vista uses about 1/2 Gigabyte of memory just sitting and doing nothing). This means new computers for most Vista users, especially notebook users.
  • Software Compatibility is very poor. Most major programs (and many minor ones) will require upgrades to Vista versions. For instance Quicken will not run on Vista because it conflicts with the Vista security model. Microsoft's own applications won't run properly either, thus Office 2007 to be released simultaneously with Vista.
  • Network Access to files or desktop on a Vista computer requires someone to have already logged in on that computer. This is clearly to inconvenience the zillions of small businesses that use a Windows workstation as a server or for remote access. The cure is upgrading to a Longhorn Server. Currently, if you attempt to access a machine that isn't logged in and access is rejected, and you then go and log in on that computer, you still can't access it until you reboot your computer. We'll see if this gets fixed.
  • Wireless support is currently dismal and difficult to get to work at all. This is probably something Microsoft can fix by January.
  • Hardware support is currently poor, easily bested by Linux. While support for last year's video cards probably can't be improved much, you can expect last minute pressure on hardware vendors and within Microsoft to improve support for other hardware - expect bugs. Vista installation takes a veeeeery long time and currently often fails.
  • The Security Model has been revised. On the plus side, normal user accounts can do more so it's less necessary to run as administrator. On the minus, side normal users are made the final line of defense and are asked so many hard to understand questions they just get in the habit of clicking "Yes" to everything. Of course software that currently requires an administrator account to run at all (Quicken for example) won't run. There are many other inconveniences beta testers are griping about in this category.
  • Networking is still a mess, often failing to show computers that have recently joined the network and all the other failings of XP networking - but managing the network has become more complex and access to network management features has been buried deeper in the menu structure.
  • The Search function has been criticized as difficult to use and not very effective, comparing poorly to Google's desktop search.
  • Versions - you will have to select among Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise and Ultimate. Whichever one you get (below Ultimate), if you find a feature you need that isn't included you will be offered a convenient extra cost upgrade. The Home Basic version which will probably be on most low price computers is rather inadequate - have your credit card ready - the pressure will be on to go all the way to Ultimate.
  • Pricing has not yet been announced, but observers expect it to be, aside from Home Basic, significantly higher than for Windows XP. Guesses are around $350 for Ultimate combined with around $600 for Microsoft Office 2007.

So what does this all mean? For one thing it means Microsoft is going to be bringing out Windows Vista, Microsoft Office 2007 and Longhorn Server in the same time frame to resolve compatibility issues. Some analysts are calling this "Microsoft's perfect storm", a confluence of events each bad enough but all at the same time a disaster far greater than the sum of its parts.

It means Linux has a serious window of opportunity, particularly in business environments. It has been said, "If Vista doesn't come out, that's good for Linux. If Vista does come out, that's good for Linux". Some analysts say switching from XP to Vista will be more expensive than switching from XP to Linux despite retraining costs for Linux.

While Linux is already giving Microsoft fits in the server room, Novell in particular is polishing the Linux desktop to make it ready to take on Vista (V3). IBM and Novell will be pushing Linux to their substantial user bases and as an incentive to new customers as well.

This comes at a particularly dangerous time for Microsoft when commerce is moving to XML data formats which negate a great deal of the proprietary leverage of the Microsoft Office formats and the automated functions corporations have built on them. If Open Document becomes the preferred format instead of Microsoft's proprietary Open XML, as it well may, the proprietary advantage is gone and monopoly dies.

So, if you have to learn a whole new user interface and buy all new software, why spend all that money when there's a low cost alternative that has all the features you need?

Inertia, Entertainment and OEM Contracts, that's why. Those are Microsoft's not-so-secret weapons. When home and small business PC buyers get a new PC it will have Vista Home Basic already on it. Then they'll upgrade to a higher priced Vista - it's so convenient! The kids will demand Vista anyway so they can play the same games the other kids play.

So you'll be getting the same thing for home and work and Microsoft will continue to become more wealthy - or will it? Microsoft's stock is down even further these days and "Microsoft is underpriced" articles in the Wall Street Journal have failed to move it up. Somebody isn't happy with how the entrails read for Microsoft's future.

- Andrew Grygus

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©Andrew Grygus - Automation Access - www.aaxnet.com - aax@aaxnet.com
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