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.

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But other strikes against Vista are ones that XP has also faced and overcome, such as a tottering economy (the dot-com bust, in XP's case), the belief that it was a piece of "bloatware," accusations of price gouging by Microsoft, and apathy or revolt by end users.

For most users, "change is always bad," said Merrie Wales, information systems manager in the human resources department in Glenn County, Calif. Wales, who oversees 250 desktop PCs, said that only a tiny portion of her users welcomed a move to Vista this spring. But, she noted, a similar sliver of users was happy when the agency finally upgraded to XP in 2006.

And the Vista rollout "has turned out much better than we anticipated," Wales said. "It's not a bad OS. There are big improvements under the hood."

There also are other factors that brighten the long-term outlook for Vista:

1) Virtualization is easing compatibility problems

Like Vista, Windows XP has an application compatibility mode that simulates older versions of Windows. But it's not perfect. And Vista gives more options to IT managers who are stymied by drivers or applications still breaking.

For instance, Glenn County runs Vista in standard mode, instead of administrator mode, on all of its PCs for security reasons. But the human resources department had a key application that could run only in administrator mode. To solve that problem, Wales said she used Microsoft's application virtualization technology to create a self-contained app package that runs as an administrator inside a virtual machine but doesn't require end users to possess admin credentials.

2) Deploying and managing Vista is easier

More advanced deployment tools and systems management software, from Microsoft and third-party vendors, combined with broader bandwidth, are making it easier for admins to press a button and remotely roll out Vista to new or existing PCs than it was in XP's hey day.

3) Things are finally lining up for 64-bit computing

PCs running 32-bit Vista don't sport a big performance advantage over XP systems. But 64-bit Vista PCs tricked out with dual- or quad-core processors, multiple terabytes of storage, up to 128GB of RAM and multiple video cards serving multiple widescreen LCDs — they, in short, do.

Such gear was out of reach of the typical user five years ago. More importantly, little software, especially games, had been ported to be compatible with 64-bit technoloy, much less take advantage of its power. It was the typical chicken-and-egg problem. As a result, 64-bit never really caught on with XP, despite Microsoft's exhortations.

With Vista, 64-bit appears to be finally catching on among more than just technology enthusiasts. Microsoft claimed last month that 20% of new Vista PCs in the U.S. appear to be 64-bit, compared to just 3% in March. That kind of uptake may finally drive software vendors to port their Vista apps, especially high-performance ones, to the 64-bit versions of the operating system.

In addition, history tends to repeat itself. XP deployments eventually accelerated, reaching near-ubiquity by the time Vista finally debuted. Similarly, some industry observers expect rollouts of Vista to pick up — even in the shadow of Windows 7 — as a Vista SP2 arrives, companies refresh aging hardware and the end of mainstream support for XP next April draws closer.

For instance, Gartner expects Vista to be running on 49% of all PCs worldwide by the end of next year — surpassing XP's market share, which the consulting firm forecasts at 44%.

Lundberg Family Farms in Richfield, Calif., is in the process of upgrading its 100 PCs to Vista. "We don't try to be at the cutting edge, but we don't want to be too far behind," said Todd Ramsden, Lundberg's IT manager. "Sooner or later, we knew we were going to have to move forward."

Ramsden added that his users have been "pretty good with going with the flow" on the rollout. "I've gotten some complaints about Vista," he said. "But most of the time, it turns out they're really complaining about some change in Office 2007."

Moreover, most of the talk among enterprise Vista holdouts is about sticking with XP or waiting for Windows 7 — not switching to Mac OS X or Linux. Cherry said skipping an operating system release may merely be a long-term trend, not an indication "of Vista being a failure." And he noted that until companies jump off the Windows treadmill instead of merely slowing it down, "Microsoft still makes its money."

Got something to add? Let us know in the article comments.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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