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Is Windows Vista a Train Wreck?

When I read a story the other day quoting someone from Microsoft almost begging people to give Vista a try, I had to come away with the feeling that they were struggling to right a sinking ship.

Of course, it’s also true that you can’t call Vista an abject failure. All right, people haven’t been lining up to buy retail upgrade kits, as they’ve done with Mac OS X Leopard, but it’s also true that millions upon millions of new PCs ship with various and sundry versions of Vista. So you really can’t say that it’s become a money loser for Microsoft. In fact, it has been estimated that their profit margin from operating systems is in the range of 80%, so it’s a win-win situation.

But they can’t say the user experience has been anything near as good as they hoped for. There are loads of incompatibilities with peripherals and you need extremely powerful hardware to deliver all those fancy 3D visual effects. That, of course, depends on whether Vista users really care all that much about eye-candy, of course.

The greatest insult to Microsoft, however, is the fact that PC makers are still letting their customers downgrade to Windows XP, and its shelf life has been extended for months to allow that to continue to occur.

Now on a practical basis, a sale is a sale, and Microsoft is still showing stellar profits, even if a lot of them come from older product.

I also believe they’re really trying to make Vista better. Just last week, they released updates that supposedly make Vista use note-book batteries more efficiently, and address some USB bugs and other issues. But that’s an awfully long time to address serious issues of this sort.

In comparison, Leopard shipped October 26, and less than three weeks later, there was Apple with a 10.5.1 update with lots of changes and security patches. A file copying bug, involving moving a file to another partition, drive, or network share, was evidently also repaired on the process, and the current reaction appears to be pretty good. Yes, there are the usual number of random conflicts with something-or-other reported on the Mac troubleshooting sites, but no significant trends or major new defects appear to have emerged so far.

While I realize that many of you are disappointed with Leopard’s higher CPU requirements, it is nowhere near as massive as Windows Vista. Those ubiquitous $399 PCs have an awful time with it, and are stuck with a sharply-reduced interface. But does it end up as a warmed-over version of XP? Probably not, but I can see folks feeling that way when year-old PCs exhibit performance limitations trying to deliver the full Aero interface effect.

Understand, I want to be fair to Microsoft. After all, their operating system powers over 90% of the world’s personal computers, and major businesses depend on them. If they fail to deliver a reliable product, the computers that manage bank transactions, medical records and other critical data cease to function reliably. Many millions of people suffer, or end up paying higher prices to cover the cost of repairs.

As I have suggested in yesterday’s commentary, maybe Microsoft is losing its focus in its struggles to complete with Google in delivering ad-sponsored search and other Web services. Once again, there is an emerging rumor that Microsoft is hell-bent on acquiring Yahoo somehow, to magically increase its share of the search market to 30%.

The big question, of course, is whether Yahoo would be amenable to such a takeover. What’s more, how would the company be impacted? Even if such a sale passes all the regulatory hurdles, would Yahoo’s key executives and engineers simply jump ship? Would they just go to Google, assuming they could gain employment there?

Even if such a merger were to succeed in large part, would it really help Microsoft take a huge jump in improving its Web services share? Or would the maneuver end up simply diluting both brands? How, for example, would the combined company manage synergy, assuming such a thing even existed?

Based on some casual research, it appears that most of Yahoo’s servers are running FreeBSD and Linux operating systems. Clearly Microsoft would prefer they run some version of Windows Server instead, but that’s not something that can be accomplished so easily, when you’re dealing with thousands of boxes spread around the world. The other question is whether such a move would generate a massive rebellion on the part of Yahoo’s programming and IT staff.

Even if an operating system transplant were to happen, it would probably be a gradual migration, with no guarantee of success. It’s not as if Windows Server is easier to manage.

Meantime, Microsoft is laboring over its first Vista service pack, now in beta testing and due early next year. Even if it does arrive on time, will it contain all the essential fixes that will change the skeptical minds of IT people who are, according to published reports, still reluctant to deploy Vista in a production environment?

Now over time, resource needs won’t seem as severe, as more and more PCs are upgraded with newer, Vista-savvy hardware. But will Microsoft have to go back to the drawing boards, and rush up Vista’s successor, or fix what’s broken now before Vista can be declared a real — and not imagined — success?