Foretelling Microsoft's future ...

Foretelling Microsoft's future ...

Summary: ... is risky business, at best.  After all, back in 1981, how many of us would have guessed that a twenty-something from Seattle, with a second-hand OS, would end up getting the best of IBM, let alone running the largest software company in the world.

TOPICS: Windows

... is risky business, at best.  After all, back in 1981, how many of us would have guessed that a twenty-something from Seattle, with a second-hand OS, would end up getting the best of IBM, let alone running the largest software company in the world.  Nevertheless, I am beginning to wonder if Vista, with all of its promise, might just be an indication of 'the beginning of the end' for Microsoft.  Let me explain ...

I've been reading plenty of mixed reviews about Vista here at ZDNet but it was a piece at eWEEK that got my attention.  (See Vista's Moment of Truth.)  The author was quoting Brad Wardell, the president and CEO of Stardock, a software vendor in Plymouth, Michigan who has been looking at Vista betas for awhile now.  He anticipates further delays if the upcoming Beta 2 does not address certain 'problems'.  Among them:

Memory ceilings and handles Wardell said he has two primary issues with Vista: its memory use and the way it deals with "handles," a type of computing resource that various programs such as e-mail and desktop search use.

As for the memory issue, Wardell said it's becoming increasingly difficult to add memory to boost performance. "We are now bumping up against the 2GB limit," said Wardell, adding that if Vista needs more than that to operate at a high level, there will be problems. As for the 2GB reference, Wardell noted that while 32-bit processors can access 4GB of memory per process in theory, the upper 2GB are reserved.

"Windows Vista uses considerably more memory than Windows XP—about twice as much—and there is not much reason to think this amount will significantly change by release. Realistically, until 64-bit machines become the norm, the 2GB limit is going to be a problem," Wardell said.

On the face of it, you might say 'So what?' but the 'programmer' in me tells me something different.  From as far back as Windows NT 4 (the first truly stable and fully-compatible version of Windows), adding more memory always boosted performance -- and always allowed a sluggish processor enough flexibility to make the user productive. 

Mr. Wardell is suggesting that Vista is now bumping up against the limits of the underlying 32-bit architecture -- first introduced with the Intel 80386 family of processors.  Well, it was going to happen sooner or later, and now that mid-range workstations are available with 64-bit processors, it doesn't really matter what Vista's requirements are.  Right?  Well, maybe ... but I'm not so sure. 

From past experience, I know that Windows XP is only barely functional at its recommended minimum of 300MHz and 128MB of RAM so I'd expect that to be the case for Vista with 800MHz and 512MB of RAM.  (Actually, the recommended minimum for Vista is 1GHz and 1GB RAM.)  I am now running Windows XP at 512MB in order to get best performance -- that's four times Microsoft's recommended minimum.  This suggests that I will need a minimum of 2GB just to get the kind of performance from Vista that I get now from Windows XP at 512MB.  If true, even my one-year-old 3.4GHz workstation could be sluggish with Vista. 

Microsoft already knows that enterprise customers are not going to flock to Vista until after the first Service Pack appears but what happens if consumers discover that they cannot add enough memory to their existing computers to run Vista?  Microsoft hopes they will buy new machines but unless Vista offers them a considerably better experience, why should they?  Will OEMs find themselves having to sell Windows XP on its entry-level machines and relegating Vista to its premium machines?  If so, it could spell disaster for Microsoft.

Could the memory limits of the 32-bit x86 architecture turn out to be a show-stopper for Vista?  Probably not -- but if Vista does indeed miss the mark, it seems to me that it may be a symptom of a much larger problem at Microsoft. 

Like most human endeavors, software development is cyclical.  Most software vendors have one or two hugely successful products.  Those products compete effectively through several hardware life-cycles, but sooner or later, their code base becomes bloated and unwieldy.  All it takes is a small paradigm shift for that bloated code to become unmanageable.  At that point software vendors have the choice of spending vast amounts of money to rewrite their code base from the ground up to comply with the new paradigm, or they can keep the code base they've got and just patch it -- for far less money. 

