Windows' future: Bad news, good news

When Microsoft sprung the fact that Windows Vista wouldn't reach most folks until next January, it was momentarily startling--but it was also deja vu all over again. After all, the tradition of Windows slippage began with version 1.0, announced in 1983 but a no-show until 1985.

Shortly after the Vista news came down, Apple unloaded a true bombshell: Boot Camp, its new utility for Intel-based Macintoshes, would let you install Windows alongside Mac OS X. All of a sudden, one system could be a Windows PC and a Mac.

Both developments are reflected in this issue. Senior Editor Eric Dahl's Boot Camp story reports on how an iMac does Windows, complete with our Test Center's results. Eric's Plugged In column examines what the "Windows Vista Capable" stickers on new PCs actually mean. And in "Why Wait for Vista?" Contributing Editor Scott Dunn looks at add-ons that give XP Vista-like capabilities right now.

The (Slow) Road to Vista

The Vista delay amounts to only a few weeks--and with Microsoft saying it needs the time to get security right, no rational Windows user would want it to cut corners to hit a deadline. In other words, this is not that big a deal.

The larger question is whether Vista itself will be a big deal. As I write, there's no indication that it will offer much in the way of breakthroughs. In fact, much of what it promises--from tighter security to handy little desktop applets--is already here in the form of downloadable third-party enhancements.

Why isn't Vista bolder? In part, that's because for all of Windows' changes over the past two decades, the business model behind it remains the same. Microsoft still slogs away for years on a gargantuan update, sticks the finished product in a box, and charges US$100 or more for it.

Compare that with the online world, where innovative tools and services pop up almost every day and get updated frequently. Oh, and there's the little fact that an amazing percentage of the best stuff doesn't cost a dime, at least for now.

It's increasingly tough for a product as antediluvian as Windows to remain relevant. (The new Windows Live services are genuinely Webby, but they're not really finished, and they're not really Windows as we know it.) That's a depressing prospect for Microsoft, or for anyone who is pinning their hopes on being instantly wowed by Vista.

At the same time, there's reason for optimism about Windows' future. Boot Camp is a reminder that operating systems are ultimately about letting software work on particular hardware. All those Windows programs being able to run on Apple's inventive machines is only good news.

And the most important thing about Vista may be how it will enable new software to take advantage of cutting-edge hardware such as 64-bit CPUs and ATI and NVidia's latest graphics. True Vista programs won't arrive when the OS does--but without it, they'd never arrive.

"When you shop for a PC, look at the whole platform," advises Associate Editor Danny Allen, who spearheaded this issue's notebook roundup. For laptops, says Danny, the next advance will come from new technology such as Intel's update to its Centrino mobile platform, code-named Santa Rosa and due in the first half of next year. Laptops built around it will include features such as NAND memory to reduce boot-up time.

Oddly enough, with better hardware down the road, "Microsoft may be doing buyers a favor by making them wait," Danny muses. The combination of Vista, Vista apps, and next-generation PCs (and Macs) should make for interesting times in 2007. And the plot will continue to thicken for Windows and Windows users, in ways that may surprise us all.

Harry McCracken is editor in chief of PC World US. Contact him at mageditor@pcworld.com; read his blog at blogs.pcworld.com/techlog.

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