Is Vista really that bad?

Thursday, March 14, 2007

Since Microsoft Vista’s public debut in January, I’ve read many articles about Vista – most of which were not complimentary. This article will take a look at the public’s reaction to Vista and try to examine why the reception has been so cold.

I’m far from a Microsoft apologist, but there are some factors which are beyond Microsoft’s control. That is, in some ways, I believe people are over reacting to the problems with Vista. Of course, many issues are indeed directly attributed to Microsoft.

A historical perspective…

When Windows 95 was launched nearly 12 years ago, it was met with much fan fair amongst the PC world. Finally, Microsoft had delivered an operating system with a usable GUI that was actually comparable to the Macintosh. Windows 3.11 and below were a sad joke. It was purely a graphic shell layered over a weak foundation – MS DOS. While it wasn’t perfect, Windows 95 was at least on par with the standard of excellence at that time (Mac OS). In some ways, it was still worse, but in some ways it was even better. Given Microsoft’s momentum and market share, there was little reason to even look at alternatives anymore. Given this breakthrough, it’s not hard to understand why so many people stood in long lines to upgrade their PCs.

Since then, Microsoft has tried very hard to generate that kind of enthusiasm for their products. Microsoft followed with Windows 98 which was a reasonable upgrade. It was nothing to get excited about, but it was a welcome upgrade over Windows 95. Unfortunately, in 2000, Microsoft followed with Windows ME. Windows ME was a bug ridden embarrassment for Microsoft. However, Microsoft was given a little slack because they were spending most of their efforts on their Windows NT product in parallel. Most Windows users either stuck with Windows 98 or they upgraded to Windows 2000 (an NT based product). Windows 2000 was a stable OS, certainly in contrast to Windows ME. However, it was geared more for the office environment than it was for the home environment.

In 2001, Microsoft finally introduced Windows XP. It was their NT based operating system that had the necessary bells and whistles for home consumer use. Microsoft has always been up front with their product plans (perhaps too much so). Likewise, when the “stinker of an OS” that was Windows ME was released, consumers didn’t get very upset because they knew they could migrate to Windows 2000 or just wait a year for Windows XP. Windows XP finally gave consumers features like protected memory and preemptive task scheduling, etc. Which means it could walk and chew gum at the same time and is considerably less prone to crashing. This was a very significant upgrade to the Win9x series on a technical level. However, it didn’t look all that much different from its predecessors. XP had a successful product launch, but nothing on the scale of Windows 95.

With that historical perspective in mind, let’s examine issues that factor into Vista’s acceptance.

1. It’s been almost 6 years since Microsoft’s last major software release (XP).

Sure, there was a server release in 2003 along with Windows Mobile releases, 64bit versions of XP that nobody used, etc. However, they were just more variations of the same thing and more importantly, they were not competing in the same market space. People don’t like change. There was enough uproar over Windows service pack 2 as it was. Of course, for many, this was with good reason as it wreaked significant havoc in terms of compatibility issues, etc. With that in mind, it’s understandable that many don’t like the notion of being forced to use Vista. If you question whether people are forced to use / buy Vista, try ordering a Dell (for example) without Vista and see what happens.

2. Most major OS releases are accompanied by incompatibilities from third party vendors.

Vista is no different in this regard. Of course, is this Microsoft’s fault? Vendors have had access to Vista betas for a very long time. Many third party vendors have simply decided it’s not worth their effort to release updates to their software and device drivers until there is a sufficient mass of users to warrant the effort. To me, that’s backwards thinking. It’s not like there is any doubt that Vista will be widely adopted. One way or the other, Microsoft will force Vista upon the masses because it has a monopoly and likewise has the power to do so. Yes, alternatives do exist, but the cost is prohibitive for most businesses and let’s be honest – the masses of consumers are largely like sheep. They just follow the herd when buying a computer. Comparing platforms requires significant knowledge of more than one operating system. That automatically eliminates the masses from even considering an alternative operating system.

