Squaring the Vista riddle

Squaring the Vista riddle

Vista, in some ways, in fact, is a better operating system than Windows XP. Unfortunately, XP's heir apparent is also the most derided and discounted Microsoft operating system since Windows Me.

With all of the negative press about slower-than-expected adoption rates and the push for vendors to continue offering an XP option on new PCs, users may be left with the impression that anything is better than opting for Vista, including paying a premium to downgrade to Windows XP when buying a new PC.

That's a bit extreme. Granted, the operating system has its share of glitches and issues. Higher-end versions are pricey, and Vista requires state-of-the-art hardware for optimum performance. But more than a year after its release, Vista with SP1 is reasonably stable and probably more secure than XP. It's also technically more advanced than its seven-year-old predecessor.

As developers bring products to market that exploit unique Vista capabilities, such as the Presentation Graphics subsystem and support for Sidebar gadgets, users will want them. But those who buy XP with that new PC won't have access to those applications because they will be working through an operating system designed in the late'90s to run on millennium-era hardware. What's more, general support for that "new" XP operating system will end next April, even though many consumers will keep those machines for five years.

If users buying new PCs are going to stick with Windows, they should get machines with Vista preloaded. Sure, the incessant barking of security warnings is annoying, but those can be muzzled. Windows is the platform on which users run the applications that do the real work. Those applications will increasingly exploit and rely on Vista's capabilities.

In a market that watches shipments as if they were movie box-office grosses, Vista has fallen short of very public expectations. But although Vista hasn't been a blockbuster on par with Windows 95, general penetration rates for the operating system are following the same slow, steady trajectory as those for Windows XP, according to a June report by Bernstein Research.

For business, the Vista adoption calculation has many more variables. And there's no need to rush. Enterprises can continue to install their own XP system images onto new hardware, and the security updates that businesses need will be available until 2014. By then, Vista's successor should be established.

But there is also something to be said for staying current with your users. Vista is shipping on most new Windows PCs in the retail channel. Microsoft claims to have shipped 140 million copies as of March 2008, and it's a sure bet that most of those licenses aren't being downgraded to XP. That means users will increasingly be running Vista at home.

At least one wavering CIO sees this as a political issue. He worries that if users accept Vista at home and businesses wait for Windows 7, IT may look lethargic in its efforts to deploy the latest technology to meet business needs. By the time Windows 7 is ready for enterprise use, XP will be at least 10 years old. At that point, being on the trailing edge with XP could hurt IT's credibility and make kicking off more-ambitious projects difficult, he says.

In the end, the Vista decision involves striking a delicate balance between political, technical and business issues. Wait or migrate? Both choices involve some risks.

Robert L. Mitchell is a Computerworld national correspondent. Contact him at

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