The Vista follies: Windows' tortured 2008

The successor to XP crashed and burned. But as Windows 7 nears, Microsoft has made Vista less bad

Microsoft is used to criticism; after all, it's a standing joke that the third version of any Microsoft software is the first one that works right. But the backlash against Windows Vista in 2008 was unprecedented. The new OS had been out for a year, finding its way into new consumer systems through 2007 but not getting much adoption by business.

Throughout 2007, InfoWorld heard IT staffers and CTOs grumble about the new OS, despite some nice features for IT, such as unified install images. Application incompatibility, a UI rejiggered without any user benefit to its changes, and a bothersome security mechanism increasingly annoyed individual users and small-business consultants.

[ Can your PC run the forthcoming Windows 7? Download InfoWorld's Windows Sentinel tool and find out. ]

InfoWorld contributing editor Randall C. Kennedy's Vista tests showed that it took way more resources than XP. As his tests revealed, the new Aero interface was a major resource pig, but it wasn't the only one. And in his testing, Service Pack 1 didn't help matters any.

The Vista backlash begins
By January 2008, 11 months after Vista shipped to the broad market, InfoWorld launched its Save XP campaign.

Our rationale was that Microsoft had already extended XP's kill date from Dec. 31, 2007, to June 30, 2008, due to customer queasiness over Vista, so we had hoped it might do so again. It was not a birthday present that Microsoft liked.

By the time of the "Save XP" campaign, consumers and businesses alike were beginning to realize that they could not get XP past June 30 and thus no longer had the option to ignore Vista if they didn't like it. In the six months that followed, more than 210,000 people signed an online petition to keep XP available indefinitely, and the news media was full of reports of an anti-Vista backlash. Resistance to Vista grew, especially by businesses. Major analyst firms joined in, recommending that Microsoft delay XP's demise until 2009.

Microsoft defended Vista, saying its usability studies showed that users loved its new interface and that the new security approach was needed to finally force developers to abandon sloppy programming techniques -- to be fair, Microsoft had been imploring developers since 1999 to change their behavior, to little effect.

But Microsoft was embarrassed by revelations that its own execs had trouble with Vista and that computers labeled "Vista Capable" in fact could not run Vista, calling into question Microsoft's honesty, as well as that of many PC makers. The result was a messy lawsuit that is still dragging on, as it became clear that Microsoft was split internally about the accuracy of its "Vista Capable" certification claims.

XP does die, sort of
During the six months of this anti-Vista brouhaha, Microsoft held firm to the June 30 kill date for XP and indeed pulled the plug as promised. But it also started talking about the "downgrade" option that let many users buy Vista Business or Vista Professional, then use that license to replace Vista with XP. Microsoft also let PC makers continue to sell XP on new systems by using the downgrade approach to call it a Vista sale.

Currently, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard offer downgrade PCs, though consumers need to buy them through their small-business storefronts. Originally, downgrade sales were to end on Feb. 1, 2009, but Microsoft recently extended their availability through June 30.

Windows 7 takes the stage as Vista gets better
As the Vista doubts became mainstream, Microsoft began to talk up Windows 7, the Vista-based successor to Vista scheduled for release in early 2010. As InfoWorld's Kennedy has shown in his tests of the Windows 7 pre-beta version, Windows 7 is essentially Vista with some interface changes, a claim Microsoft CEO Ballmer concurs with -- but he quickly adds that Windows 7 is "a lot better."

And Microsoft has continued to work on Vista, with the SP2 update now in beta. SP2 helps boost Vista's speed, Kennedy's tests show.

As 2008 draws to a close, Vista has returned to being a quiet failure as the world waits for Windows 7.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.