Invariably, they choose the latter.  It happened to VisiCalc and to WordStar, It happened to Lotus 1-2-3 and it happened to WordPerfect.  Yes, Lotus and WordPerfect are still around, but they went bankrupt and were bought out -- in terms of market share, both are now shadows of their former selves. 

Could this be happening to Windows?  The signs are certainly there.  Article after article talking about how wonderful Vista will be -- all the while bemoaning how much memory is required -- or how fast the processor must be to get acceptable performance. 

If Windows Vista were to falter (still a long shot), what OS would fill the void?  Despite the protests of many, I don't see any flavor of UNIX or Linux on the horizon robust enough to meet the needs of the average consumer.  And, while MacOSX is fully capable of filling that void, Apple is not in a position to move into the commodity hardware market and stay profitable.  There are those in the thin client and web-services markets who envision themselves as players in such a 'new world order' but that discussion is for another post.

No matter what happens, Microsoft needs to watch its back -- and re-evaluate its bloated code base -- sooner rather than later.  Or one of these days, a future release of Windows will face a serious challenge from a more nimble competitor with a great idea!

Topic: Windows

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • How this is going to happen

    Yet another post on ZDNET spelling the story of doom and gloom for a company with more pennies in the bank than there are sub-atomic particles in the universe.

    What we need to realize is that this post is nothing more than a way to get readers to come to and take a chance at clicking on one of the nice ads we see dancing in the upper margin or to the right of the screen. It doesn't matter what the pundits (most of whom know NOTHING of operating system programming or architecture) have to say about a beta. The smart ones (people like me) are going to get a 120-day trial version of Windows Vista when available AFTER RTM. We are then going to install it on our test machines. Only then will the fate of Microsoft's Windows Vista be decided. Right now the betas are still to full of debug code (which is why it is bloated and slow) to tell anything about performance.

    And just so you guys at zdnet know, I never click on your ads.

    Don't pay attention to this article. Get the FREE 120-day trial after RTM (Release to Manufacturing) and decide for yourselves.

    • No one cares

      Whether you click on ZDnets ads or not.

      You are right that this is not the begining of an end for Microsoft - clearly that's just a bit of excitement on the part of the author.

      You are wrong to say that most pundits know nothing about OS programming or architecture. I've not seen a technically inaccurate article on ZDnet; whether or not there's enough detail to some pieces or not, well there's other places to get this sort of info.
    • I intend to do just that ...

      Your assumption that I or my colleagues no nothing about sound OS design is foolish at best. Sound OS design practices have not changed dramatically in the last 35 years. What has changed is how much it costs to employ people that understand and observe those practices.

      Microsoft has created an army of MSCEs who know everything about how Windows DOES works but how many of them truly understand how an operating system SHOULD work?

      Yes, time will tell. And maybe I wam wrong THIS TIME but Microsoft is not invincible and the warning signs are there. If Microsoft doesn't heed them, then one of these days, they might be finding themselves facing some tough competition.
      M Wagner
      • Assumptions are correct this time

        Yes, there are those of the technology news journalist breed who do have some programming skills. Some are indeed programmers and write about technology news on the side (i.e. John Carroll). But my assessment that most of you (read: most != all) don't know the first thing about programming and software engineering stands. Three immediate examples come to mind:

        1. One of the pundits at Directions on Microsoft wondered why MS hadn't moved all of Windows over to .Net.

        2. Many pundits are advocating that entire governments move to OpenDocument. Nevermind the outrageous costs of doing so.

        3. And let us not forget the infamous "MS rewrote 60% of Vista's code!" article that went around.


        I do agree with some of what you have said in your article, Marc, and I hope you are one of the good guys (despite your lack of spelling in your reply to me).

        However, my main stance remains firm - betas are nice and all but their purpose is help the vendor find bugs and provide feedback - not gauge performance and other such statistics.

        I'll worry about Vista when the RTM version comes via my TechNet Plus Subscripton.

        • Sorry about the spelling ...

          ... it's the fingers -- not the mind! {8^) Of course, Beta code is usually full if debug code and is rarely as tight as 'golden' code. (And, to be totally honest, I have not yet taken a look at Vista code. I will probably start playing with Beta 2 soon.)

