Foley on Microsoft

Vista's Six-Month Report Card

What, precisely, is dragging the OS down?

From a pure sales standpoint, there's no way anyone could rule Windows Vista a flop. But from a perception standpoint -- six months after Microsoft officially launched the product -- there's no way anyone could claim Vista to be a resounding success, either.

Microsoft has attempted to explain the company's less-than-stellar Vista grades on a host of factors, ranging from the increasingly vocal enthusiast community with newfound power to critique via blogs, to selective memories on the parts of Microsoft historians. ("Vista's not so bad; XP had a way rockier start.")

By the end of the first 100 days of its availability, Microsoft reported it had sold 40 million copies (to its channel partners, not customers, mind you). By now, that number is probably closer to 60 million, I'd guess. Can 60 million buyers be wrong? (Some might argue that they don't have a whole lot of alternatives, especially when buying new PCs preloaded with it, if they aren't interested in becoming Mac users, but I digress.)

As Microsoft's fiscal 2007 winds down, the company continues to trot out stats designed to prove that Vista has more driver, application and device support than any previous version of Windows. Back in May, company officials said there were 1.9 million devices certified to work with Vista, representing 96 percent of all the devices for which customers have been seeking support. Of the top 50 PC apps, only two -- Cillin version 11 and Paws and Claws Pet Vet -- weren't working properly with Vista as of late May, the 'Softies said.

Given this data, why does the perception linger, and not just among the "Anything But Microsoft" (ABM) crowd, that Vista isn't up to snuff?

The 'Influentials' Factor
The PC playing field has changed considerably since 2001. Windows still rules the roost with more than 95 percent market share. But there are more "influentials" running Mac OS X than there used to be. And there are higher expectations among both business and consumer users as to what the "out-of-the- box" experience should look like.

To me, there's really no good explanation as to why, as late as May 2007, any of Microsoft's own applications weren't Vista-compatible. (Users running Vista PCs and Windows Mobile 6.0 devices who had been attempting to sync their files using Vista's Windows Mobile Device Center were running into compatibility problems.)

And then there are the drivers, or lack thereof. Some of Microsoft's tightest partners, like HP and AMD, have been quoted as saying Vista's constantly shifting feature set and delivery schedule were to blame for some very basic drivers being MIA when Vista finally shipped. Back in 2001, a shortage of printer drivers for a brand-new operating system might have been annoying, but expected. However, in 2007, with Microsoft making use of so many more testing tools and policies and more sophisticated ways of keeping its partners in the development loop, it's hard not to be hard on the 'Softies.

Battery life? I know Microsoft officials have insisted that Vista is no more of a power hog than XP. But that's just not my experience.

Perception Is Reality
In short, what's dragging down Vista's grade is public perception. Microsoft can continue to roll out data galore proving that Vista is head-and-shoulders above previous versions of Windows on all counts. But when the Comcast cable repairman tells my mom that she shouldn't upgrade to Vista because it's so buggy, and should look at buying a new Dell with XP loaded instead, you know you've got some serious perception hurdles to overcome.

What can Microsoft do to boost its Vista grades over the next six months? Admitting publicly to some of its Vista problems -- as opposed to continuing to proclaim it's totally satisfied with its partners' Vista -- compatibility progress -- would be a good place to start.

It would also help more than hurt the Vista folks to start talking about some of the fixes coming in Service Pack 1.

What else would you advise Microsoft to do, if anything, to raise Vista's grade to an A?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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