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Perspective: If Windows 8 = Vista, what's Microsoft's next move?

January 28, 2014 10:47 AM ET

The blame game

To get a feel for what Microsoft thinks of Vista, simply recall that it was the one regret that outbound CEO Steve Ballmer picked from "a lot of mistakes" during a kind of exit interview last August with long-time Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet.

"I would say probably the thing I regret most is the, what shall I call it, the loopedy-loo that we did that was sort of Longhorn to Vista," Ballmer told Foley. "I would say that's probably the thing I regret most. And, you know, there are side effects of that when you tie up a big team to do something that doesn't prove out to be as valuable."

With those words, especially his last sentence, Ballmer laid a lot of Microsoft's current problems on Vista's doorstep, implying that the company would not be where it is now -- behind in mobile, staring at a historic slump in personal computers -- if not for Vista, its long development and restart, and ultimately, its failure to deliver what Microsoft promised.

Those kinds of counterfactuals are entertaining to contemplate, but impossible to prove or, of course, disprove. If Vista had not been delayed, not been painted with the botched brush, and if Microsoft had not been distracted by its failure, Ballmer insinuated, Microsoft would be in a much stronger position now.

Really?

If Vista had shipped in 2004 and been an incremental advancement of Windows XP, that would have put Windows 7 -- or whatever Microsoft named it -- in customers' hands by 2007 with the company's three-year development cycle of the time. Windows 8 would have come out in 2010, the same year as the iPad, too late for massive changes, even if Microsoft had recognized the threat from tablets.

That wouldn't have helped Microsoft.

By all appearances, Microsoft management didn't light a fire under a Windows suitable for tablets until after Apple launched the iPad in 2010. Microsoft has said it jumped on tablets well before it saw the iPad -- stating it started Windows 8 development before the release of Windows 7 in 2009 -- but that, like a lot of corporate claims, must be taken with some salt. While Microsoft pitched stylus-based slates long before Apple dreamed up the touch-based iPad, it was the latter company that showed everyone that touch and apps appealed to customers, that tablets were not just cool but worthy companions, even substitutes, for PCs.

There's no reason to expect that Microsoft would have gotten there first, and along the way stuck a knife in the personal computer business, no matter what Vista's timeline. That would have meant Windows 9, shipping in 2013, would have been Microsoft's first try at touch.

Learning Vista's lesson

Ballmer's admission that Vista was his greatest regret confirmed what everyone had already known: Microsoft put Vista in its rear-view as quickly as it could, returning to numbers rather than names, and getting a nice bonus to boot. The word "Windows," and thus the brand, was repetitively used by the media, since using "7" for shorthand just didn't work as it had for "Vista" or "XP."



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