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  • Microsoft’s Invitation: A Threat or a Compliment?

    August 30th, 2006

    On Tuesday, I got a letter from Microsoft. No, it wasn’t personal. I was, in fact, one of 100,000 to receive an invitation to participate in the Windows Vista pre-RC1 test program.

    Now regardless of what you might think, gentle reader, I am not a Microsoft basher by trade. In fact, I respect the company for building products good enough to dominate the personal computer industry. True, I also criticize the company for its many security lapses, but everyone benefits if they build an operating system that’s more reliable, and, one hopes, more secure.

    In fact, one of my early book chapters covered a Windows communications product, although, truth to tell, it was actually written on a Mac running the late, lamented SoftWindows. Even when I have engaged in writing about the Mac at full tilt, I have remained exposed to Windows. Sometimes Microsoft even has a good idea or two, so let’s avoid the knee-jerk reactions.

    I have also tried to maintain a good professional working relationship with Microsoft. I’ve had their representatives on one of my radio shows, The Tech Night Owl LIVE, and my current favored keyboard is one of their “Comfort” models, which mimics the ergonomic keyboard, although the main keypad is in one piece.

    So why did Microsoft choose to include me in that list of the favored 100,000? Well, it’s not that I am a special person, a VIP or whatever. I just happen to be among the two million or so who downloaded Windows Vista beta 2. So I suppose I was picked at random. I doubt that Microsoft’s Windows team knows me from a hole in the wall.

    But it raises the larger question of whether Microsoft can, at long last, get its often-delayed operating system out the door and have it in the hands of consumers by the end of January next year. At least orders are now being taken, and after a brief flap over a premature listing in Canada, we know what it’ll cost for all that PC joy.

    As to that pre-RC1 test version, it is apparently the one that precedes the real RC1. If all goes well with the latter, Microsoft will be able to release Vista manufacturing on its latest schedule. If it proves to be a shaky beast, and you’ll see the online chatter about Vista’s current condition soon enough, there will be another delay supposedly to set things right.

    Microsoft’s bigger problem, whenever Vista is released, is convincing existing PC users that what they have now, even if it works and isn’t driving them insane with malware, isn’t good enough and that they need to upgrade. This will be no mean task, no matter how well Vista turns out. You see lots of big businesses aren’t even up to Windows XP yet, and that came out in 2001.

    Several banks in my area, for example, still operate with Windows 2000, and it does seem to get the job done. Or at least my bank hasn’t lost any of my money yet, or had any heavy-duty outages that I know about, although they occasionally freeze their site over the weekend for maintenance of one sort or another.

    While power users and owners of brand, spanking new PC boxes will no doubt rush to acquire Vista right away, I expect the larger business community will sit back and wait to see what’s really involved in that upgrade, and whether it makes sense financially to take the plunge.

    However, don’t count Apple out when it comes to skepticism about a new system version. If you’ve taken the Mac OS X ride from the beginning, you’ll see that Tiger is a superb system, and that the remaining quirks are minor for most. Already some Mac users are suggesting that they might just hold off on moving to Leopard; that is, unless some of those “Top Secret” features Apple doesn’t want to tell us about are truly compelling reasons to upgrade. So far they are skeptical that a system-based backup, multiple desktops and eye-candy for iChat and Mail are sufficiently powerful selling points. And full 64-bit support doesn’t light their fires.

    In any case, when finally Vista gets out, Microsoft will be spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tell you that it’s the greatest thing in the world. Even if many are convinced, and they will be, the next question is which version to buy. You see, Microsoft wants to give you choices, and there are six. Yes, six versions of Windows Vista to select from.

    Now the low-end version, Windows Vista Starter, will supposedly be restricted to so-called “emerging markets,” or third world countries. The real starter pack will be Vista Home Basic, which is sort of a glorified Windows XP with enhanced security and search.

    To get the new, Mac-inspired interface, Aero Glass, you need to upgrade to Home Premium, which also includes support for Media Center and Tablet computers. You’ll also need a PC with a graphics card of sufficient power to support the new fancy visuals.

    Next on the on-ramp is the business version, known, with a typically Microsoft degree of clever packaging, as Vista Business. This will be the counterpart to XP Professional. There is also a Vista Enterprise version for large businesses that also includes enhanced encryption, virtual machine and Unix services support.

    Now take Vista Home Premium and combine it with Enterprise and you get Vista Ultimate, which supposedly does everything but take out the trash every night. It’ll also cost $399, retail, which is more than some pay for the entire computer. An upgrade version will set you back $259.

    Let me remind you, once again, that the last version of Mac OS X cost $129, and a five-user home package went for $199. With Vista, as with XP, Microsoft will also strictly enforce activation on just one computer. You try to activate it on a second box, and Microsoft will spit the attempt back in your face, forcing you to buy another user license.

    More important to me is that all those versions, even if the differences are fairly clear-cut, will just confuse people. I can imagine the nightmares consumer electronics stores will suffer as customers walk over to salespeople begging them to explain which upgrade they should buy.

    Of course, Microsoft’s support people will also be fielding lots of calls from confused customers with the very same questions. I could say they deserve it for what they put the world through as a result of all those viruses and such, but maybe they won’t invite me to download the next prerelease of Vista.

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