Why we’re not too hasty to get Vista

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By  Published  December 8, 2006

While Microsoft chairman Bill Gates once reputedly compared the project to develop Longhorn — the working codename for Vista — as equivalent to the effort of putting men on the moon, he probably didn’t anticipate that Nasa would be planning another moon shot by the time it finally launched.

Last month saw Vista finally take its bow — at least for business customers, the consumer launch is scheduled for the end of January next year — in a glitzy event at the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York, US. The company used the event to also launch Office 2007, the first major release of the office productivity suite since 2003, and Exchange 2007. Since Windows and Office generate most of Microsoft’s revenue — and almost all of its profit — the launch was understandably extremely high-profile for the firm. “This is the biggest event in the company’s history, that’s for sure,” CEO Steve Ballmer told reporters at a press conference at the exchange.

“It’s an exciting thing to finally be here. That’s all I’ll say about the past,” he added, rather coyly brushing aside a sequence of delays that have pushed the OS well past its original launch date. The five-year gap between Vista and XP is the longest that Microsoft has ever had between major releases of its Windows OS.

Arguably, such a gap could not have happened at a worse time for Microsoft. A lot has changed in those five years: we have seen the increased importance of open source software, while rivals such as Google are now offering free office productivity tools online.

While Microsoft has already said that it is looking ahead to the next version of Windows, with Ballmer discussing improvements to the storage system, more than one commentator in the past week has questioned whether it will undertake such a massive development project next time around. With some estimates suggesting that as many as 10,000 developers worked on Vista for five years, the salary bill alone must be far more than most companies entire budgets for research and development.

Was it all worth it? Analysts don’t think that Vista deployments will outnumber XP for several years yet; Gartner for instance, believes it will be 2010 before Vista overtakes XP in the business field. By then the operating system is almost certainly going to have lost some of its relevance: more and more functionality is going to be delivered online, whether Microsoft likes it or not.

That Vista represents an impressive milestone for Microsoft is not in dispute; there are plenty of good things to say about the OS and it is likely to (eventually) do very well in the market. But we’re not buying into the hype about it just yet.

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