          Just the same, Micorosoft's own recommendation for 1GB of RAM is a little disconcerting. Especially since most legacy CPUs cannot support more than 2GB (and many boxes cannot come close.)

          It's that limit for most legacy 32-bit CPUs which concerns me. If in January, Vista (sans AERO) can provide XP-like performance on an 800MHz, 512MB, configuration, them MS has nothing to worry about. If it cannot, MS may have some serious problems PR problems.
          M Wagner
          • That much I agree with....

            Yes, if the requirements for Vista are too outrageous, then people will balk at the idea of upgrading so fast. The question is what defines "outrageous." Like you, however, I have my reservations.

  • Another doom sayer... sigh...

    I have no idea where you get your umm, facts, but I suggest you actually try running Vista before making such silly claims.

    Vista installed on a machine with 1Gig of RAM is FAST. Every bit as fast as XP.

    As to the doom and gloom about people not buying new PCs you are dead wrong. Look at ANY Windows OS roll out and you clearly see that people do upgrade to a new PC. I see nothing here to indicate that is going to change.

    The fact is, 90% (or better) of all PCs die with the same OS it came with.
    • I am quite sure your 90% figure is correct.

      Nevertheless, a lot of reviews ARE concerned about Vista's performance. Yes, Beta 2 may address these problems -- but, it may not.

      Microsoft is betting the farm that consumers that want to upgrade their hardware can get the performance from Vista that they get from XP -- and that people will be willing to replace relatively new 32-bit systems for 64-bit systems if performance suffers.
      M Wagner
  • Items from the news.

    Vista comes in versions.
    Basic is made for devices which can't run premium.

    Jim Allchin insisted much code be changed.
    That's part of the reason for the delay. Remember the news story in which even Bill Gates was worried about delays and aggravated developers, but Mr. Allchin insisted and reassured.
    Mr. Allchin is retiring...

    Microsoft is working with OEMs to allow use of Vista Ready stickers.
    Will those stickers lie?

    The blog shows what appears an excessive concern.
    Anton Philidor
    • Will they lie? No, but ...

      ... I wonder how many people really feel that Windows XP runs well with a 300MHz processor and 128MB of RAM. In truth, even with a 3GHz processor, Windows XP does not run well without at least 256MB of RAM. 512MB of RAM will make any lame machine run Windows XP reasonably well.

      Having different versions of Vista contribute more to customer confusion than to realistic expectations for the hardware. Unless Vista performs as well on a new 'entry-level' system in January as Windows XP does on a new 'entry-level' system today, customers are not going to be happy. If OEMs have to charge more for that 'entry-level' system, customers will NOT be happy -- but if OEMs have to reduce their profit margins further to get customers to buy those 'entry-level' systems, OEMs won't be happy. Either way, the consumer loses -- and so does Microsoft.
      M Wagner
      • Defining entry level

        Here are the specs for a $497 Dell which is said to be Vista ready.

        Intel? Pentium? 4 Processor 521 (2.80GHz, 800MHz FSB, 1MB L2 cache) with HT Technology
        Specifications - Processor

        Operating System
        Genuine Windows? XP Media Center Edition 2005
        Specifications - Operating System

        Free 1GB Memory Upgrade

        17" CRT Monitor
        Specifications - Monitor

        Hard Drive
        80GB6 Serial ATA Hard Drive

        Integrated Intel? Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 900
        Specifications - Graphics

        This is a media pc using onboard sound a graphics. But I observed that an Audigy is available for $21.

        My contention is that people will be able to obtain pc's that meet Vista requirements at $500 or less. Particularly if they don't require a new monitor.

        This does not appear to be a cause for concern about acceptance of Vista.
        Anton Philidor
        • Does this mean that ...

          ... come January Dell's least expensive system is going to be at a $500 price point instead of the $300 price-point it's at today? That $200 up-tick in price can make a difference to many consumers.

          And, if they buy that $300 system this Christmas and cannot upgrade to Vista, it'll be at least three years (and more like five) before they upgrade to Vista. Can MS afford to have those consumers running Windows XP five years from now, instead of their running Vista?

