At a time in the software industry when marketing buzz is hitched to whether your product can be delivered over the Web, Windows Vista could well be the last great gasp of the PC software revolution. Or Microsoft's biggest product release since Windows 95 could usher in a new way of thinking about computer operating systems--more a bridge between conventional software and online services than a collection of exciting new features.
How Windows Vista plays out depends as much on how companies end up using the desktop operating system as when it finally arrives and when they buy it. Most companies that bring in Vista will do so initially for its nuts-and-bolts security, administration, and cost-of-ownership benefits: 68% of 410 respondents to an InformationWeek Research survey last month who plan to implement the new Windows release cite improved data security as the top reason they're considering it, and more than half cite better management features and the need to buy new PCs anyway. If those are the main benefits, then Microsoft's much-delayed product will signal nothing more than yet another complex and costly operating system upgrade, with some solid operating benefits.
On the other hand, if users embrace Vista's new approaches to finding, organizing, and sharing information, the release could transcend the desktop. On that point, Microsoft still has a lot of convincing to do--just 23% of the business technology pros surveyed cite Vista's new search engine as a reason they're planning to upgrade.
Regardless of what they're looking for--reimagining an information organization or just securing a laptop that might get jacked--companies running Windows must start reckoning with Vista now, nine months before its general release. With its complex plumbing and need for backward compatibility with hardware and apps written for older Windows releases, Vista boasts 50 million lines of code, 40% more than Windows XP.
"We don't view it as just another upgrade," says Greg Vigil, director of global enterprise collaboration at Gates Corp., a supplier of parts for auto and industrial-equipment makers (no relation to the software baron of the same name). Based on beta testing, he expects Vista to cut patching and repair time 20% or more, and he sees Vista improving collaboration among worldwide design teams. At least a quarter of the company's 6,000-plus PCs will be running Vista within a year of its release.
That enthusiasm is far from universal. Only 40% of all 650 IT managers surveyed plan to install Vista within a year of its release, and many of those will be small initial deployments. Nearly four in 10 expect the cost of their companies' Windows licenses to rise in moving to Vista. And they're lukewarm on other benefits Microsoft's been talking up, such as easier connectivity for traveling workers and tight integration with the upcoming Office 2007 suite.
Microsoft's been touting some Vista advances, such as its new graphical user interface and WinFX APIs, as a way for IT departments to respond to business pressures--for instance, by designing slick Web services for marketing and sales. For many IT departments, though, building apps that rely on Vista is risky when the operating system is still years away from mainstream use.
Look at what's happening at the British Broadcasting Corp., where Vista could play a part in its first foray into selling programming directly to consumers online. The public television service recently completed an online video trial with 5,000 U.K. BBC viewers with broadband connections, giving them the ability to download programs to catch up on their favorite shows. The BBC hopes to launch its online video service across the United Kingdom by year's end and expand it internationally next year.
At a Microsoft conference last month, Ashley Highfield, the BBC's new media and technology director, got on stage with Bill Gates to demonstrate prototype software running on a test version of Vista that lets viewers find programming with a desktop search engine, stack up a playlist of shows they want to watch, and even drag shows' icons onto a buddy list to share with friends. It's an example of Vista's Windows Presentation Foundation technology at work--apps appear on the desktop instead of in a browser and harness the PC's processor and memory, while drawing their content from the Web.
Yet many of the demo's features won't be included in the BBC's online video offering this year. Most viewers won't upgrade to Vista fast enough to ensure that those capabilities have a broad reach, Highfield says. And Microsoft's digital rights management software still makes it too hard to limit downloads to programs from the past week and serve up video free to U.K. residents while charging foreign visitors. "It would be totally wrong for us to roll out an operating system that wasn't available to the majority of Internet users in the U.K.," he says. "For us, ease of use is everything. We can't just play to the upscale geek."
Companies find lots of reasons to put off buying nice-to-have features like better graphics and collaboration, but something that might lock down data on a laptop stolen from an employee's car feels more urgent.