3. The press has been hard on Microsoft because they over promised with Longhorn and under delivered with Vista.

To clarify, it’s that that Vista doesn’t represent a significant upgrade over Vista. It does. Rather, Vista delivers less than what was originally promised. Further, customers expect more after 6 years of development and 6 billion dollars of investment. Vista’s development from a project management perspective was nothing short of a disaster. It was supposed to be delivered in 2004 with much better features. Of course, this is what happens when you are to upfront with your customers in terms of your plans. Anything less than your original promise will be considered a disappointment. If you miss your originally targeted ship date, you’ve again disappointed your customers. So, then, why does Microsoft do this? Well, this is an old marketing trick from Microsoft. When your competitor has a better product than you, talk about vaporware. That’s right; create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt).

Just as Windows XP was announced in 2001, so was Apple’s Mac OS X. Mac OS X had the same “buzzword compliant” features such as memory protection and preemptive multitasking, etc. It had more though such as a BSD subsystem which allowed for many of the services common to UNIX (like) distributions. It had an advanced “Quartz” compositing system that made previous compositors such as Apple’s own Quickdraw and Microsoft’s GDI+ look incredibly out dated. It had its own built in PDF engine, etc. The list goes on… So, Microsoft’s XP product was outclassed by Apple’s OS X. OS X was brand new, so it had its own share of compatibility issues, few native software titles were available and it generally needed a release or two in order to better mature before it would be a great OS. Still, it had a foundation that was years ahead of Microsoft. Microsoft knew that, so they did what they always do. Basically, they made up a list of features that they planned to include in their next OS and promised those features in an unrealistic time frame. The idea is to keep your customer base where they are by providing the impression that they will eventually have some sort of feature parity – eventually.

Well, as we know, the years went buy, Microsoft missed several of its own self imposed deadlines while losing credibility in the process. Worse, along the way, Microsoft shed a significant portion of the product’s features such as WinFS, Palladium (next generation security), etc. Meanwhile, the press has watched OS X evolve (Cheetah 10.0, Puma 10.1, Jaguar 10.2, Panther 10.3, Tiger 10.4). While these operating system updates were not quite as grandiose in scope, they were very significant and steady updates. In the process, Apple has delivered even more advanced features on a more regular basis. In doing so, it established credibility in terms of being able to deliver quality software on time.

4. Once again, Microsoft has delivered a “me too” product.

It’s difficult for the press to get excited about something that’s already been done before. Microsoft spent nearly 6 years and 6 billion dollars in order to get rough feature parity with Apple’s Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger). An in depth comparison of the two operating systems is beyond the scope of this article. However, when you look at the major selling points of Vista, you have to look at Tiger and say “been there, done that”. Examples:

Vista Mac equivalent
Aero/Windows presentation foundation Aqua/Quartz
Windows Search Spotlight
Windows Sidebar / Gadgets Dashboard / Widgets
Internet Explorer 7 Safari
(IE 7 finally gets tabbed browsing/rss) (Safari already has that)
Windows Media Player 11 iTunes/Quicktime
Windows Mail Apple Mail
Windows Calendar iCal
Windows Photo Gallery iPhoto
Windows DVD Maker iDVD
Windows Media Center Front Row *
Windows Meeting Space iChat AV *
(formerly Netmeeting)
Shadow Copy .Mac Backup *
Better security (UAC, BitLocker, Defender) built in, FileVault (no viruses exist)
Microsoft Services for Unix BSD
Windows Workflow Foundation Automater *

* Note: In some of the examples above, there is not a 1:1 feature comparison.
Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) which is due out this spring will further establish Apple’s lead in this area with features like Time Machine, Spaces, Core Animation, etc.

From the media’s point of view, its taken Microsoft years, spending billions along the way, to produce a “me too” product that doesn’t break any new ground. Yawn.

5. Nothing can live up to Microsoft’s marketing hype.

What does Microsoft say? “The Wow starts here” or something like that? I guess that’s what you’re supposed to say when you see something like Flip 3D. That’s Microsoft’s eye candy equivalent of the Alt-Tab window switching mechanism. It offers nothing new in terms of functionality. It’s far less practical than something like Expose’ on the Mac. I suppose if you’ve never seen Aqua (Mac OS X’s interface), or something like KDE on Linux, etc. then you might be impressed by transparencies, etc. Maybe that applies to some, but it probably doesn’t apply to people writing software reviews.

Is the bad press warranted?

