Microsoft's late expectations

The software giant is in a dickens of a fix over Vista - so where's the competition?

We do not know exactly what persuaded Microsoft to put back the launch of Windows Vista. Perhaps it's force of habit: by some accounts, it's getting on for three years late. It's also unclear why the business versions will be exempt from the extra testing that the consumer variant needs, or who'll be buying them.

There is no doubt that a lot of people will be hurt by this decision. The big consumer upgrade dates are the start of the school term and Christmas, and Vista will miss both of these. Many people will put off the upgrade at least until Vista is ready and probably until late 2007: retailers, hardware suppliers and other software companies will not be toasting Jim Allchin, the Vista project leader who's had to delay his own retirement until the thing ships.

That much is easy to predict. What's harder to understand is the failure of the market to punish Microsoft itself. Apple should do well, even more so if it finishes its transition to Intel ahead of schedule, but there's little sign of a move to Linux in the retail channel.

With the new Intel Core architecture processors due to hit by the autumn, Linux will be the most modern and well-developed operating system available to take advantage of their new features. Distributions like Ubuntu look attractive and are easy to use, and there's a plethora of books, software and online resources to support even the rawest of newbies. Given the more than attractive cost of the operating system, it should be a profitable and obvious sell – especially with the competition in disarray.

So where is it? The usual response to a company failing to deliver is a loss of market share – and the history of IT is littered with the corpses of those who delayed too long. Yet XP is years into extra time, and Microsoft can still afford to delay longer with no particular expectation of losing users.

Despite all the court cases, fines and remedies, Microsoft remains in a unique position of power, a monopoly that has exempted itself from normal market forces. It is a valid to ask how that is affecting the retail channel and how normal operations can be resumed. Retailers and consumers alike should be prepared to consider alternatives; if Microsoft can't be bothered to deliver, we should return the compliment with interest.

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