Vista packs a lot of new security and data protection features. Technology called BitLocker encrypts and password-protects the contents of a laptop's hard drive, which should make it harder to access data on a stolen PC or for a thief to remove the hard disk and use another computer to read its contents. That feature works with a small chip called the Trusted Platform Module, which Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and Toshiba have been installing on their business PCs. Each time a user boots up, it checks to see if the PC is in the same state or whether any system files have been altered. If so, the drive locks up.
That's a big selling point as companies face pressure to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulations that include data protection provisions and face embarrassing public disclosure if data is lost. "Vista isn't going to make you compliant out of the box," says Mark Hassall, Microsoft's director of Windows client product management, but it can help batten down mobile laptops and provide an easier way for IT departments to track crashes and security alerts.
Vista also offers more for fighting malware. It includes a new suite of antivirus and anti-spyware software that Microsoft has assembled through internal development and acquisitions. A feature called user account control means Vista apps will run, by default, with limited permissions for other software to access the operating system's core files, unlike older versions of Windows. That means most users will operate in a protected mode and only temporarily elevate privileges to do things like install software and devices.
Another new feature, called Network Access Protection, is designed to work with Microsoft's next version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn. Longhorn and Vista should let IT departments set up automatic scans of laptops entering a company's network and quarantine those that are behind on security updates.
But is that enough? Some customers are eager to take Vista for a spin, "but I don't know if there's a big wave of people just dying to start implementing it," says Doug Phillips, senior director of emerging technologies at Seneca Data, a system builder that's testing Vista. "Look at the nightmares we had with Windows XP."
Windows XP's Service Pack 2 delivers a lot of the protection that Vista promises if companies do some legwork like adding smart card authentication and customized quarantine software to their networks. That makes the case for upgrading less clear. XP shops "have an interesting dilemma," says Larry LeSueur, a VP at IT consulting firm Avanade, a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft.
Microsoft is pushing hard on the security benefits to sell its largest customers on its Software Assurance maintenance contracts. Companies that buy Software Assurance with a given product get access to each upgrade Microsoft puts out, in exchange for an annual fee instead of a one-time license for the new version. But at about $40 a year per desktop, the number of customers signing up for Software Assurance for Windows has dropped since Microsoft introduced it five years ago. Given the long lag times between products--Vista will arrive more than five years after Windows XP--more companies are deciding they're not going to shell out every year.
With Vista, customers without Software Assurance will be penalized. Only buyers that sign up for it or Microsoft's top-tier Enterprise Agreement licenses will get access to BitLocker, for example. Other features, such as support for multiple languages in the same operating system image, also are limited to Software Assurance customers.
Respondents to the InformationWeek survey are divided--55% of the 482 respondents at companies with Microsoft volume licensing agreements say they plan to acquire Vista with Software Assurance, and 45% don't.
But it's a lag in developing the very security features Microsoft thinks will sell Vista that led to a delay in the product's consumer release until January. After Microsoft added a few weeks to its completion date for the code, retail PC makers such as HP needed more time to test the operating system with their hardware. The delay won't apply to the business version, and most companies take a year or more to test and deploy anyway. More taxing might be figuring out which of six editions of Vista is right for them (see story, The Vista Lineup).
The bottom-line price tag? The best Microsoft will say is the standard business edition of Vista will be priced similarly to Windows XP Professional. It's a big concern--58% of respondents to our survey worry that Vista's price will be too high, a concern that's second only to hardware compatibility, cited by 70%. Vista will need 512 Mbytes of RAM, a CPU like Intel's Pentium 4 or AMD's Athlon, and a graphics processor that supports DirectX 9, but Microsoft hasn't released the key minimum system requirements many customers use when ordering PCs.
