Vista may still have its day -- just like XP (eventually) did

Think Windows Vista is a hopeless dog and XP was always the cat's meow among users? Think again.

Twenty-one months after its initial release, what do we know about Windows Vista? That home users hate it, businesses are uninstalling it and — according to Gartner Inc. — it's proof that the 23-year-old Windows line is "collapsing" under its own weight.

Meanwhile, predecessor Windows XP, which Microsoft stopped shipping to retailers and the major PC makers on June 30, has belatedly become so beloved that it's garnering more calls for "unretirement" than NFL icon Brett Favre did in his wildest dreams this summer.

But all of the griping about Vista and instant nostalgia for XP covers up a dry, statistical reality: XP itself was slow to catch on with users — maybe even slower than Vista has been thus far. For instance, in September 2003, 23 months after its release, XP was running on only 6.6% of corporate PCs in the U.S. and Canada, according to data compiled by AssetMetrix Inc., an asset-tracking vendor that was later bought by Microsoft Corp. (That information was helpfully pointed out by a Computerworld reader.)

In comparison, Forrester Research Inc. reported that as of the end of June — 19 months after Vista's November 2006 debut for business users — the new operating system was running on 8.8% of enterprise PCs worldwide. Forrester analyst Thomas Mendel, who authored the report, wasn't impressed: He compared Vista to the ill-fated New Coke.

However, even Gartner, that prophet of Windows' doom, forecasts that Vista will be more popular at the end of this year than XP was at a similar juncture — with 28% of the PC operating system installed base worldwide, vs. 22% for XP at the end of 2003.

"The uptake of XP was slower than people remember today," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. He noted that many IT managers "labeled XP a consumer-only upgrade" at first.

Users loved Windows 2000, which was less than two years old when XP was released (see story at right). And for many, XP didn't add enough to make them want to move up. "XP was really viewed as a glorified upgrade, not a new operating system in its own right," recalled Donnie Steward, CIO at ACH Foods Inc., a Memphis-based maker of processed foods.

Then there were all the security issues. XP now is considered to be highly secure, but that wasn't the case in 2002. That's when LifeTime Products Inc. upgraded to the operating system after Microsoft released Service Pack 1, its first bug-fix update. John Bowden, CIO at the Clearfield, Utah-based maker of recreational equipment, noted that for years after it was released, XP received a "massive amount of criticism" for its lack of security. "We used to say XP was like Swiss cheese — full of holes everywhere," Bowden said.

To try to fix the security problems, Microsoft developed a second service pack, which it pushed customers to adopt. But there were two problems. First, not everyone was convinced that SP2 would be a security cure-all — a view that was partly vindicated by later developments.

And second, SP2 was such a major change that it broke applications — lots of them, especially enterprise ones.

"We consider XP SP2 to be a major release because of the nature of the enhancements," one IT manager told Computerworld in 2004. Such opinions prompted many companies to block updates to SP2 on their PCs for months until they could prepare for the mammoth upgrade.

Some of the reasons cited for Vista's supposed doom are unique to the new operating system. There's the widespread exercising of downgrade rights by users who purchase PCs with Vista but then revert to running XP. Mac OS X has taken some market share away from Windows over the past year. Cloud computing technologies offer new competition. And the scheduled early 2010 arrival of Vista's successor, which Microsoft is calling Windows 7, looms on the horizon. Both Steward and Bowden said they will likely skip Vista entirely and wait for Windows 7.

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