It's the mantra of the IT department: upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. In a tradition as old as the Olympics, every three years sees the old thrown out and the new brought in — sometimes because of the laws of physics and by innovation; at others because of business demands. Microsoft is hoping that Vista will provoke an unparalleled flurry of purchase orders, but there may be little basis for its optimism.
Innovation-driven upgrade cycles happen as more sophisticated software demands faster hardware, and faster hardware enables more sophisticated software. Ideally this means smarter software running on smaller, cheaper, faster hardware: sometimes, this even happens.
The other upgrade cycle tends to be driven by one of three factors: corporate depreciation cycles; Microsoft licensing; or the hope that Microsoft will produce something better next time.
Some of us have benefited from innovation-driven upgrade cycles, but many more of us have sadly become inured to cycles driven by the finance department, whether our own or the vendors'.
Most desktop upgrades are driven by necessity. Those who have lived through DOS and various versions of Windows from 95 to XP have been driven largely by the necessity of ditching a really very bad operating system in favour of something we hoped would be better.
With Windows XP many businesses finally have an OS which, on the whole, they are happy with. Security and management remain poor, but the software is relatively stable, it's mature and well known and, most of the time, it works. It's taken a long time to get this far, and giving it all up for the unknown — even with smoked glass edges to the windows — is remarkably unappetising
Microsoft would do well to remember the old adage about things that work when it trots out predictions about stampedes to Vista. Tight policies properly enforced can address many issues that people have, and may well be a more reliable fix than flying hell for leather into the most radical rebuild of Windows we've seen.
There is little doubt that Microsoft can produce something better than Windows XP. And indeed many companies will be locked into the upgrade cycle by one of the mechanisms we described above, and indeed it's a process that Microsoft licensing makes very difficult to forego.
Yet they will resist, and rightly. In the absence of irresistibly advanced technology — an absence keenly felt in the eviscerated Vista — the one thing that will drive upgrades is a demonstrably lower total cost of ownership. Given Microsoft's creative approach to defining TCO in the past, that's the one thing that nobody will be taking at face value on day one.
If there is to be a surge in Vista-powered upgrades, it'll be after the evidence is in — and that won't be year one, no matter what Microsoft's marketing department predicts.