Still, I can’t help but wonder if some are getting a bit carried away with the dumping on Vista. Some of the more popular bloggers are getting a bit carried away in my opinion. For example, Christopher Null suggests that Microsoft should re-release Windows XP. In support of his argument, he links to various other negative Vista issues.

“It’s time to sober up on Windows Vista. This just isn’t working out, and your users are getting frustrated to the point where they’re souring on Windows altogether. In case you haven’t seen some of the more noteworthy blog posts on this topic, I refer you to Chris Pirillo, Scot’s Newsletter, or Spend Matters. Or check out the recent bug reports regarding product activation and security flaws. This is all stuff I managed to dredge up that was written yesterday.”
http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/18428?comment_start=26&comment_count=20

Fortunately, the more mainstream press has been kinder than the bloggers. Still, when you rip-off your competitor, there is no getting around the feature comparison and comments that point out what you’ve done.

Vista Wins on Looks. As for Lacks …
By DAVID POGUE

“If the description so far makes Vista sound a lot like the Macintosh, well, you’re right. You get the feeling that Microsoft’s managers put Mac OS X on an easel and told the programmers, “Copy that.”
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/14/technology/14pogue.html?ex=1323752400&en=1cde0d24860d1fac&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

Mossberg Review: Vista best for Microsoft crop, but it’s no Apple
By WALTER MOSSBERG, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL,

“Nearly all of the major, visible new features in Vista are already available in Apple’s operating system, called Mac OS X, which came out in 2001 and received its last major upgrade in 2005. And Apple is about to leap ahead again with a new version of OS X, called Leopard, due this spring.”
http://content.hamptonroads.com/story.cfm?story=118344&ran=87842

Conclusion

There has been mixed press and an overall lack of enthusiasm for Microsoft Vista. The mainstream press hasn’t very critical of Vista, but the blogger community hasn’t been shy at venting frustration. The irony is that happened despite Microsoft’s attempt to bribe some of the most influential bloggers.
However, even the most favorable reviews of Vista can’t help compare it to what Apple has already done years ago.

One some levels, I understand where they media is coming from. If you’re going to take years on a project, spend billions of dollars, create all sorts media hype, one would expect the product to break new ground with a truly innovative product. Instead, this is what Microsoft does while just playing “catch up” to Apple.

On the other hand, Microsoft Vista is a very solid improvement over Windows XP. With any new operating system, there will be some compatibility issues. There will also be bugs. The general consensus is to wait until the first patch is released for any operating system before diving in. Suggesting Vista is a “me too” product is certainly condescending, but in reality, that’s not really a bad thing. Apple’s OS X 10.4 (Tiger) is an outstanding product. While being a “me too” product is faint praise, it also recognizes that it’s a significant leap from the outdated Windows XP product.

Also, while Apple has been ahead of Microsoft from a technology perspective overall, it’s not always completely one-sided. For example, Microsoft has implemented ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization). Briefly, this is a security feature which makes it more difficult for a potential vulnerability to be converted into a working exploit.

The point being is that those who suggest Microsoft should re-release Windows XP don’t know that they’re talking about. However, there are things Microsoft can do to help itself going forward. They are:

1. Don’t promise features and fail to deliver on the promise.

2. Don’t go 5 – 6 years without an operating system update. In six years from now, Vista will FAR behind the current version of the Mac OS at that time. More timely updates help bring out new technology sooner and it helps make the transition between operating systems smoother.

3. An operating system update doesn’t have to be a ground up rewrite. That’s the point of modularization and layers, etc. This also helps keep the code more reliable as well.

4. Try to concentrate on being more innovative rather than just copying what others have done. If you’re behind the curve in terms of features, you do need to catch up. However, your product will only gain respect if it leads the way. Microsoft does this on rare occasion, but it’s the exception to the rule generally speaking.

This advice may sound like common sense, but apparently, it is not. Not coincidentally, the four items above are examples of what Apple is doing right and Microsoft is not. Apple has demonstrated how to do this right. If Microsoft is going to copy Apple, why stop at the product features and not also consider the development model. Just look at what Apple has been able to deliver at a fraction of the cost Microsoft spends on development. It’s an embarrassment for Microsoft and it’s been recognized by Microsoft’s own management. The good news for Microsoft is that these problems can be fixed. The question is: How will Microsoft rebound after the Vista development fiasco?

