You have to wonder if Microsoft really knows what it's doing. There's a lot of hoo-hah around the Web about Windows 7, and how it's going to fix Vista's problems. Thing is, the signs are that it won't -- and that Apple will be the biggest winner.
That Microsoft understands it has a problem with Vista is obvious: the company took -- what? -- six years to drag Vista onto dealers' shelves after the launch of Windows XP, following which Microsoft seemed to just squat on its haunches and watch the money roll in. In comparison, Windows 7, slated to launch later this year, follows hard on Vista's heels, just over two years later.
Windows Vista's done a lot of damage to Microsoft's reputation and brand. The last sheer dog was Windows ME, which answered a question no-one asked (a bit like a Porsche Cayenne - only prettier) but proved to have all sorts of technical problems associated with it (not at all like a Porsche Cayenne, apparently).
But when ME was launched, messing with PCs was still by and large a minority sport.
No longer. Everyone and his or her dog has at least one PC. My sister-in-law, who knows close to nothing about computers, has two in her family -- and guess who gets the tech support questions -- but let's just leave that one there. The point is that the brand is now ubiquitous, and Microsoft messes with it at its peril.
So the damage to Microsoft is proportionately bigger when it messes up as it has done with Vista -- it's so bad even people who know nothing about Vista notice. They notice that some of their old software doesn't run properly any more. They notice too that they keep getting asked stupid questions to which they don't know and couldn't possibly be expected to know the answer. So of course they click OK -- in which case, users quite reasonably say, why does the computer bother them at all?
Is Windows 7 going to fix these issues? We're told so and I hope to be able to report on a copy on the release candidate in the not too distant future.
Just as important from Microsoft's point of view is the enterprise market. A recent survey of over 1,100 IT managers and commissioned by KACE, a systems management company, found that "84 percent of IT staff polled do not have plans to upgrade existing Windows desktop and laptop systems to Windows 7 in the next year".
Why aren't IT managers following the Microsoft roadmap -- assuming such a thing exists (Redmond used to flaunt one but hasn't done so for years)? They cited software compatibility, cost of implementation, and the current economic environment as their main concerns.
The story told to me by the company's Wynne White is that enterprises are sticking with XP for the time being. Some 89 per cent of the 500,000-plus KACE appliance customers use it, while just 1.89 per cent use Vista. For sure, deployments of new enterprise desktops are always slow -- it's the nature of the beast -- but White reckoned that he could see at least five years' life in XP yet.
And while they're not going to Vista, they're also being much more cautious with Win7. "People's perception is positive but they're being much more cautious in their approach," he said.
"Eighty-four per cent are not going to adopt Windows 7 in the next 12 months, but more telling is that 72 per cent said they were more concerned about upgrading to Windows 7 than they were about staying with XP," said White.
What all this suggests is that Windows has run out of steam. People no longer have any real reason to upgrade -- if that's the right word. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that, for all intents and purposes, Windows XP is good enough: it's easy to use, robust, stable, and reasonably secure (could do better, of course). Neither of its two successors offer all of that -- and they're just as expensive.
Linux looks to be a big desktop OS winner -- at least in the enterprise. White reckoned that, in the 2007 version of this annual survey, 42 per cent said they'd switch to Linux, but two years later in 2009, half said they'd switch. And when asked if they either had switched or were in the process of switching, nine per cent said yes in 2007, 11 per cent in 2008 and 14 per cent this year.
But Linux isn't the big beast Microsoft fears: it's Apple. Between a half and a third of those IT managers said they were contemplating going Mac for their next tranche of desktops.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Microsoft seems to be in the process of trashing its brand -- and Apple looks to be the biggest picker-up of the pieces.
It's just a major shame that Apple's business model and contempt for its users is even less appetising than Microsoft's...