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Merry Christmas and a Vista New Year


In early 2007 Microsoft will finally get around to blessing the world with its new Vista operating system, which is being unveiled today in New York. Touted as a major upgrade from Windows, including a slick new user interface and sturdy new security features, the new OS has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and debate.

An operating system is the software that allows jamokes like me to be productive with a computer even without a working knowledge of binary code. Click on a pretty picture and stuff happens. Fast. I’ve long since forgotten the DOS commands I once used to coax information out of antediluvian green-screen computers, and it is all thanks to the geniuses who figured out how to build commands behind an icon.

Some folks can’t wait for Vista to hit the shelves, but don’t expect pent-up market demand to explode into the sort of violent frenzy that plagued PlayStation 3. Prevailing sentiment is less than enthusiastic – word on the street is more bust than blockbuster.

That doesn’t mean Vista won’t be a commercial success; it absolutely will. But Vista’s eventual popularity will be more testament to Microsoft’s inexorable market dominance than to the company’s engineering prowess. If Mr. Gate’s little venture has proven anything, it is that is knows how to use market dominance to it’s fullest effect, and that savvy will ensure that fans and critics alike will be using Vista before long. They have no choice.

Lance Ulanoff, PC Magazine’s reviews editor, explains why this will happen, even if the process takes a couple years.

“Vista will not be a runaway success,” Ulanoff deadpans. “It will be an evolutionary one, where, over time, Windows XP fades and Vista emerges as the default OS for PCs. Don’t be so shocked. This tale played itself out with Windows 95, 98, and XP. Vista’s success is, as far as I’m concerned, a fait accompli.”

Andy Rathbone, author of the Windows for Dummies series of books, including Windows Vista for Dummies, agrees.

“Vista lacks a killer feature that convinces people to upgrade,” he says. “Instead, Vista will trickle into the marketplace when people buy new PCs, eventually pushing XP to the number two spot in a few years.”

Rathbone doesn’t believe Vista’s new security features – one of the oft-mentioned improvements baked into Vista – offer users much of a step up over Windows XP. In fact, he says all that has been added is an extra step that gives the user an opportunity to stop or continue a potentially risky operation.

“Most users won’t have a clue – they simply expect their PCs to work,” Rathbone says. “So they’ll click ‘continue,’ exposing their PC to the same problems as before.”

Users are also skeptical. Rich Place, proprietor of the technology services firm MantisTech, says he’s not looking forward to Vista, which he characterizes as a “RAM hog.” RAM – meaning Random Access Memory – is the processing power available to run most of a computer’s programs. A computer should have 2 gigabits of RAM available for Vista to run efficiently, and because most folks are running systems with 1G of RAM, Place says he doubts the average user will benefit in proportion to the investment.

“Not sure why you would plunk down the dough for the OS and upgrades or get a new, bigger computer just to say you have Vista,” he says, adding that the computing habits of most users – word processing, email, web browsing – don’t require all that is wrapped into Vista.

Place is a power-user, so migration to newer products is often not optional for him if his clients’ needs require that he also upgrade, and he grudgingly accepts that it’s part of the PC economic cycle. Windows 98 may still work fine for some folks, but by forcing those systems into obsolescence and introducing software products that demand more processing speed and power, the tech economy is assured of a boost every few years.

Michael Wexler, co-founder and CTO of HiWired, a company that provides tech support for small businesses and consumers, sees a mixed bag in Vista. Like Rathbone, Wexler believes the security process may prompt users to fall into the dangerous habit of continuing with dangerous executions for the simple reason that they do not understand what is being asked. And, like Place, he sees potential problems for users who upgrade to Vista without also upgrading RAM on their current platform.

And while Wexler is disappointed enough about what he calls Vista’s “limited backward compatibility” that he is not recommending an immediate upgrade for his customer and clients, he does say that it’s not all bad. Parental controls for children on the Internet, and a “crisp new look and feel that end-users will find valuable” are a couple of the new features he likes.

Microsoft declined an opportunity to respond to the criticisms of the user community. Perhaps the inevitability of Vista’s eventual success through market coercion has dampened their motivation to rise to their own defense, or maybe it’s simply corporate hubris at play. One would think there would be enough brand pride to prompt some sort of counterpoint, though there are enough Vista advocates available to stand up where Microsoft will not.

“I’ve been using Vista on a number of different machines for well over a year now, so I’m intimately familiar with both its strengths and its flaws,” says Paul McFedries, author of Windows Vista Unveiled. “There has been much speculation in the press and in the blogosphere abut the merits of Vista and whether people will move to it.

“For me, however, all the Vista pros and cons boil down to a simple question: Will I switch to Vista as soon as it’s available? The answer is a no-brainer: I can’t wait to upgrade my main machine from XP Service Pack 2 to Vista. It’s fast, robust, secure, and beautiful to look at. What’s not to like?”

Meanwhile, Ken Colburn, president of the national computer service chain Data Doctors Computer Services, sees the grousers as nothing new for Microsoft, and that legions of detractors merely come with the territory for a market leader. Colburn says the dramatic improvements some pundits wanted to see could never happen without causing unacceptable upheaval within the existing Windows installed base, which is close to 90 percent of the total personal computer market. Beyond the immediate gains Vista users will enjoy, another thing Colburn says Vista will do is provide a broad economic boost for the tech sector.

“From an economic standpoint, Windows Vista stands to kick-start many technology related companies in 2007,” Colburn predicts. “Everyone from vendors of hardware, software and peripherals, to anyone that services Windows-based systems and networks will be presented with many new revenue opportunities based on the adoption of Vista.

“Those of us in the industry all have the same opinion,” he continues. “It’s about time.”

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