You rarely hear about a new OS causing people to panic. But IT consultant Scott Pam says that's exactly what his small-business clients are doing when they install Windows Vista on new PCs and run smack into compatibility or usability roadblocks.
Pam's clients are not alone: Since InfoWorld launched its petition drive on Jan. 14 to ask Microsoft to continue selling new XP licenses indefinitely alongside its Vista licenses, more than 75,000 people have signed on. And hundreds of people have commented -- many with ferocious, sometimes unprintable passion. "Right now I have a laptop with crap Vista and I'm going to downgrade to XP because Vista sucks," reads one such comment.
Where does all the vitriol come from?
IT managers and analysts suggest a range of reasons, some based on irrational fears and others based on rational reactions to disruptive changes.
"When we first deployed Vista, people told us it sucks, that it's not as good as XP," recalled Sumeeth Evans, IT director at Collegiate Housing Services, an 80-person college facilities management firm. A month later, he surveyed the staff to see if their views had changed, and they had: "They said it was very good, that they were getting used to it. We asked what was different, and they said they originally didn't like Vista because it was a change. That's human nature."
Microsoft's overzealous schedule in replacing XP with Vista has exacerbated resistance to change, said Michael Silver, a research vice president at Gartner. The company had originally planned to discontinue XP sales on Dec. 31, 2007, just 11 months after Vista was made available to consumers and 14 months after it was made available to enterprises. The date for new license sales to end is now June 30.
In practice, XP's consumer availability ended for many users even sooner — just six months after Vista's release — since storefront retailers such as Best Buy and Circuit City and most computer manufacturers' Web sites stopped selling XP-equipped computers in July 2007. Typically, Microsoft has given customers two years to make such a transition, Silver noted.
Burton Group executive strategist Ken Anderson suggested that the strong emotional identification with XP represented a fundamental shift in how people, including IT staff, now think of operating systems. They have become a familiar extension of what we do and how we work, thus not something we want to change often. "When technology becomes part of you, you don't want people to mess with it," he said.
Anderson likened the reaction to XP's impending demise to what happened in the 1980s when Coca-Cola replaced its classic Coke formula with New Coke, causing massive protests by customers who had no reason to change what they drank. The protests forced the company to bring back what we now call Coke Classic. "XP has come to the point of being Coke Classic," he said, with Vista playing the role of New Coke.
The further the better
The Englewood (N.J.) Hospital Medical Center switched to Vista shortly after its enterprise release, since it had been in Microsoft's early adopter program. Most users — mainly nurses and other medical staff — didn't really notice the upgrade and had few complaints, noted Gary Wilhelm, the business and systems financial manager (a combination of CTO and CFO) at the 2,500-employee facility. That's because they don't really use the OS, but instead work directly in familiar applications that load when they sign in using their ID.
Capacitor manufacturer Kemet saw a similar ho-hum reaction from most of its staff, says Jeff Padgett, the global infrastructure manager. And for the same reason: Users have little direct interaction with the OS. But the staff did push back on Office 2007, whose ribbon interface is a departure from the previous versions. They rebelled to the degree that Padgett has delayed Office 2007 deployment and may not install it at all.
Back at the Englewood hospital, Wilhelm did hear anti-Vista grumbling from people in the administration department, who work more closely with the OS itself for file management and so on. And at Kemet, another group of hands-on users complained about the switch to Vista, noted Padgett: "The people who suffered the most were engineers and IT people."
The phenomenon of hands-on users being the most resistant explains why so many small-business users and consultants have reacted so strongly against Vista, noted Gartner's Silver.
Conversely, those enamored of the latest technology tend to be Vista enthusiasts, said David Fritzke, IT director at the YMCA Milwaukee, which has been adding Vista to its workforce as it buys new computers. "Some users bought Vista for home and then wanted it more quickly at work than we had initially planned to deploy it," he said. Fritzke also found that younger users adapted to Vista more easily.
In search of ROI
Users' personal reactions, positive or negative, ultimately impact the bottom line and help drive the business decision of whether to roll out Vista across an organization.
It's all about basic cost-benefit analysis, says Gartner's Silver. In most businesses, Vista offers few compelling advantages for users while introducing challenges. The cost of change is too high for the perceived benefit. For example, users often complain about Vista's constant nagging about possible system threats, about applications that no longer run, or about files that appear to be "lost" because they've been moved to new places by the OS, Silver said.
"It's really hard to convince someone to go to a product that's not quite as stable or as capable as what they're already using," Silver noted — and so they get frustrated and angry. While IT managers and analysts appreciate some under-the-hood changes in Vista, these improvements don't have an immediate, obvious benefit for users. "Vista's benefits are not about the users," concurred Collegiate Housing Services' Evans.
Upgrades from Microsoft's past have also colored expectations, Silver said. Users tend to remember the straightforward transition from Windows 2000 to XP, even though technically it was a "minor" upgrade, he said. (Silver also noted that until XP Service Pack 2, XP had its own share of compatibility and security flaws that annoyed users, something that most forgot with SP2's release.)
And while the path from Windows 95 and 98 to Windows XP was rockier, the benefits were clear enough at each stage for most customers to make the upgrade investment gladly, Silver said.
Some users have decided to skip Vista altogether and instead wait for Windows 7, whose release date has been reported as anywhere between 2009 and 2011 "Why shoot yourself in the foot twice? Windows 7 will be out next year; I'll wait till then," said one InfoWorld reader. If Windows 7 arrives sooner rather than later — or if a miraculous Vista service pack addresses all the major objections in one swoop — then the uproar over upgrading to Vista will quickly fade into the hazy past of other Windows upgrade snafus.