I came away from this week's Microsoft Worldwide Partner (WPC) conference convinced, finally, that the future of Vista is assured in the enterprise. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't because of anything Microsoft said -- the combined mea culpa/back atcha delivered by Microsoft's Brad Brooks, the Corporate Vice President in charge of Vista's rehabilitation, isn't what swayed me. Nor was the rush of end-users I know who are growing to love Vista despite its foibles and obvious problems -- mostly because there is no such rush of Vista lovers that I'm aware of, and I frankly don't expect any to show up any time soon. (See Ed Bott's prescription for fixing Vista's image problems here.)
The reason that I now am a believer in the inevitability of Vista -- or its successor, Windows 7 -- is all about the inevitability of a desktop "standard" that, with the demise of new XP sales last month, has become the defacto choice for the enterprise desktop. And, having heard some of Microsoft's partners wax eloquent again about the advantages of using XP to build "cool" new apps, I'm also convinced that the advanced display capabilities of Vista will make for some impressive, must-have enterprise applications in years to come.
While Linux penguins and Macintosh fanatics all think they have a better desktop environment than Vista -- and maybe they do -- neither OS is going to make major in-roads into the enterprise just because of a little problem with Vista's user acceptance. After all, what does user acceptance have to do with anything? Enterprise IT has never run a popularity contest, and if you doubt that just look at the unbelievably crappy user experience that has dominated enterprise software since the dawn of time. IT runs an increasingly cost-conscious effort aimed at trying hard not to pay too much attention to worrying about how much its users are actually loving their software. IT wants efficiency above all, and will always opt for expediency over technical "correctness", which means that Microsoft's incumbent position on the desktop -- combined with the significant cost-differential between a Mac and a Window PC -- isn't going to be usurped just because Vista sucks.
Or should I say sucked. There's some evidence that the new service pack has sucked a lot of the suckiness out of Vista, and it seems that Vista is a whole lot less sucky than when it first came out. Thank goodness for small favors.
But what's more important is that Vista won't suck forever, and Microsoft's desktop monopoly will endure. And PCs will continue to be cheaper than Macs. And ISVs will continue to write cool apps that need a Vista-like environment to really show their stuff. And so the march of Microsoft will continue, and Vista will one day dominate the enterprise the way that XP does today. If for no other reason than the fact that when corporate IT next upgrades its PCs, none of them will come with XP -- and if that ain't proof that monopolies lead a charmed, if unpleasing, existence, nothing is.
I can't say that this strategy is the best way to win the hearts and minds of the user community, or IT management, but why should Microsoft be any different? If you look at how enterprise software vendors have traditionally dealt with upgrades to their software products, the general tendency has been to put the vendor's interests well ahead of the user. Upgrades to enterprise software tend to be expensive, complicated, buggy to a degree that makes Vista look like a rock, and, by the way, force-fed on an often reluctant user base to boot.
Of course, this kind of to-heck-with-the-customer attitude could never fly when it comes to consumer products (except for the pass that Apple gets about non-removable batteries and no cut-and-paste function in even the new iPhone), and, as a consumer stuck with a Vista PC at home, I want to say categorically that I'm sorry I bought it. But enterprise IT is not a beauty contest, nor is it the place where bold moves and dramatic gestures are made. Which means that one day, like most everything else Microsoft does, they will get Vista right enough to rightly take over the largely great XP mantle. And IT, as it makes its next big waves of PC purchases, will be buying Vista machines by the millions, mostly because they won't have any other choice. Whereupon they may even discover a business case for having a high-end visual experience on their users' desktops, thanks to a new wave of emerging apps that require the resources of a Vista to be cool enough.
It's a helluva ugly way to win the latest battle of the desktop. But in the end there's going to be something in Vista's ascendancy for users, the IT department, and corporate productivity. And once that latter issue is settled, we'll all have forgotten how much we hated Vista when it first came out. To be sure, by then, there'll be some else we'll all love to hate, and the cycle will repeat itself once again. Plus ca change, as Steve Ballmer said in his WPC keynote, plus c'est la meme chose.