          How big a difference that makes remains to be seen.
          M Wagner
          • Microsoft has acknowledged a Christmas offer...

            ... would be useful, and the company is trying to determine what offer would be most effective.

            The easiest is to promise a free upgrade download or CD (as with SP 2) when it becomes available. The problem with that is turning a large user population loose with a substantial operating system change.

            It's possible every English (and French and German...) speaker in more than one developing country would have to be hired to answer the telephones.

            Perhaps Microsoft will use this solution anyway. Would lessen the work of the Gates Foundation.
            Anton Philidor
  • So what?

    Keep in mind the two fundamental realities:

    1) Every new PC that ships in 2007 will have MSVista.

    2) Bloated hardware requirements are a [b]good[/b] thing, because they keep the low-end (and thus low-margin) hardware off the market -- thus the OEMs make more money.

    MSVista [b]can't[/b] fail. It could be MSWinME with a new name and it would sell just as many copies.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • $300 Vista Premium-ready pc's are likely...

      ... particularly if the buyer does not require a new monitor as well.

      One rule about buying pc's: a week later you'll feel you overpaid.
      Anton Philidor
  • this is just ridiculous

    trying to make smoke when there is no reason to.

    The delays with Microsoft Vista are not that big a deal at all. Most software projects at times have delays. Ubuntu said they were delaying their 6 month release. Linux 2.4 kernel and 2.6 kernel were delayed by more than a year.

    Its only the non programmers who dont code for a living talk about delays. The minor delays with Microsoft Vista is absolutetly no big deal. Infact I'm surprised that such a huge project has such minimal delays , how about that for an article.
    • The delays don't bother me ...

      ... but Microsoft originally set the release of Vista (then code-named Longhorn) for 2Q 2005 -- Vits MIGHT ship 1Q 2007. It's MS that has to worry about a failure to (1) meet their most recent ship date and (2) ship a stable product. If the product doesn't live up to the HYPE on consumer-grade hardware, MS will have a major PR problem.
      M Wagner
  • zzzzzhhhhhhhhhh

    So can to you fortell my future?? I can pay you for that :) The situation is quite different now. Back in 1980's computer was a luxury. Not anymore. 90% of todays computers run MS and MS products. Probably more than 2/3rd of the programmers would be working on MS related products. You can expect all these guys to stay idle...the MS ship will keep floating for quite sometime
  • Eventually Windows will need to be rewritten

    I agree that windows is slowly collapsing under its own weight. The backwards compatability (do you realize how many DOS applications and even game run well on XP?) plus the ongoing layering of new systems (you have COM, COM+, .Net all doing more or less the same thing in many cases, GDI, DirectX, Avalon, etc. for graphics) means that their bloated code base is quite top heavy now, with a weak foundation.

    Will it collapse in Vista? Maybe. If not, I suspect that Vista will be the last Windows release that is still usable. Windows 2000 finally got the NT code base mostly where it needed to be. XP is great for desktops, but feels a bit heavy in comparison. Vista scares me, especially with Avalon on top.

    Meanwhile, Microsoft Research has been doing some pretty cool stuff (like Singularity, F#, C# 3.0, etc.) so I know that in terms of "Computer Science" Microsoft "gets it." I think that what they perceive to be the business needs prevents them from doing what they must eventually do, which is what Apple did with OSX... take off and nuke it from orbit. There is just way too much cruft in Windows. Most of the Windows insecurities come from them trying to perfect bad ideas like ActiveX, or maintain compatability with their "features first, reliability and security second" past, while transitioning to a "reliability and security first" mindset. It just does not work.

    Justin James
  • intensive graphics require more memory

    The reason Vista requires lots memory is for the graphics.

    ITS NOT CODE THATS TAKING UP THE MEMORY. RATHER ITS THE DISPLAY. You want smooth graphics, you need memory buffers.

    Its no fun to have high end Vista graphics run on low memory. It would ruin the user experience. Hence if you dont meet the memory requirements it would not show the Aero graphics.