Windows Vista: The 'New Coke' of the PC age

Microsoft's XP gets its final service pack next week. But users fight for a stay of execution.

By , Columnist

It was supposed to be a great leap forward for computing. Windows Vista would dazzle users with its sleek interface, protect data with unparalleled security, and eclipse Windows XP as the worldwide standard in computer operating systems.

But with each passing day, it looks more and more like Vista is the "New Coke" of the PC generation. The demand of XP users to keep using their trusty operating system continues to grow.

It's not just the individual user who is fed up with the wacky Vista system and the massive amount of computing power and disk space needed to make it run. It's also businesses across the United States – and no doubt the world – that are in no hurry to "upgrade" to Vista.

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But they might have to.

Next Tuesday, Microsoft will release its third and final XP "Service Pack" – its term for major upgrade. And the company has said that June 30 is it. There will be no more copies of XP on store shelves and no more OEMs (original equipment manufacturers – which is a misnomer because it really refers to people who buy computers, slap their logos on the case, and sell them – which is most computer companies these days; Can you say "Made in China?"). Finished. It's over. Gone forever. Sayonara. Auf Wiedersehen.

This bit of news has been greeted with, well, an insurrection. As of last count, 165,000 people have signed technology columnist Galen Gruman's online petition to "Save XP" and keep it alive indefinitely. In fact, columnist Robert X. Cringely reports that there is word that Dell will continue to offer XP on business-class computers, such as Latitude and Optiplex, through 2011 at no extra cost. Clearly, Dell understands that XP loyalists – and some downright Vista detractors – will pay good money to keep the seven-year-old system.

Confession time. When XP came out, I – like many others – panned it in a review for reasons too numerous to mention. Years later, after I learned how to get rid of a lot of the annoying stuff, it gets me through the day. I might warm to Vista over time, but they'll have to make a lot of improvements before I'm willing to touch it. (Do a quick Internet search on Vista to find some of the many reasons why there's such a backlash.)

The very loud noises coming from the growing mob outside the castle gate appears to have caught Microsoft's attention.

Last weekend Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer came very close to admitting that Vista has not, to put it mildly, lived up to its hype. Speaking at the MVP Global Summit in Seattle, Mr. Ballmer described Vista as a "work in progress." (Maybe the Titanic was a work in progress as well.) He said Microsoft waited too long to release Vista after rolling out XP in 2001. (Remember all those commercials with the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" playing in the background?)

"I got a piece of mail from a customer the other day that talked about not being able to get XP anymore, and we responded: XP is still available," said Ballmer. "And I know we're going to continue to get feedback from people on how long XP should be available. We've got some opinions on that.

"Certainly, you never want to let five years go between releases. And we just sort of kiss that stone and move on, because it turns out many things become problematic when you have those long release cycles," Ballmer added.

Really? We hadn't noticed. Then again, maybe that's why a recent study by Forrester Research of 50,000 enterprise computer users found that only 6.7 percent were working with Vista. And that's after more than a year of Vista being on the market.

If there is one person who understands how Microsoft works, it's journalist/former evangelist for Microsoft/video blogger for Fast Company magazine Robert Scoble. He told me that he believes the folks at Microsoft are realists. "If people want [XP], they'll keep supporting it."

Mr. Scoble says Vista had a lot going against it from the beginning.

The developers "started to build a 100-story building," he says. "They got it to 60 and it started to buckle and sway back and forth. So they had to take the whole thing down and rebuild it from the foundation up. And they only got to 40 stories and stopped. So it's still a good 40-story building, but it's not what we were expecting or had been led to believe would be available."

Scoble says that, despite recent hints from Bill Gates, a replacement for XP and Vista – the so-called Windows 7 – will probably not be available for another 18 to 36 months.

Ballmer has said he will be "sensitive" to the needs of XP users as the execution date nears. Microsoft has already said it will continue to offer XP for makers of low-cost laptop computers that just do not have the computing power to run the massive Vista code. No word on if the rest of us will be able to enjoy that.

Maybe Microsoft will learn from its mistakes and keep XP alive until they actually come up with something better.

But as Scoble adds, the problems with Vista have already damaged the Microsoft brand – and more important, it has negatively affected the company's market share. Microsoft has never had to deal with such issues before. It will be interesting to see what the company does to try to recover.

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