Cost Savings And Collaboration
At Gates Corp., Vista is seen as the final piece in a series of Microsoft purchases the company has made over the past couple of years aimed at improving communications among worldwide teams. As Gates' customers, which include General Motors, John Deere, and Toyota, locate more sales and manufacturing in countries such as Brazil, China, and India, the pressure's on IT to make sure engineers and business managers can communicate around the clock. "We may have an engineering lead out of Germany working with a raw materials manager in Detroit working with a lead engineer designing a product for a customer in China," Vigil says. "We're trying to transition from an old model of getting everyone in one place to online meetings, instant messaging, and E-mail systems that can bring these roaming product teams back together." Workers use Microsoft products such as Office, Outlook, and Live Communication Server to see if a colleague is online, then launch a virtual meeting or Internet phone call from their in-box.
Then there's cost savings. Vigil says his team thinks Vista could cut IT support costs by providing a single version of Windows for every country Gates operates in, reducing by 20% to 50% the time spent patching and repairing systems hampered by malware and adding back lost hours of productivity that users spend looking for documents. Beta tests indicate Vista may knock down Gates' total cost of Windows ownership by 10% to 30%.
Microsoft manager Hassall puts Vista's installation cost at about $100 per PC--far less than Windows 2000--because of improvements in Vista's administration capabilities. For one thing, Microsoft has cut in half the number of Windows images IT shops need to create. Hassall says PCs can be upgraded in less than an hour. Gartner advises upgrading only if Vista costs less than $100 per machine and recommends using a software-distribution product from vendors such as HP, Landesk Software, Marimba, Symantec, or Microsoft. Most companies have only about a quarter of their apps packaged for automatic distribution, says Gartner analyst Michael Silver. Microsoft itself advises upgrading mobile workers first, then adopting Vista as part of a PC upgrade cycle. Our survey finds 67% plan to use Vista on new and existing PCs, while 22% plan only to license it with new machines.
Microsoft is spending $500 million for ads promoting "people ready" business, and it seems it still has a lot of persuading to do. Vista includes a new user interface called Aero that catches Windows up to the Mac, and new ways to find and organize files on a PC aimed at making people more productive. A "documents explorer" window shows thumbnail images of documents and their contents, and "virtual folders" can organize files based on what's in them, who wrote them, and other parameters.
The system also should make it easier for mobile users to get connected. When Longhorn Server arrives sometime next year, companies running it will be able to give employees secure access to a corporate network without requiring a VPN, and Vista will support improved synchronization with PDAs and offline folders out of the box.
But those aren't features most put a premium on. In our survey, 38% of those with Vista adoption plans cite its ability to support home office workers and traveling employees as a reason to upgrade, 23% cite enhanced desktop and Web searching, 23% look forward to pairing Vista with Longhorn Server, and 34% cite the combination of Vista and Office 2007, due later this year. Just 14% consider the release of Office 2007 "very important" to their Vista purchasing plans, while 56% say it isn't important.
Perhaps that's because a lot of what's needed to make this dream of workers a world away hashing up projects together isn't here yet. Vista's Windows Workflow Foundation subsystem and WinFX programming model will be needed to develop apps that let Office 2007 automatically route documents around a company and generate notifications to key employees. Microsoft late last month delayed the general release of its consumer Office 2007 suite until January to coincide with the Windows launch. And the technology for programming Vista still isn't mature--the next version of Visual Studio, code-named Orcas, is several years away, and that'll be Microsoft's primary development tool suite for exploiting Vista's WinFX programming model for graphics and workflow. The company is testing some of that technology today in early pre-beta releases.
The reality is that for companies that don't upgrade, life may get hard in a couple of years--mainstream tech support for Windows XP will end two years after Vista ships, and they'll have to pay for extended support, planned through 2013. Microsoft will have failed if that's the reason most companies take the Vista plunge. Its success might be better measured in terms of how many people pound on their IT departments' doors saying they need Vista to work the way they want to work. It could take a lot more than $500 million in ads to convince them of that.
Illustration by Dale Stephanos