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Windows Vista turns one year old

Twelve months on from Vista's release to the business community, ZDNet.co.uk examines the operating system's place in the desktop market

Windows Vista is one year old today. Microsoft's latest operating system was released to business users on 30 November, 2006, and its first year of availability has seen what could politely be described as a mixed reaction.

Eighty-eight million copies of the operating system have been sold to to businesses and consumers so far: the consumer versions of Vista have been available since the end of January this year. Yet analysts at Gartner say "the uptake of Windows Vista in the PC installed base is taking longer than previously expected, with Vista becoming the dominant operating system only in 2009".

A survey released last week suggests only 13 percent of businesses are planning to move all their desktops to Vista. For businesses, the problem seems to be twofold.

Firstly, Vista does not seem to offer many immediate benefits over its predecessor, XP. In fact, testing of upcoming service packs for both operating systems has given XP a marked edge in performance over Vista.

Secondly, there are currently few applications that run on Vista only. Until that happens, analysts suggest, most businesses may find it hard to see why they should invest in new PCs to support the hardware demands of Vista.

"If you talk about the consumer side, then what is happening is that the vast majority of new computers are sold with Vista," says Ovum analyst David Bradshaw. "Techies are holding back and wanting to stick with XP but, whether you call it success or default, [Vista] is the main operating system for new [consumer] desktops. Business is more complicated."

Calling the migration to Vista "an awfully large change", Bradshaw predicts that most businesses will avoid Vista until application compatibility, or the need to replace equipment, forces them to do so. "Sooner or later, XP will be withdrawn and you are going to find that the newer applications will be available only on Vista," he says. "As you buy new PCs for departments, you buy them with XP or Vista pre-installed. Which would you prefer? You are going to have to upgrade to Vista at some point."

However, many consumers have been less than receptive. As Bradshaw points out, most of the consumer sales for Vista have been less an active purchase and more an acceptance of what comes on new PCs these days. The Dixons group, owners of PC World, blamed poor Vista-related hardware sales for a fall in profits.

This could be because many consumers are happy with the previous generation of hardware — surfing the web and writing documents does not require much processing power, after all — or it could be a reaction against factors such as Vista's heavy implementation of digital rights management (DRM) and the much-maligned User Account Control feature, which requires multiple layers of user confirmation for simple tasks such as file deletion.

In much the same way as the business market, consumers may be holding back from migrating to Vista because of driver issues with legacy peripherals.

Price could also be an issue — particularly if there is no perceived need to upgrade — although Microsoft has now cut the system's price to the point where an upgrade from XP to Vista Home Premium costs just £100.

Vista's one big draw for the consumer market has been its exclusive support for DirectX10, a technology needed for the very latest graphic-heavy games. However, because the market is still using mostly XP, the games industry is releasing almost all its games for both DX10 and its predecessor, DX9.

What may change the fortunes of Vista, much as it did the fortunes of XP, is the upcoming release of the operating system's first service pack.

Bits of Vista service pack 1 (SP1) have been dribbled out in recent months, but the full pack, when it appears in the first quarter of 2008, may prove to be turning point for both business and consumer users — if it fixes enough bugs.

However, a service pack is also due out early next year for Windows XP. XP SP3 was originally supposed to come out in the second half of 2007, but Vista's rollout delayed it. With many users still struggling to see why they should migrate to Vista, XP SP3 may further delay the mass migration for which Microsoft is hoping.

Happily for Microsoft, Apple's latest operating system, Leopard, is also proving to be somewhat buggy. Not only is it experiencing crashes due to issues with third-party applications, but a recent Trojan horse for the Mac has also put an end to the era where the Mac was seen as infinitely more secure than Windows PCs.

However, a dark horse is stalking Vista. Microsoft's release of an operating system that many consider bloated has coincided with the rise of Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, which many see as a suitably functional and user-friendly alternative.

With Linux already a mainstay of many business servers, it will be interesting to see how the desktop market develops in the coming years.