In a small way, this is a significant post: It’s the first one in which I’m going to refer to Windows Vista in the past tense. Which might be premature and/or unreasonable–Windows 7 won’t reach consumers until October 22nd, and millions of copies of Vista will be in use for years to come. But last week, I was writing a piece on Windows 7 for PC World, and started to refer to “the Windows Vista era”–and then I realized that it’s hard to make the case that the Vista age ever started. (Even today, two and a half years after Vista’s release, 63 percent of the people who visit Technologizer on a Windows PC do so on Windows XP, versus 27 percent who use Vista–and if anything, you guys should be more likely than the world at large to have adopted Vista.) Already, I’m thinking of Vista as part of the past–in part because I’m looking forward to Windows 7.
More than most technology products, Vista seems to be entirely different things to different perfectly intelligent people. Some say its bad rep is unfair. Others continue to trash it. But you’ll have trouble finding many people outside of Redmond city limits who’ll contend that Vista has been a hit.
What happened? It wasn’t one issue that hobbled Vista, it was all kinds of mishaps, none of which would have have been a disaster if it had been the only thing wrong. (In fact, most of them mirrored problems that had happened with earlier, far more successful versions of the OS, such as deadline problems and driver glitches.) Taken as a group, however, they confronted Windows Vista with both karmic and all-too-real difficulties that it never came close to resolving.
1. The delay. Microsoft’s blown deadlines left Vista arriving in January of 2007, a truly terrible time for a new operating system to debut. (At least from a marketing standpoint–you could make the case that it’s better to release one during a quiet time when fewer people will be impacted by its initial rough edges.) Arriving under a cloud of disappointment and embarrassment, more than five years after the last major version of Windows, just isn’t a great way for a hugely important new product to make its debut.
2. Unfulfilled hype. Yes, 99 percent of the people on the planet who use Windows weren’t listening when Bill Gates literally used the words “holy grail” to describe the WinFS file system that Microsoft was planning for Vista. So they didn’t notice when it wasn’t there. But the one percent who were paying attention to the years of pre-release hoopla that all turned out to be for naught were an influential bunch, and they tended to judge Vista more harshly than they would have if Microsoft hadn’t bragged about features it failed to implement.
3. Microsoft’s initial marketing also raised people’s expectations to bizarre heights. I mean, it wasn’t just the “The ‘Wow’ starts now” slogan, but also the fact that the company compared the upgrade to the American space program. Basically, it tried to pitch Vista as a Windows 95-like great leap forward, when it contained little in the way of life-changing improvements.
4. It depended too much on misplaced glitz. Vista’s signature feature was the Aero user interface, which…drum roll!…consisted mostly of making the frames of windows transparent. Unless you bought a version of Windows that didn’t support Aero, or had a computer that wasn’t up to the task…in which case your windows remained defiantly opaque. Another much-touted feature, Flip3D task switching, seemed to mimic OS X’s Exposé…except it pointlessly made you shuffle through windows one-by-one in 3D space, while Exposé efficiently shows you all your windows at once. In both cases, Microsoft’s injection of “Wow” into the OS caused more problems than it solved.
5. Too many features were too little, too late. Vista added desktop search and Gadgets and better photo features, all of which made sense…but they were comparable to software which other companies had introduced as free downloads long before, such as Google’s Google Desktop, Google Gadgets, and Picasa. The other companies’ Windows-enhancing downloads all worked just fine with XP, and the more of them you’d already installed, the less reason there was to move to Vista.
6. It missed too many opportunities. For instance, what semi-serious Windows user wouldn’t rejoice at the notion of a System Tray that prevented applets from pestering you without permission? But the Vista System Tray did nothing to improve on XPs’ mess. There was a long list of things that were wrong with Windows XP, and while Vista fixed some of them–like the XP Start menu that could splay across the entire screen–it left too many broken things broken. (Windows 7 is so promising in part because it fixes so many longstanding Windows annoyances.)
7. Initial driver and application hassles. New versions of Windows always cause trouble for existing software, and Microsoft always seems too cavalier about it all. (Apple’s OS X upgrades can cause headaches of their own, but they’re less likely to screw up a meaningful percentage of the software you use.) For some reason, software developers and hardware manufacturers seem to have been slower to react to Vista’s release than usual–at least that’s my impression from both talking to executives within many of those companies and listening to real people tell tales of Vista woe.
8. The “Vista Capable” mess. It was a self-inflicted wound of unimaginable proportions: Microsoft let PC makers slap a sticker on Windows XP machines that seemed to say they were good to go for Vista, when all they could handle was the basic version that lacked the hyped-to-the-heavens Aero interface. The legal woes that ensued were probably less damaging to Microsoft than the fact that the move guaranteed that large numbers of people would acquire Windows Vista and then be disappointed by it.