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9 Responses to “Is Vista really that bad?”

  1. Bjornar Larsen Says:

    I don’t konw if you really mean what you said: “On the other hand, Microsoft Vista is a very solid improvement over Windows XP”. For it is not so. I have Winows Vista Home Premium, and so far, I have have not been impressed. At least not when I changed hard drive on my PC.
    I changed the HD on my wife’s PC yesterday, she has Windows XO Home Edition, and to get up and running agian, with the new hard drive, took me about 1 hour.
    Today I changed the HD in my PC, where I had Vista installed, and still, 7 hours later, I have not managed to get Vista up and running, even if I used the same method of doing it, Noteon Ghost. So for me, Vista sucks, at leats for the moment.

  2. Bjornar Larsen Says:

    Sorry, I forgot one thing, “very big impovement”, NO WAY!!!!

  3. technicalconclusions Says:

    Bjornar Larsen,

    Thanks for your comments. You make a valid point. That is, despite the technology improvements in Vista, the user experience can still be disappointing. In some ways, these are growing pains that come along with major product enhancements. Yet, in other ways, this is a way of life with Microsoft products.

    That said, from a technology point of view, I stand by my claim that Vista is a big improvement over XP. For example the graphics compositing engine in Aero is light years ahead of the former GDI+. They’ve integrated a search engine. The new WinFX APIs are better for developers. For security, Microsoft implemented ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization), etc.

    With the exception of Aero, these are not readily apparent to the end user, but these are examples of underlying technologies that have moved the Windows platform ahead significantly. This holds true, even if Microsoft does have its work cut out in order to smooth over some of the rough (okay, very rough in some cases) edges.

    I’m sure your experience with Vista will improve over time. Perhaps after a service pack (or two) along with better third party support, etc. Good Luck!

  4. WINMACLINUX Says:

    VISTA = SCHIT/USELESS

    Who says otherwise didnt test it!

  5. Frankie Says:

    I keep hearing how bad Vista is and I’m in the process of buying a computer. I rather purchase a PC but am somewhat leaning towards a MAC. The purpose is to run Pro Tools. I don’t know what the additions are to Vista nor do I really care. I’m looking for a computer that doesn’t crash every 5 minutes. What is so wrong with Vista? Also, I heard from a sales rep, probably because they’re a sales rep, but by installing Windows XP on a new computer, or the computer that was showed to me, that it would “fry” the computer. That doesn’t make any sense to me either, but has anyone heard about this ?

  6. technicalconclusions Says:

    @Frankie

    ProTools has traditionally been a strong Mac product, but, since I have absolutely no talent in music, I wouldn’t venture to offer advice in this area one way or the other. In terms of stability, I would expect both Vista and Mac to be very stable. Both have come a long way since the instability both OS’s faced in the mid 90’s.

    Rest assured, installing XP on a new computer will not “fry it”. I think it’s safe to assume most salesman are not engineers. Sadly, “salesman” like this will apparently say anything to sell you the product they want you to buy.

    Again, Vista is a better OS than XP from a technology perspective. However, many people prefer to keep XP on their systems. It’s not that XP is better per say, it’s that there are less compatibility issues to deal with. Vista, like any significantly new OS, breaks a few older products. Some drivers were not compatible with Vista initially. Vista can also be a bit annoying in terms of it’s UAC “feature”. Finally, after 6 years of development, expectations were high in terms of what Microsoft might deliver. In addition to multiple product delays, Microsoft also removed some of the more significant features that were promised with Longhorn. As people buy new PCs and Microsoft releases another service pack or two, Vista will be the better choice (as opposed to XP).

  7. Charles Nickalopoulos Says:

    How long will we have Windows XP? I probably will keep my computer awhile, and I wonder how long MS will support Windows XP.

    Being strictly a home-user, I wonder if I would even need Vista.

  8. Matt Baker Says:

    I’ve been using Vista for around 3 months here and, to be honest, I don’t know why I’d ever want to go back to XP.

    Vista is cleaner, prettier, and more secure than XP ever could be.

  9. Bernard Breach Says:

    I have been using vista for a few year and let me tell u that i love it!! of course, you have to have the computer to power it, i got 4 gig ram and a dual core possessor. It runs, looks, and smells great.

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