No Vista until '07: Should you care?

"Microsoft Updates Windows Vista Road Map." That press release title is a pretty innocuous phrasing of a great big bombshell: Vista will miss the holiday season. Despite the press release's cheery statement that the product is "on track," it's slip-slided into the new year, at least in terms of being widely available on new consumer PCs.

For as long as there's been a Microsoft Windows, it's been synonymous with slippage, and this isn't the first time that Vista has been pushed back (here's a story I wrote back in 2002, when it looked like the OS might ship in 2004). But it's by far the most dramatic Vista delay.

It's not good news for Microsoft, which would presumably like to sell lots of copies of the new OS sooner rather than later. (On the other hand, most of the PCs that get sold this Christmas will still have a Microsoft OS on them--it'll just be one called Windows XP.) And it's a gigantic issue for the computer industry--possibly a catastrophic one for some vendors. It's not just that a new OS is a huge incentive to buy a new PC; it's also that the lack of a new OS is a strong disincentive to buy, since the simplest way to get a new version of Windows is to buy a system that has it preinstalled.

Already, hardware manufacturers were fretting over the fact that a lot of people were putting off PC purchases until late this year. Now a lot of smart technology buyers will lope along with whatever computer they've got until 2007--and that spells bad news for the all-important back-to-school and holiday seasons. The stores that sell PCs will suffer; even manufacturers of printers and networking equipment and practically anything else that talks to Windows may see their sales drop.

So this is a bad day for the Behemoth of Redmond and the companies who sell products based on its platform. The question remains: Should you, as a Windows user, be dejected?

And the answer is pretty simple: not really (unless you're the type of geek who camps out at CompUSA to await a new version of Windows--and believe me, I hope you aren't). First of all, we're talking about a few weeks here; if you're looking forward to Vista, you'll get it soon enough. Any PC that can survive in a usable state until December can surely squeak into 2007; if it can't, you can always buy a new machine and upgrade later. (I may do just that myself, since my home desktop, which is now more than four years old, is getting pretty geriatric.)

Then there's Microsoft's explanation for the delay: It needs more time to get Vista security right. That's a pretty darn good excuse; any sane Microsoft customer should be happy to wait a bit longer for a more secure, stable OS. (Some--especially in big companies--will wait a long, long time: For many corporations, Vista won't be a factor until 2008, and maybe later.)

Ultimately, though, the real question about Vista is whether it's going to be a dramatic enough advance on XP that it's worth devoting any brain cells at all to stressing out over its whereabouts. The jury will be out on that one until there's a more-or-less final version to try. But it's hard envisioning it being a Windows 95-like blockbuster. (The good news: It also seems unlikely that it'll be a Windows Me-style fiasco.)

What looks most promising about Vista? It should indeed be more secure, although as I've said, I think features like User Account Protection will create problems as well as solve them. It'll have decent built-in search, some worthwhile photo- and music-related features, and widgets (er, Gadgets). It'll look prettier than Windows XP (but perhaps not as nice as Mac OS X). It'll have some usability tweaks, altough the beta I've been using provides a less consistent user interface than XP. It'll have a new version of IE. And it'll be the first mainstream version of Windows that can truly take advantage of 64-bit PCs. (That last point may be, long-term, the most important thing about Vista--but it's a virtue that'll make itself apparent over the next few years, not in January of 2007.)

There are, in other words, a bunch of reasons to consider Windows Vista...and once it hits new PCs and the first bugs and driver issues are worked out, it should be a better Windows than XP. But it's still hard to find any one feature that should leave a sensible PC user salivating--or even a few of them that add up to a big deal.

In part, I think, that's because of the Web's gigantic impact on how software is created, distributed, and subsidized. A lot of the innovation in Vista got here long before the OS will, and you don't even need to pay for it.

Want a better firewall than XP's built-in one? ZoneAlarm and other products are available right now--for free. Covet widgety little applets? The Yahoo Widget Engine (nee Konfabulator) is cool, mature--and free. Trying to organize your photos? Google's Picasa isn't perfect, but it's a lot of fun--and free. Need desktop search? There are so many options that I'm not going to bother linking to any of them--and they're free.

Building a new version of Windows is still a massive engineering challenge that takes years, and Microsoft's entire business model is based around asking people to pay for it, whether you pay for the upgrade on a CD or simply buy a Vista machine. That seems archaic in an age when the Googles of the world can push out new products on the Web, update them frequently, and (in theory, at least) give 'em away.

There was a time when most of the innovation in the world of software happened on the desktop. Today, though, the real action is on the Web--and itty-bitty companies like Riya are doing things which are more viscerally exciting than anything we've seen in Vista so far. And much of the cool stuff you can do on the Web can be done in any major browser on any OS.

What can't the Web do? Right now, at least, it can't really talk directly to cool hardware. An OS can, and like I say, Windows Vista's 64-bittishness is more tantalizing than its functionality. Perhaps the future of operating systems lies not in tools and features so much as in leveraging the CPU and powerful graphics cards and networking and other hardware to let Web services (and, oh, desktop applications) do their thing. If so, that would be in some ways a return to the DOS days, when an operating system was more like a layer of glue than an environment you spent much time in.

Anyhow, a Vista which had been available in 2006 would have been less than a milestone in the history of computing; one which slips into next year will need to struggle even more to assert its relevance in the age of the Web. I'm still processing the impact of today's news, but I think there's a chance that when we all look back in a decade or two, this delay will be remembered as a milestone...in the gradual decline of Windows in particular and desktop operating systems in general. We'll see.

My colleague Eric Dahl had some thoughts on all this too--and here they are:

My immediate response to the Vista delay: Even if Microsoft pushed this thing back to July 2007 they wouldn't have enough time to make it into an impressive OS. My reaction to every new Vista beta has been the same: "This is it?!" Transparent title bars, inconsistent menu placement (with, as Harry's documented, some apps that don't have menus at all), and a start menu with scroll bars all demonstrate that MS has learned the wrong lessons about interface design. Three months won't solve those problems, it will only increase expectations for a product that's not that amazing to begin with.

In the whole Longhorn/Vista development process, Microsoft had one transcendent idea, Win FS--one of the first things they dropped so that Vista could meet a reasonable release deadline. Whoops. BTW, In case you don't remember, WinFS was a new storage system for Windows that was supposed make finding data on your PC much easier by keeping track of metadata on images, audio tracks, e-mails, and other data files. Who knows when we'll see an actual release of it.

That's the story of Vista in a nutshell: One industry-changing idea that didn't even make it into the release. Everything else is either long-overdue (serious security updates), implemented poorly (Aero and the other visual enhancements), or not that impressive (like we need yet another widget engine with a semi-cute name).

I applaud the emphasis on security in this new version of Windows--apparently the main reason for the delay is so that Microsoft can get that right. And I'm not trying to minimize the job Microsoft has in front of them when they update Windows--it's much easier to create a beautiful, rock-solid OS when you can essentially blow everything up every few years and start again. But already I can't see how Vista can measure up to Mac OS X, and another delay certainly won't help. I guess it's one more reason to watch the XP-on-Intel-Macs effort closely.

That's the view from PC World as of Tuesday evening. You can bet we'll be doing a lot more thinking and writing about this in the weeks and months to come.

Meanwhile, what's your take?

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Harry McCracken

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