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Vista: Limited Horizons?

By the time the new Microsoft operating system is released, will anyone care?

At the beginning of next year, Microsoft will finally ship its long-awaited operating system: Windows Vista. Though Microsoft has never been good about forecasting product availability, Vista borders on the ridiculous. Those of us old enough to remember that Windows 95 actually shipped in 1996–to the horror of a breathless PC press–feel a bit bemused about a product that was first promised five years ago and will be four years later than originally projected.

When it finally does ship, it will be the most extensive and expensive software project ever. And what will all this deliver to users? Well, as far as I can tell, the only significant upgrade will be in the desktop search function. Desktop search has been a core part of the Mac OS for as long as I can remember, but Windows didn’t even have it until Google shipped a desktop search program, after which Microsoft shipped one as free download for Windows XP.

Though most users use Google for Web searches and presume that Google’s desktop search is better, that’s not what I’ve found. MSN search results are routinely more targeted and relatively free from junk when compared to Google. Ditto for Windows desktop search. I won’t be surprised if Vista’s desktop search is the best in the industry. But I doubt the project would have taken four additional years if Microsoft just developed a search program to plug into XP. In fact, it only took Microsoft a few months to respond to the challenge from Google, which left pundits wondering why Microsoft waited so long to develop a desktop search program.

Sure, Vista will look cool, with its new Aero user interface. But cool user interfaces wow users for about a month, then it’s time to start talking about features that improve user productivity. And looking down the list of stated new features, there will be some good additions, like Windows Defender–an AdAware clone–and Windows Collaboration, the replacement for Microsoft’s excellent (and free) NetMeeting tool. But most of the features already exist in third-party shareware or Microsoft freeware, including desktop search.

Customers are not eager for Windows Vista. Surveys I’ve read show that only a small percentage of businesses even have Vista on their two-year software planning horizons. Most are happy that, for the first time ever, Microsoft has had a relatively stable desktop OS for several years in a row. Between 1996 and 2003, Microsoft released five major desktop OSes, not counting numerous service packs and countless patches. All this patch-as-patch-can maintenance has pushed some organizations to adopt Linux for the desktop. Most organizations have spent gobs of money developing sophisticated software distribution systems that update the whole user set at once, rather than needing to keep and maintain all the updates for every user. Over the last decade, desktop OS churn constitutes a considerable percentage of all IT overhead, and many companies are content to make do with Windows XP indefinitely in order to reduce that churn. If desktop Linux is good enough for most business users, Windows XP certainly is.

The only thing that might change the minds of IT decision makers is if Vista security is markedly better than that in XP Pro. Right now, the main reason to switch to Linux is maintenance and recovery. The preferred way of dealing with a system clogged by a few months’ worth of adware, spyware, and quarantined viruses is to back up, wipe, and reload. This is time-consuming, either for the user or the technician, or both (these days it’s usually a user with a tech in India walking him or her through it). Linux may not be as pretty, but it’s not as vulnerable, and it’s not as difficult to root out malware that does make it through its defenses. As in the old days of DOS, you can always go to the command line with Linux and a desktop UI program running on top of it. When Microsoft went to XP, it eliminated DOS and the ability to selectively fix problems by simply deleting files. Now, unless you’re a registry guru, it’s not advised to selectively delete malware.

According to Microsoft, the main reason for the delay is the “Trusted Computing Initiative” that was supposed to restore the trust of IT departments in the security of Microsoft products. So far, we haven’t seen too many results from this effort. According to reports by beta testers, there is reason to believe that Vista is much better than XP on security. I’m especially interested in the bidirectional firewall that pings you when a program attempts to access the Internet. This software is available as third-party program called Integrity Client from Zone Labs, but a bundled program might be easier for businesses to manage.

One of the delicate issues for Microsoft, considering its antitrust history, is how much to bundle into the OS that eliminates opportunities for companies like Zone Labs. Perhaps for this reason, it chose to continue to not bundle antivirus software. Even if it had, most customers would continue to use services from trusted companies like Symantec rather than trust Microsoft, considering its checkered past on security and its known alliances with companies that create spyware and other malware. (It owns the third-largest direct-marketing company and it creates the leading software package for the direct-marketing industry, which produces most spyware.)

And that’s really the issue for businesses: It’s a considerable risk to go to a new operating system that has no security track record. All things considered, companies would rather stick with the devil they know–and all the third-party security programs they trust–than go with the devil they don’t know from a company that has yet to earn their trust.

The management and security issues are especially acute for businesses because Vista is a huge OS that will require lots of additional RAM, tens of gigabytes of hard drive space (right away, not to mention later), the top graphics cards, and the latest processors. Upgrading to the new OS will require lots of hardware upgrades for folks who have all the power they need now. For this reason, most businesses are taking a wait-and-see attitude on Vista.

So if customers don’t really want Windows Vista, why has Microsoft spent so much time and expense on it? The real reason Microsoft needs a new desktop OS is demand from hardware partners. New operating systems from Microsoft tend to boost sales, as home desktop users clamor for the cool new interfaces. That is why Aero is the key feature of Vista. Unlike businesses, home users want the bells and whistles of the user interface, especially as PCs evolve from information processing devices into entertainment devices. That is why the press sounded alarms on the latest Vista delay; even though it is only a few months, moving from November to January means no Vista PCs for Christmas. (I suspect you’ll see “Vista Ready” stickers on new PCs at the end of the year, with rebates and other promotions to encourage you to get the new OS when it’s available in January, but it’s not the same as a preloaded machine.)

The intriguing question about Vista is how it will fare against OS X. From my perspective, not well. Since my last column, Apple has changed its policy slightly, allowing dual-boot mode with Windows XP using its Boot Camp software. According to Robert X. Cringely, when Vista comes out, Apple will release Macs with a bundled emulator that not only allows users to boot into either OS, but also lets Windows Vista run under Mac OS X. This would allow users to cut and paste data between best-of-breed applications running under either OS. And it would enable OS X to manage system security by backing up, wiping, and reloading Vista without rebooting, making Vista much more manageable.

As I said in my last column, the eventual migration path is for Apple to license OS X to major PC manufacturers. Dell, Lenovo, and HP would jump at the chance to have a full-fledge UNIX OS (compete with a command line) managing Windows for the sake of its business clients, especially if Apple is the only provider of hardware that has that feature. And when the impediments to adopting Vista are removed by OS X, business IT decision makers just might find that the reduced management is worth the investment in an upgrade to Vista after all.

Or, better yet, why use Windows at all?

James Mathewson is editor at large for ComputerUser and lead editor and content lead for the IBM PartnerWorld organization.

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